There’s no place like home

The really great thing about the UK is that visiting it always gives me so many reasons not to regret having left it in the first place.

Of course I often also get to meet up with family or friends, or encounter lovely new people, but such meetings could always take place elsewhere. And after Brexit they may well have to.

But it’s the grime, the pettiness and the sheer 1984-ness of the place that really shocks me every time.

Naturally there are bits that aren’t quite so dystopian. My native Isle of Man isn’t generally too horrible, for example… provided you stick to the unspoilt bits in the middle, rather than the vast swathes of detached luxury executive dwellings in non-vernacular styles and the almost continuous traffic jam of four-wheel drive vehicles on the Island’s tiny roads.

This time, however, I was in south east England – including three days in the hellhole that is London – and I was constantly reminded of Ford Prefect’s words to the Golgafrinchams. “You’re all a load of useless bloody loonies”.

I know, that’s a bit harsh. There are, I’m sure, plenty of nice people in London – indeed, I got to meet up with not only the aforementioned lovely new people at Procopywriters’ Copywriting Conference, but my best friend Nick, who currently has the misfortune of being stuck there for work.

But even nice people can be insane. And as someone who discovered the term “hypersensitivity” with an enormous feeling of relief and recognition, that’s what city dwellers very much seem to be.

I can just about cope with somewhere like Malmö (population 340,000), which even to my eyes is really only a large town. But once an urban area hits the million mark in terms of population, the levels of crazy seem to increase exponentially.

This time I didn’t even manage to get off the plane before the nausea set in. Flight Time, Flybe’s inflight magazine, is a macrocosm of all that’s wrong with the modern world. Aimed, presumably, at the affluent 30-something, there’s a lot of chat about design and branding, including, horrifyingly, with reference to Liverpool, a city I have a great deal of affection for. In the early 1980s it introduced me to the monstrosities of Conservative policies. In the late 1980s when I was at university in Wales, it was my jumping off point for the Isle of Man. And now apparently it’s a place where hipsters can experience world-famous brands.

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But the inflight entertainment wasn’t over with Flight Time. Because even the Flybe menu card had something to say about Britain in 2018, being a showcase for the current emetic tendency to describe everything in terms so sycophantic even a member of the Royal family might blush. (Or then again maybe not.)

First we have a posh pot noodle with a “hand-crafted broth”. What does that even mean? Are we expected to believe that there’s a chef somewhere on the plane carefully chopping herbs and reducing stock to make this exquisite offering (which would of course cause third-degree burns if served filled up to the brim like this).

More emetic branding

And then there’s that thing – and I’m sure there must be a term for it other than “we’re a bunch of culturless wankers and we’re pretending we still remember what history means” – where everything has to be tied to a particular locale and then drenched in treacle.

I present a delightfully delicious and drinkable beer, with, presumably, the character of an over-priced caravan in an insular, damp and windswept part of the UK mainland where the locals talk with incomprehensible accents. Whatever that tastes like.

Emetic branding in handy can form

And then I got on the train, and the bombardment became audible as well as visual, and still just as pointless. I mean, is it really necessary to tell people at every stop not to forget their stuff and to mind the gap? Does that actually even work? How many people who travel on those trains every day even hear the warnings any more? Or do they think “Ooh, I’m so glad that automated announcement cautioned me against leaving my belongings behind, because otherwise my handbag and all my shopping would still be on the train. Silly me. That’s the fourth time this week I’ve nearly done that”.

But that kind of thing, annoying as it is, pales in comparison with the frankly scary “See it. Say it. Sorted” campaign, which involves both incredibly repetitive announcements and posters, and which made me feel like I was in that sketch off Not the Nine O’Clock News (you know the one). I mean, why not just put up a big poster saying:

“Let’s get rid of these nasty foreigners!”

Every time I encountered this message I felt ashamed, not only to be British, but even to be anywhere near the UK, as if I was condoning it simply by being there.

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But the Brits do love a good sign.  Especially in Debenhams in Chatham, apparently.

And I for one was very glad they were there. Because I never expect hot water from a hot tap, and I certainly wouldn’t turn the tap off if there wasn’t a sign asking me to. What kind of person would?

But once again, the winner of the “Most pointless instruction” contest was a woman employed by Southend Airport. (Do they do special insensitivity training, I wonder?) Last time, it was someone stridently insisting we “Stay behind the yellow line” as we walked across to the plane, despite the fact that the yellow line ended right where she was pointing at it, leaving us with another 20 metres of tarmac to cover, unaided by lines. “I’m going to be so glad to get back to France”, muttered the smartly dressed and very Received Pronounciation elderly lady walking beside me. “They’re all just so stressed here.”

This time, the instruction was, if anything, even more intended only to bolster the ego of the issuer. It’s also a bit of a conundrum, to my mind. Because one of these bags is a sealed bag for toiletries, and the other, apparently, isn’t, despite a) being equipped with a zip and b) having been used to contain toiletries for travel on a plane many times (as you can tell from the state of it), thereby presumably putting every other passenger on that flight in danger, including people using Southend Airport.

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Now, my first thought was that this woman was just being a po-faced jobsworth. Indeed, my second, third and fourth thoughts were exactly the same. But I’ve just discovered that there may be a valid reason for demanding that toiletries are placed in a self-sealing bag. Apparently some security instructions contain this line: “Your plastic bag must also be airtight so that vapour testing can be successfully carried out on the contents”.

But once again, this is just so much bullshit. (In fact it’s just a continuation of the other flight security myths I wrote about a couple of years back.) In the unlikely event that the security check finds something dodgy in my toiletry bag, I’m pretty sure they’re capable of shoving it in their own sealed bag for vapour testing. Or are they saying that they can tell it’s not got holes in just by looking at it? In which case I’m off to join a UK airport security team to get X-ray eye implants. I’m sure they’ll make it easier to spot all those nasty foreigners, for a start.

 


PS – If you’re one of the nice people sharing my flight back to Caen, sorry it took so long to write this. I did warn you!

 

 

 

Drowning in “resealable” plastic

Apart from the total lunacy of our politicians, one of the big topics for discussion at the moment is, of course, plastic. I gather the BBC have just shown a depressingly realistic programme about how our planet is drowning in the stuff.

I’ve also recently started doing translation and proofreading on a voluntary basis for an organisation called We Don’t Have Time. You may have heard of them before; they’re the people helping Greta Thunberg to get her message to a wider audience.

Reading their material, and above all seeing this article in the Washington Post, about how the Trump administration not only recognises that climate change exists, but thinks the planet is already so screwed that they’re not intending to do anything to mitigate it, has made me even more angry. Maybe it is too late. I don’t have kids, so to a large extent I don’t even care. But even if you’re heading towards the cliff edge and you’re sure your brakes don’t work, you don’t just give up trying to stop the vehicle.

So here’s a thought about how to save on plastic. How about the companies selling us products with “resealable” packaging just save everyone’s time – and our planet’s resources – and stop pretending that this rubbish actually works? Because in my experience, it never does.

I encounter umpteen examples of this particular myth every week, but here’s the latest one.

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This is a nice quality organic, fair trade tea, from La Route des Comptoirs, a company that clearly cares about its products and customers. The packaging is paper. But they’re still using one of these sticky plastic labels that seals exactly once and then never works again.

And I wonder what’s the point of this thing? What’s the total cost of designing, selling, manufacturing and applying this completely useless piece of plastic to every packet? Can we not just skip this in future – for as long as we actually have a future?

Meanwhile, if you really want a resealable packet, simply apply a clothes peg (wooden, obviously).

Or alternatively, use tins, or something like this. Genuinely resealable, and recyclable too!

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(Of course I’m well aware that tea should be kept in an opaque container, but this is all I had to hand at the time – and in any case, they normally live in a box under the kitchen counter.)

Brexit music (a letter)

Dear Brexit,

I know this is probably going to be painful to read, but I just have to tell you how I feel.

I know it’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to be born. You certainly didn’t ask to be given such an ugly name. And everybody hates you. Even your parents don’t want you. So I understand. I really do. And I feel sorry for you.

I’ve tried very hard to explain you to people, and to try to make it so that you can just dissolve back into the ether and leave us all to get on like we did before – a bit unsatisfactorily, true, but at least we didn’t have civil war like we do now. I’ve really tried to release you from this horrible situation.

But I can’t. No matter how many arguments I lay out, no matter how many jokes or cartoons I share, no matter how many headlines or opinions I quote, or even facts – and there have been so many of these, right back from well before you came into existence – nobody’s listening. A large number of British people still think you’re doing just fine. A small, but to me absolutely incomprehensible number of British people think that even if you’re the worst thing ever, they still want you.

And I’m tired of it, Brexit. I’m tired of hating total strangers because they’re unwilling to look the truth in the face. I’m tired of wondering whether people really believe that the British government has any idea what it’s doing, in any respect other than making its friends even more money. I’m totally gutted at the fact that the main opposition party, headed by a man who I truly believed in, also wants to take the country back to the mythical Golden Age of the 1950s, before all these nasty foreigners came along. As a student of history, I can think of any number of reasons why everything was apparently so much better back then. As a student of reality, I can think of any number of reasons why we’re actually doing pretty well today, if only we’d look at what’s around us rather than at what’s headlining in the Daily Mail or on the BBC. But what’s the point?

I still have many people close to me who are going to be negatively affected by you on a massive scale, Brexit, regardless of what you do next. But you know what? I don’t actually care any more. I’m safe from you, by virtue of being very lucky. And I know that’s all very well for me but what about everyone else, but that’s none of my choosing. I didn’t bring you into existence. I’ve fought you every day for three years.

So we’re over, Brexit. Because it’s not about you, it’s about me. You forced me to think about my identity in a whole new way. You made me wonder whether I was actually British. You forced me to choose sides. Well I’ve chosen. And I’m European through and through. And one thing I’ve noticed about Europeans is that they just don’t really care about you. They’re sorry for you, and a little embarrassed, but they carry on with their own lives and worry about stuff that’s really important.

So that’s it. I just can’t do this any more. Don’t ring me. Don’t text me, don’t Tweet. Don’t send me links to clips from Question Time or surveys on YouGov. I’m unfriending anyone who still sees you. I’ve blocked you everywhere I can, and I’m not going to change my mind. Have a nice life. Or don’t. Whatever.

 

Jane

Magic is not age-related

Yesterday I read this interesting and topical post which, ironically, I found highly offensive. Why? Because of its implication that everybody born before 2001 is some kind of blinkered idiot simply because they don’t belong to Generation Z, and have not, therefore, been endowed with the ‘magic’ powers of that age group.

I don’t care one way or another about gender or race. I’m not interested if you’re Catholic, Muslim or atheist. I don’t give a shit if you’re upper or lower class, providing you’re not an idiot about either. I’m certainly not a rabid feminist. Because, oddly enough, even though I’m a contemporary of the author of the article, I have a really simple view of the world. I think we should all be equal.

I’ve often looked back at my childhood and marvelled at my sheltered, apolitical upbringing. I was born on the Isle of Man in 1968, which meant that as a kid I experienced a kind of Famous Five existence largely denied to my peers growing up on the mainland. Everybody I knew was, by most people’s standards, pretty well off. Now don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but for those of us whose families have come from there for generations this entails nothing positive. There was council housing and unemployment there just like everywhere else. But at the age of 11 or 12 my friends and I would spend our summer holidays travelling around the island by vintage steam train, electric tram, bicycle or foot, visiting medieval castles or scrambling on the cliffs. We could go anywhere safely, and did.

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The Isle of Man – not exactly a battlefield, to look at it.

I was 5 when the island had its first murder for 43 years. In many parts of the world this would have been unheard of, even then.

Aged 10, I went home from school one day and asked my mother whether we were Catholic or Protestant, because I had no idea what the distinction meant. 50 miles across the sea to the west, this would have been engraved on my brain from infancy.

In May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, I thought a female prime minister was a good thing, because I had no idea of the difference in political parties.

Whenever we travelled to the mainland, I was always shocked at the number of burglar alarms, on even the meanest grimy terraced houses. There were, of course, burglars on the Isle of Man – my father was a policeman, and he was at one time part of the Ports Unit, responsible for spotting ne’er do wells on their way on to and off the island. But burglary wasn’t so prevalent that an average homeowner needed an alarm.

I was startled at the age of 14 when I realised that the burnt out buildings and vacant plots littering Liverpool, where the Manx ferry docked, were left over from the, to me, long previous World War II, which the city had never been prosperous enough to rebuild.

But it was at about that age that my innocence came to an end.

I’d already seen through the pitiful instructions for how to survive a nuclear war in “Protect and Survive”, the UK civil defence booklet published in 1980. Living on the Isle of Man, I learned early on what nuclear power was, and what effects it could have in the hands of the unscrupulous and negligent, regardless of what shiny new name you gave the processing plant. And Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” finished off any illusions I had left on that score.

The Falklands War and the miners’ strike taught me very quickly what a Tory was, and how they would do anything to profit from and mislead their fellow humans. News coverage of these events taught me that I couldn’t trust the media, either tabloids, TV or even the ‘serious’ papers. (Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Falklands War was covered ‘in a neutral fashion’. That’s not how I remember it!)

The Toxteth riots opened my eyes to institutional racism in the police force, so I wasn’t surprised that Stephen Lawrence didn’t get any kind of justice until long afterwards.

I was pretty well acquainted with the history of World War II, so I was horrified to discover that, not only did some people deny its worst atrocities had ever happened, but some others – who really ought to know better – were still fighting over the land they’d been allocated at the end of that conflict, illegally trying to expand its borders. And that the Western world was, for some reason, turning a blind eye to this.

I learned of climate change and animal cruelty, sexism and racism. I learned of pollution and the sickness we were spreading through the natural world by our thoughtlessness.

I realised how quickly people could fall through society’s safety net, no matter how comfortable they’d been before. During my master’s degree, I also discovered how rapidly society could collapse when a country is run by a government whose only real policy is to feather the nests of the rich. When I started my course, in September 1990, I was heading for a career in museums. By September 1991, museums were closing at the rate of several a week, as a result of funding cuts stemming directly from the Conservative government’s poll tax.

And then I left the Isle of Man for good and was immediately swamped by the sea of misery and hopelessness that was Britain in the early 1990s. I lived in inner city Birmingham and learned how the social services treat those in need of their aid. I learned how to make a little bit of MOT go a long way to keep an old car on the road ‘legally’, and how to survive on just a few quid a week. I saw people stealing from each other or turning to prostitution to fund their drug habits.

But I also saw people coming together and creating a new kind of society – a self-proclaimed underclass with new music and new forms of mass entertainment, where barter was self-evident and creativity rife. People living lightly in the landscape, taking their small homes with them as they moved, using minimal resources and causing no harm. That new music, those new forms of entertainment and that new way of living were deliberately targeted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

But I was still pretty well off by many standards, and I soon worked out that it was better to be poor somewhere wealthy like Malvern than somewhere impoverished like Sparkhill.

Then came the Iraq war. I remember sitting in a pub where I was a regular, scoffing at the pictures of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which so obviously showed earthmoving equipment and minor industrial buildings. The ensuing reaction from everyone in that rural pub other than the four people at my table demonstrated that – despite what they would insist today – they all thought I was naive at best and a traitor at worst.

Eventually I got a job. But I soon saw that I had no chance of ever having a decent house, or even a decent quality of life, in the UK. So I moved to France as soon as I could scratch together a few thousand pounds for a ruin in an impoverished area of the country. I think of myself as a European these days, and I’m proud to do so.

But I haven’t stopped despairing over our collapsing ecosystems or the plastic in our oceans, animals being transported long distances in hideous conditions or bankers being paid bonuses for fucking up the economy of the entire Western world. I haven’t closed my eyes to sweatshop countries producing designer labelled clothing for anorexic idiots to wear once in the pages of Hello! then discard like sweet wrappers. I firmly believe that we’re rapidly heading for man-made disaster of some type – though whether climatic, major inter-continental conflict or simply cheap-flight-induced-pandemic, I wouldn’t like to say.

I’ve done very well for myself. I have a home in Sweden and – if the renovation is ever finished – one in Normandy. I have my own business, which is doing better every year. I have friends all over the planet. I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having been able to get Swedish citizenship, thereby freeing me from the clutches of the ravening Brexiters, whose narrow-minded jingoism and sheer ignorance have the UK on a direct course back to IRA bombings and widespread rationing.

So I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. But that doesn’t make me ignorant. It doesn’t stop me protesting against injustice. It doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s suffering, or accepting of the greed and stupidity that still others wield to create and excuse it.

Just because I was born half a century ago doesn’t mean I don’t see entrenched attitudes and privilege just as clearly as the kids from Stoneman Douglas school.

So, Mr Tallon, don’t include me in your sweeping generalisations. I may not have grown up in the years since 9/11, but that’s not to say I haven’t been in the trenches. And I haven’t been alone. Maybe you’ve never had any empathy. Maybe being American gives you a different experience of life – let’s face it, everyone outside the USA, adults included, thinks that your attitude to guns is totally fucking insane.

Or maybe you’ve just never opened your eyes to what’s really going on in the world around you. Because you clearly haven’t noticed it, but many of our generation have been soldiers too.

The antibiotic myth

 

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There’s a programme on the radio this morning about the history of antibiotics. It was quite interesting while they were talking about the discovery of penicillin, but I’ve just had to turn it off.

Because, as I knew they would, they’ve got to the bit about antibiotic resistance all being our fault. “People became addicted to antibiotics” is how they phrased it.

By which they mean the following dialogue, which I know you recognise because you’ve played the part of the villain many many times:

Patient: Doctor, I have a cold and I really need antibiotics to cure it.

Doctor: I’m very sorry, but antibiotics don’t work against colds so they’re really not appropriate. I suggest you take an over the counter painkiller, drink plenty of liquid and rest.

Patient (threateningly): But I insist on having antibiotics! If you don’t give me antibiotics now, I’m going to get very very angry!

Doctor (cringing): No, no, please don’t hurt me! Here! (scribbles prescription and hurls it across the desk at the ravening patient)

 

I don’t know what the point of this myth is – although my cynical side tells me that it’s to distract us from the agricultural use of antibiotics which mean that most of us are being subject to constant low-level doses whether we want to or not – but isn’t it about time that the media stopped blaming antibiotic resistance on ordinary people? If there’s ever been over-prescribing of antibiotics for inappropriate uses, surely that’s down to the people doing the prescription, not the poor bloody patients?

When Swedish minimalism is the last thing you want

How long can you go without swallowing? It’s actually a surprisingly long time. How about if you’re really dehydrated and desperate for a nice long drink of water? This week I’ve discovered that again, the answer is “a surprisingly long time”.

Ten days ago I came down with some kind of fluey virus thing. This is relatively normal for me – I get one every six months when my body decides it’s had enough and it’s time for me to stop working flat out every day and most evenings.

However, this time it’s a new variety. The lymph glands in my neck have swollen up to the size of duck eggs, I’ve had the aching all over and the sweating and being slightly delirious (primarily manifesting as dreaming insanely complicated spaceship parking games inspired by reading Iain M Banks before going to sleep). But my head has been surprisingly free of snot and there’s been no cough.

I didn’t bother going to the GP about this – I knew that they’d say “It’s a virus, drink plenty of liquids, get plenty of rest and take ibuprofen”. And that I’d have to beg and plead with the nurse even to be allowed to have an appointment to get that extremely self-evident advice. I had plenty of food in and, thankfully, not too much work to deliver (my body is clever like that – it always picks a week when I can actually be ill without worrying about clients).

Then on Wednesday I got a sore throat. “That’s odd”, I thought. Because I haven’t actually spoken to anyone throughout this entire thing – I’d cheerfully throttle whoever gave it to me and I certainly wouldn’t want an old person to have to deal with this. So where has an additional infection come from? I got out the throat spray that I bought on my last trip to the UK (the Swedes, for some reason, feel that if you’ve got a sore throat you should put up with Strepsil variants and nothing else), and thought no more of it.

That was until Thursday, when it started to get painful to swallow. I thought again about going to the GP. They do a drop-in time every day from 10.30 to 11.30 “for infections”, which has always conjured up images of everyone sitting in the tiny cramped waiting room producing interesting strains of cross-infection as they cough and sneeze all over each other. But it was 11 am and I wasn’t dressed and the GPs is 20 minutes’ drive away, and I did actually have a deadline to make.

“I can go tomorrow”, I thought. “It’ll probably be better by then anyway”.

Big mistake. Big, big mistake. By the evening it was really painful to swallow. Like, really really fucking painful. Like whole body wince painful. During the night I managed about five hours’ interrupted sleep, punctuated by taking a variety of painkillers that did absolutely nothing at all, and spending a good part of the intervening time the wrong side of the verge of tears. Many were the occasions upon which I berated myself for not having gone to the doctor’s the previous day. Especially in the morning, when I got up at 8 am, as dehydrated as a 3000-year-old mummy, only to find that it was a bank holiday.

(I do vaguely remember discovering this last year. Despite the fact that Midsommar is the main Swedish festival of the year, they don’t actually celebrate it on Midsummer’s Day. Instead they wait until the following weekend. To me, that’s missing the whole point of it. If you’re celebrating the longest day of the year, surely you do it… on the longest day?! And actually, if they had done they’d have had lovely weather, instead of grey skies and torrential rain. So nyer.)

So anyway, I finally worked out that there was a clinic open – but not until 5 pm. More self-recrimination. Fortunately I fell upon a combination of painkillers and other things that reduced the pain somewhat (primarily super high strength Sudafed, again imported from the UK because the Swedes only have plant-based medications for use against sinusitis. WTF? Have they ever actually had sinusitis?)

Finally the time came that I could set off. The directions said that I had to go to the grey building on the hospital site. Now, fortunately, I have had to visit said building before, so I knew where to go. But this is another case of Swedish small-town mentality. Because you were probably born at this hospital, you of course know which of these two blocks is “the grey building”. Except if you weren’t, of course, in which case, presumably, fuck you:

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One of these is “the grey building”. Answers on a postcard, please.

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So anyway, I got there. I went in. There was, surprisingly, no queue. I was seen immediately by a pleasant enough nurse. I explained that I wanted a stronger painkiller as I was having major difficulty in swallowing. She didn’t actually physically examine me, but she did take a swab from the back of my throat, which was only moderately agonising, and read my temperature, which was, surprisingly, normal.

After a few minutes’ wait, she came back and said that I didn’t have an infection, but that it was probably a virus. Big shock. She suggested I try Strepsils. “Or why not a warm drink with honey? And ibuprofen or paracetamol are usually quite effective.” I explained again that I really wanted a stronger painkiller as I’d been taking ibuprofen for more than a week and it wasn’t having much of an effect. She said, “but we haven’t found any infection”, as though that was an answer, and I realised that once again a ‘healthcare professional’ was hearing what she wanted to hear rather than what I was actually saying. Presumably ‘Cocking a deaf ‘un’ and ‘Treat the patient like a 5-year-old’ are major modules in Swedish medical training.

So that was that. I drove back home, climbed back into bed (where, despite having a normal temperature, I immediately had to wrap myself in a towel to soak up the sweat) and have been suffering moderate agony every few minutes since. Still, at least I’m no longer berating myself for not having visited the GP. Instead I just call that nurse a bitch.

Interestingly, the job that I’d had to deliver the previous day was a research application for a project studying Swedish doctors’ reactions to a political decision to open up medical records for patient access. Apparently in pilot studies doctors were shocked to discover that this led some patients to question the doctor’s treatment strategy. Or alternatively to check that what they’d said during a consultation was actually entered into their record. Because despite Sweden’s apparent feminism, this is still an enormously backward, paternalistic society in many ways. My feeling is that this is at the root of the hideously long waiting times here. If Swedes were a bit more bolshy then they’d make so much fuss that this kind of delay – in a wealthy country like Sweden? – would be a thing of the past. Instead, it’s the doctor-patient relationship that’s a historical relic.

 

 

 

 


Answer: It’s actually the white and blue one. Yes, really.