Howard Jacobson: All the obsessive hand-washing in the world won't stop those nasty little germs

My swine flu buddy rings the helpline and they say, yes, sounds like swine flu to them

Share
Related Topics

These are testing times for hand-washers. You could say that times are always testing for hand-washers otherwise they wouldn't be hand-washers. But these times are more testing than previous ones, unless you count the years between 1348 and 1350 when the Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe. A thought so morbid I must pause to wash it from my hands.

By hand-washers I don't simply mean those who know to wash their hands after they have been to the lavatory or before they eat, which, going by what one sees in restaurant washrooms, is by no means everybody. I mean those, like me, who wash their hands compulsively and at all hours, whenever the opportunity arises or they can't think of anything else to do, hobby-washers who never feel entirely clean until they've given their hands a 15-minute scalding.

Don't ask me where my obsessive hand-washing comes from. Guilt, is the predictable answer. But what have I done? I am neither Lady Macbeth nor Pontius Pilate. I am guilty of murdering neither Duncan nor Jesus Christ, though in the latter case there are some who would have it otherwise. You can of course be guilty without having done anything to be guilty of. You can be guilty in advance of any deed by simple virtue of knowing your capabilities; but with me it feels more like superstition – not to protect oneself against bacteria, viruses and all the other protozoa with which creation swarms is not only to risk one's own and other people's health, it is to ignore a moral injunction originating it is impossible to say where. Never mind the reasoning, it's just best to do it.

Enter swine flu. With swine flu even a 15-minute scalding every half-hour is not enough. Touch fingers with someone who's touched fingers with someone who knows someone whose child's been near another child and you're a goner. Strictly speaking, the only safe course with swine flu is to sit with your hands in boiling water, a mask on your face, and a thermometer under your tongue. Not so easy these days because digital thermometers won't stay under your tongue unless you tape them to your mouth, a procedure which makes you so hot and bothered that you're certain to get an unreliable reading. That's if you can read it. An alarm goes off on a digital thermometer, a series of low mouse-like peeps, to tell you when it's done, but if you've got swine flu, the chances are you won't hear them.

How to stay clean when you are out of the house is a conundrum that has always tormented hand-washers who don't want to travel everywhere with one of those folding washbasins you buy from shops called The North Face of the Eiger or Kon-Tiki, but now there are little bottles of antibacterial hand hygiene gel you can get from any chemist. They come in several sizes and assorted aromas. The beauty of them is that they need no water. You just flip open the top, squirt into your hand and rub. I keep one by my bed, one by my phone, two by my computer – let me warn you about keyboards, reader, which, as the preferred habitat of Escherichia coli, Salmonelli typhi and of course Staphylococcus aureus, are the filthiest places on the planet – and one in each pocket of whatever trousers I'm wearing. I even keep a bottle in the bathroom which you could argue is overdoing it since there's already a plentiful supply of soap and water there, but no one ever suffered as a consequence of making doubly sure.

What I can't decide is whether it's best to wash my hands before applying gel or after. Does the soap remove the gel or does the gel override the soap? They don't tell you this on the bottle...

At which point, reader, this narrative comes to an abrupt end because – I swear on all that's holy – I no sooner write the word "bottle" than I fall into a fit of violent shaking the like of which you do not expect to experience outside the tropics. I can barely get myself to my bed. For two days my temperature rages. I cannot eat. Every bone in my body aches and every organ feels as though it's swollen to twice its normal size. I say my temperature rages but I cannot be scientifically sure of this because my wife – hereinafter to be referred to as my swine flu buddy – cannot find the thermometer. I am anxious about her going out to buy another one from the chemist because a) outside is germ hell, and b) if there's one place you can be sure there will be promiscuous exchange of lethal micro-organisms, it's a chemist's. But unless you can give the National Health helpline your exact temperature, they won't confirm that it's swine flu you've got. So a new thermometer it has to be.

Trouble is, it won't peep, and when finally it does, we can't read it. Seems to say 130, but whether that's Fahrenheit or centigrade – and either way I am a dead man – we don't know. By the time we have inveighed against unnecessary innovation, and reminisced with fondness about the old mercury thermometers which stayed wherever you stuck them and never gave a false reading, my temperature has gone up another three degrees, whether Fahrenheit or centigrade I don't care.

At last, after buying two further thermometers, my swine flu buddy rings the helpline and they say, yes, sounds like swine flu to them. But what do they know? They have had half an hour's training. They were cleaning windows yesterday, and probably not remembering to disinfect their cloths. In fact, they're wrong. I don't have swine flu. What I do have is not relevant to this column, but the doctor treating me – who by the by tells me he has never seen anyone with cleaner hands than mine – diagnoses something with the word bacterium in it.

So there you are: one way or another the little bastards sneak up on you. The gels, it turns out, create as many problems as they solve. They dry the skin, dry skin abrades, and there's nothing a germ loves more than open wounds. But I doubt it's through the skin they have attacked me. Call me superstitious but I believe they got me because I was making fun of my precautions and therefore, by implication, light of them. Germs are vindictive and humourless. They're like gang members. Treat them with disrespect and they'll have you.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bill Cosby dismisses the allegations that have demolished his lovable TV persona as ‘innuendos’  

Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

Rupert Cornwell
UK Border Control  

Do you think I'm feckless? I worked for two years in the Netherlands

David Ryan
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin