John Walsh: Tales of the City

'I didn't realise women were so imprecise about pain. This doesn't accord with my experience of them'
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The Independent Online

According to the always-reliable Woman's Hour on Radio 4, a survey has revealed that women are far less good than men at identifying the quality of pain. When they visit a GP, and are asked how much something hurts and what kind of hurt it is, lady patients tend to vanish into a fog of near-descriptions. Men, by contrast, after being stupid enough to bang their thumb with a hammer, redeem themselves by the precision of their suffering, as they airily differentiate between a pain, an ache, a stab, a twinge, a cramp, a nip, a convulsion, a spasm, a tingle, a pang, a throb, a shooting arrow, and an effing agony.

Extraordinary to find such a difference between the sexes. I didn't realise women were so imprecise when it comes to complaining ("So, Tabitha, you've just had the baby without any anaesthetic - how did that feel?" "Hard to explain, John - there was a certain measure of discomfort. "Sorry to hear it. And the two-hour migraine in the middle of labour - what was that like?" "Hmm, difficult to put into words - it was, um, slightly disagreeable...") This doesn't accord with my experience of distressed females; most women I know use a very vivid lexicon of hurt bravely borne: every week, it seems, bits of them are either burning, or splitting or excruciating.

Doctors try to help by suggesting that women use a scale of pain from one to 10 to indicate the awfulness of their predicament. This is all very well, but it's too abstract. They need a proper hierarchy of pain, carefully calibrated to communicate levels of anguish. A list that asks: How bad is it? Is it as painful as:

...listening to Tracey, the Norfolk harpie off Big Brother with the multi-coloured hair, screeching "'Avin' it!!"?

...being offered a bowl of pumpkin seeds before a dinner party, as though they count as a tasty snack?

...getting a phone call from a Pondicherry call-centre at 8pm, as you're cooking supper, from someone asking if you want to change your credit card to "a typical APR of 14 per cent," whatever that means?

...having an unseen man, with a CCTV camera and access to a Tannoy speaker, yell at you for dropping litter?

...hearing anybody offering you a "heads-up", even though you are not a business executive and neither is he?

...seeing the 26, 793, 564th picture of Sir Alan Sugar raising a "You're fired" forefinger at a comical angle because he thinks it makes him look good?

...hearing people knock Father's Day as a cynical exercise in headlong mercantilism by greetings-card manufacturers and whisky distillers, as opposed to Mother's Day, which is a noble and wonderful event, a traditional celebration of the nurturing spirit and nothing to do with Terry's All Gold at all?

...listening to assurances that the UK is about to become "a smoke-free nation", rather than a nation of cowed and mutinous still-smokers undemocratically denied any choice about where they might pursue their noisome habit in public?

...having that bloody pop song, "What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster?" going round and round your head all day?

...encountering, in the lavatories of department stores, a sign advising gents that the management would prefer you not to pee standing up?

The Reverend Al Sharpton, a controversial political firebrand from the 1980s, has decided to take on the hip-hop industry, and insist it cleans up its lyrical act; he's fed up, he says, with their casual use of the N-word for black people and of terms that disparage women. So niggas, bitches and hoes are out. But what, pray, will the new-style songs sound like? "When I walk in the thoroughfare, all the persons of colour/ Admire my personal style and confess that without my unique contribution life would be duller/ My large firearm, costume jewellery and considerable record sales/ Drive the commercially minded and by-no-means virginal local girls into appreciative wails..."

Are bus drivers starting to lose their reputation as chivalrous knights of the road? A friend had an alarming experience travelling alone the other night. She caught a 171 bus from Holborn to Catford (clearly marked "Catford" on the front), and sat upstairs reading the paper. When still miles from home, the bus suddenly stopped in a dark street, and its lights were extinguished. She came downstairs, and said to the driver, "Why have you stopped here? This isn't Catford. Where are we?" The driver wasn't keen on explaining. "Get out the bus," he said, "and look what it says on the front." Apprehensively, my friend said, "You're not going to close the doors behind me and drive off, are you? You can't leave me here by myself..." Once again he intoned, "Get out the bus, and look what's on the front." She did so, and had just enough time to register that the destination-sign reading "Catford" had been wound on during the journey - before the driver closed the doors and drove off through the gates of a large and gloomy depot. Becoming even more apprehensive, she set off down a side alley and discovered she was in New Cross, one of the least salubrious regions of south London, perched between Peckham and Lewisham. It was midnight. She was a woman alone on the mean streets of SE14, abandoned to her fate by the driver...

She made it home, severely distressed. Is it too much to expect a driver to tell passengers he's going to change the route and that their journey home will be cut short? Is it absurd to expect a bus driver to display a basic protective instinct towards a solo lady passenger? Or would that never cross his mind?