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Nine Pints

Nine Pints by Rose George is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. And no, it’s not about your Friday night beer consumption, but about blood—that valuable fluid which courses through your veins, keeping you alive. When we first meet George, she is donating one of her pints to the NHS Blood and Transplant service—she dedicates her book to the NHS which she says is being slyly dismantled by government under-funding. When she was at Somerville College, Oxford, there was a portrait of Janet Vaughan on the wall of the refectory where she ate her meals. Vaughan was a pioneering doctor who with Percy Oliver, a civic-minded volunteer, oversaw the collection and distribution of blood in ice-cream vans during the Second World War. It’s thanks to them that we have voluntary donations of blood in the UK and Australia, while blood is sold in the US. In the 70s and 80s, many haemophiliacs died from AIDS and hepatitis C because of unsafe medical products. When you are selling blood, you might not always be up-front about your medical status. In India she finds that some hospitals ask prospective patients to bring along a gaggle of relatives to give blood, just in case. George gets furious when she visits South Africa where AIDS is proliferating in the heterosexual population thanks to government inaction from 1999 to 2008, and because of old men called ‘blessers’ who shower school girls—the ‘blessees’—with gifts in exchange for unprotected sex. In Nepal she is furious on behalf of the girls who have to spend five days of their periods huddled in freezing huts, a prey to venomous snakes and rapists, because they are deemed taboo by mothers and grandmothers. She writes approvingly about ‘Menstrual Man’, Aranachalam Muruganantham, who invented a cheap, reliable machine to make sanitary pads when he discovered that his wife couldn’t afford the manufacturers’ products. For many centuries doctors used to ‘bleed’ patients; now it’s regarded as quackery, but leeches are coming back into use as medics find them useful for removing blood from reattached body parts. Her last chapter is about vampires, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and synthetic blood. Rose George came to the Adelaide Writers’ Festival this year and spoke to Robyn Williams for the Science Show on RN if you want to look her up. She’s a knockout.

Another fascinating book I recommend this month is Teen Brain by David Gillespie, father of six, who warns us that screens are making our teenagers depressed, anxious, and prone to addictive illnesses. At puberty boys and girls look like adults but their brains don’t fully develop for at least another ten years. Boys want danger and sex, and girls want approval from their Group, long before their impulse control mechanism kicks in. Their smart phone gives them a dopamine hit, and if you think they aren’t addicted, just watch mothers try to get their teens to leave off their phones long enough to do their homework and you will see addicts in desperate need of a fix. Steve Jobs who invented the infernal machine wouldn’t allow his own kids, aged 12, 14 and 19, to have one. Teens can get video games and porn for boys, and social media connection for girls, at the press of a button. They can also get information easily, and never have to learn their nine times table, or even the way from A to B on a map, so they know everything while knowing nothing. Plenty of food for thought in this book.

My daughter told me to read Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth—a gripping saga which chronicles the ‘dispersal’ of an aboriginal tribe by settlers and the terrifying Native Police in outback Queensland, 1885. Tommy McBride, aged 14, and his brother, 16 year-old Billy, return from a swim in the waterhole to find a family tragedy. They seek assistance from John Sullivan, the wealthy owner of the neighbouring property. Sullivan’s wife is very kind to the boys, but John Sullivan takes the opportunity to blame the local aborigines. He and Inspector Noone, the head of the Native Police, engineer a brutal massacre in which the McBride boys take part, for which Tommy never forgives himself. This is a stunning novel by Howarth—an English writer who lived for 6 years in Melbourne before returning to the UK. He demonstrates psychological insight, with a real feeling for small details, and writes sensitively, even poetically, about the landscape, while juxtaposing scenes of almost unreadable sadistic horror. Adrian McKinty gives the novel a thumbs-up, and Tim Winton calls it ‘an impressive debut’. You won’t forget this book easily.