Tales of the City: Getting off on the wrong foot

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I became an NHS statistic last weekend. For no clear reason, while I was out sipping a glass of Macon-Lugny in a fashionable bar in Smithfield, my right foot began to swell up. One minute it was nestling in its manly brogue, the next it was throbbing like a banged thumb and starting to grow. By the time the bill arrived, my foot resembled one of Minnie Mouse's black extremities. By the time I reached my car, it was agonisingly clear that I'd have to drive home in my socks. What could it be? Gout?

I became an NHS statistic last weekend. For no clear reason, while I was out sipping a glass of Macon-Lugny in a fashionable bar in Smithfield, my right foot began to swell up. One minute it was nestling in its manly brogue, the next it was throbbing like a banged thumb and starting to grow. By the time the bill arrived, my foot resembled one of Minnie Mouse's black extremities. By the time I reached my car, it was agonisingly clear that I'd have to drive home in my socks. What could it be? Gout?

Of course, I couldn't find a doctor. No way. Finding an NHS doctor free at the local surgery during the week is bad enough, like trying to spot a unicorn in a car park. Weekend doctors are wholly mythical creatures, like elves, invented by foolish dreamers with too much time on their hands. You can make a surgery appointment for 10 days' time, but I worked out that, were I to wait that long, my foot would be the size of Tate Modern. I swallowed painkillers, hopped and hobbled all over the metropolis, being glared at by matrons in the street who thought I must be drunk.

Then, while I was grinding my teeth on Sunday evening, a friend told me (I sound like a commercial) about NHS Direct. You ring them, give them your details and your phone number, and a nurse rings you back and diagnoses your problem. I rang them and talked to a charming chap at a call centre. "Hi, my name's John, my foot's swollen up, and I'm in agony, doctor," I said. "Is it gout? Is that bad? How long have I got? Will it have to come off?" He was very relaxed but strangely inquisitive. He asked lots of personal details that got progressively sillier. By the time we got to: "Of which ethnic community would you say you were a member?", I got annoyed. "I have a sore foot," I said. "Surely it's of no consequence whether the foot is Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Christian?" He said he didn't make the rules and moved smoothly on to: "What would you be doing if you had not had NHS Direct to call on?" I pondered. "I expect I'd be yelling in agony," I said. "Or else I'd be watching Sally Phillips in Rescue Me."

There was a long sigh. "I meant," said the man, "what alternative forms of therapy are available to you?" "Well, let's see," I said. "I could be applying acupuncture needles to my ankle. I could be running 1,000 volts through my toes. I could try banging my head very hard against the outer wall of Dulwich Hospital, to take my mind off the pain. The one thing I could not be doing, however, not in this country anyway, is seeing a doctor..."

He shut me up with another dozen enquiries about where I'd heard of the service. Later, they rang back and a sweet nurse recommended that I go to the Seldoc night-time out-patients to be looked at by a genuine doctor.

So there was a God after all. It all worked out OK (something called "cellulitis", not gout, in case you were worried). But I was struck by the way the NHS arranges an emergency service that benefits the temporally challenged – and then grills you mercilessly until you admit that you're terribly grateful for their Good Samaritan kindliness in listening to your groaning entreaties at all.

Faithfull to the trusted formula

I found myself in Sixties time-warp land on Sunday. I was at the Barbican to see Marianne Faithfull in concert. A crew of Sixties throwbacks and wannabes clustered and posed at the long bar: bedraggled blondes with expanding waistlines; girls in ragged fishnets or pop-art, black-and-white spot frocks; a bloke in a corduroy forage cap, blue cord jacket and a Man-at-C&A cravat. Anita Pallenberg was there, smoking like a beagle, and Michael Nyman the composer and Duggie Fields, the former flatmate of Syd Barrett, and, goodness me, the fashion Olympians Rifat Ozbek and Bella Freud, while a newly shaggy Jude Law lurked backstage with his wife Sadie Frost, as part of Ms Faithfull's glammy entourage.

The concert went beyond ordinary notions of good and bad, into a realm that we used to call a "happening", an event that defies all attempts at comment or criticism. Ms Faithfull on-stage is a law unto herself, as imperious as Nero but without his self-effacement. She ticked off the boys in the band like impertinent servants. When Peter Phillips, on guitar, started noodling a few arpeggios while she was chatting between songs, she snapped, "When I finish talking, that's when you start". As the band limped to the end of "Like Being Born", she conducted them with batonic gestures and said, "Good, good...", like an indulgent second-grade music teacher. Between numbers, she swigged some relaxing liquid from a mug (probably not Horlicks), peered at the set list, and greeted each new title with a sotto voce "Oh, Christ", or "Oh, God", or, at one point, "Bugger- ation", as if, whatever the flipping song, it probably wouldn't work out. To call the show under-rehearsed would be an insult to musical directors. But then, Marianne was never going to be a slick performer. She's more a rock chick who was asked one day to amuse the company with a song and has been doing so ever since. Her delivery is very secondary to her stage presence, as she pauses twice in the show to have extra eye-liner and lipstick applied to her still-youthful face by a handmaid.

The audience wolf-whistled and called out encouraging things, none of which she could hear clearly ("I'm deaf as well as brain-dead"). Things shut down completely for a few minutes as a panel of electricians trooped on-stage to mend a fault. Faced with a hiatus to plug, Marianne tried some jokes and screwed them up ("What's green and hairy and goes up and down? A raspberry in a l... no a gooseberry in a lift"). Still with time to kill, she decided to introduce the band, and screwed that up ("...and this is Rik on bass. No, sorry, Tony is it? Tony on bass. And this is Rik on drums"). When the band got back into its stride, someone shouted "It was worth the wait!". Marianne knitted her brows. "What d'you mean, I came to work late?" she asked. "Though, of course, you're right, I did."

She did everything wrong. It seemed that, as long as she kept lighting fags and jamming them into her pearly holder, and prowling the stage doing little dances like a skittish contessa, and asking the audience if they were all right, the way you might ask awkward dinner-party guests; as long as that voice, that Dalek cackle kept scraping along through country-and-western numbers and her own bursts of loathing from Broken English, everyone would continue to love her. At the end of "Sliding Through Life on Charm" she realised it should've been her last number, told us to imagine she'd gone off-stage and was now returning. Then she did an encore. Our last sight of her was a held-aloft packet of Marlboros disappearing behind the curtains. There is nobody, literally nobody, in the universe who could get away with this stuff except Marianne Faithfull.

It's a dog's life, as a well-known Labour politician will tell you

For the past six months, a certain doggie word has been hijacked by commentators anxious to be rude to Mr Blair. In his dealings with President Bush, they say, he is Dubya's poodle – and they have said it again and again, so that we are now stuck with the indelible image of the breed as a lapdog of the boudoir, a craven canine companion on a lead, a dumb beast that obeys orders such as "Fetch!" and "Heel!" and "Play dead!" Is that how we now think of poodles?

Well, bang on time, this weird apparition turned up at the weekend, flounced into Cruft's Dog Show in Birmingham, swanned about wiggling its white tush at the thunderstruck judges, tossing its unfeasibly overgrown pompadour and widening its spectacular crocodile jaws at its handler, Michael Nilson, and generally reminding us all what a spectacular creature a poodle can be. It picked up the Best in Show award and, by one of those rules of dog-fancying that stipulates you have to give your pet a ridiculously long and convoluted name, it answers to "Nord Champion Topscore Contradiction".

Actually, it doesn't answer to this hefty cognomen at all, since it's impossible to imagine anyone (even a Norwegian) shouting, "Oi, Topscore Contradiction, stop chasing those pigeons," and its owners mostly call it "King". But what an extraordinary creature it is, this animal to which Mr Blair has been explicitly compared 42,670 times since last September. Look at it – ridiculously primped and puffed-up, shrill, vain, done up to the nines in fashionable frou-frous, big-headed, skinny-arsed, yappy and convinced it's a monarch... How can anyone ever again think that it has anything in common with our beloved Prime Minister?

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