Status Syndrome

Is the name of a new book by Professor Michael Marmot. There’s been a bit of coverage in the media generally (online sources include New Scientist News, the BBC, and the Guardian). I haven’t actually read the book yet, but I’m interested as I worked in Professor Marmot’s department at UCL on the Whitehall II Study and am familiar with many of his ideas and the research that lies behind them.

Professor Marmot’s core idea is that a person’s social standing has a significant impact upon their life expectancy. This is a more complex formulation than a simple “The rich live longer than the poor”, which is demonstrated by differences between societies – life expectancy is comparatively lower in some places that might surprise.

Income does have a use as an indicator of status, but more important are factors such as control over ones life or a sense of belonging. He suggests that health can be improved by giving people more power over their lives and building more cohesive communities to live in. I can’t believe that it’s a surprise that alienated and powerless people die earlier.

There’s politics here, of course. The New Scientist report mentions the increased divergence in life expectancy between high and low social groups during the Thatcher years and the subsequent (slight) decrease since New Labour came to power. The Guardian mentions drops in life expectancy following the advent of free-market capitalism in the former USSR. But politics isn’t the driving force behind this research, and shouldn’t get in the way of work that provides insight into the consequences of the ways we organise ourselves.

They Work For You is a new website which aims to provide an easy, user-friendly way for British citizens to keep track of what their elected representatives are up to. It’s been put together by the same people who brought us websites like, which I’ve found useful myself in the past. Here’s what they have to say about the new project:

We are a dozen or so volunteers who think it should be really easy for people to keep tabs on their elected MP, and comment on what goes on in Parliament. We’ve done this sort of thing before, but never on this scale.

For all its faults and foibles, our democracy is a profound gift from previous generations. Yet most people don’t know the name of their MP, nor their constituency, let alone what their MP does or says in their name.

We aim to help bridge this growing democratic disconnect, in the belief that there is little wrong with Parliament that a healthy mixture of transparency and public engagement won’t fix.

Hence this website.

I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the site myself, but you can quickly identify your MP and call up information on things like their voting record, their registered interests, the speeches they’ve made – the list just goes on, and since the site is still in beta, we can no doubt expect refinements and improvements over the coming weeks and months.

This is the sort of tool you would expect from a government with accountability and openness high on its priority list. Funnily enough, this one was produced by a team of volunteers and some funding from a charity called the UK Citizens Online Democracy.

Total respect to these people – what a brilliant idea.

The Coromandel

Having flown back up to Auckland, we spent the last week or so visiting a couple of places in the north that we’d missed at the start of our trip. First we took the bus over to the Coromandel peninsula, a popular holiday destination among the Kiwis.

Our driver was a slightly odd chap and a bit of a jobsworth. Having rigorously enforced the bus company’s rule stating that there is to be no food on board the bus, he proceeded to buy several hot buns and pastries from a bakers which he dumped on an empty seat where we could all see and smell them.

As he hurtled along the narrow windy road that circles the peninsula he regaled us with the usual patter interspersed with repeated warnings about which bus stops not to use and which hostels he didn’t do pick-ups from. He particularly enjoyed pointing out the consequences of drink driving – we passed numerous wrecked cars and vans at the bottoms of valleys, evidence of the popularity of this particular form of foolishness in New Zealand. I had to restrain the urge to point out that driving a full bus like a nutter was also a potentially dangerous. At least he stopped every so often to let us get off, swallow our stomachs and even take the odd photo of the coastline.

[Coromandel Coast with islands]

We stayed in the small town of Whitianga on the eastern side of the peninsula. It’s close to two of the area’s well known attractions, the Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. Whitianga itself is a pleasant place on the shores of a bay with a long beach and a harbour filled with small boats of all kinds. The beach is covered with countless shells gradually being worn down by the sea.

[A macro shot of shells on Whitianga Beach]

We made the obligatory pilgrimages to the Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove in the company of a fellow guest at Whitianga YHA, Des from Chepstow, who kindly acted as chauffeur. The beach was a bit of a disappointment. Sink your feet into the sand a few inches and the temperature rises fast. An interesting phenomenon, but not one that takes your breath away. Cathedral Cove was a bit more spectacular, but we both felt that we were perhaps suffering somewhat from scenery fatigue by now. Still, it’s amazing what water and wind can do to rock given a bit of time.

[Eroded Rock at Cathedral Cove]

We weren’t anywhere near as underwhelmed as an American tourist we encountered who seemed to regard the entire country as a complete disappointment. He blamed this on an exaggerated marketing campaign by the New Zealand tourist industry which had raised his expectations too high. I thought he was just a bit of a tosser. Who could walk down the beach at sunset and still be so negative?

[Sunset over the sea at Whitianga]

It was the tail end of the summer, so it felt as though we had the town to ourselves – quite a contrast to peak season when the whole area is heaving. Whitianga had the air of a place on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success, there were signs of development everywhere and the network of new roads surrounding the town implied quite an increase in size. This is a common problem faced by all popular holiday destinations across the planet – expansion so often spoils the very things that drew people in the first place. Still, the local people seem well aware of the potential problems and there was evidence of a debate over the best ways to manage the expansion. Good luck to them, it’s a lovely spot, and it’d be a great shame to spoil it.

Milford Sound

Quite possibly New Zealand’s most famous destination, Milford Sound (actually a Fiord, not a Sound, as you are often told) is located in the Fiordland National Park in the South Western corner of the South Island.

The Sound is comparatively remote. Most tourists do a day trip from Queenstown, something almost beyond belief when you realise that you are going to spend eight hours on a coach and about two hours actually at Milford Sound itself. From Te Anau you can easily drive in a or take one of the smaller tours that are more leisurely and much smaller and more personalised. We went with a company called Trips and Tramps, and they were very good.

From Te Anau, the journey is an experience in itself as you pass up the valleys and into the mountains. Most of the tour parties (small or large) stop off at a few well-known spots for photo opportunities, like here in the Eglington Valley.

[Eglington Valley]

There are plentry of places to stop along the way and take in the surroundings. The car parks and picnic areas are often frequented by Keas, large alpine parots with vicious looking beaks, insatiable apetites and a complete lack of fear of humans. They will strip the rubber parts from your vehicles, so keep an eye on them.

[Kea, an alpine parrot]

The road winds up into the mountains and through the Homer Tunnel, carved during the Great Depression as part of a government employment scheme. The tunnel is quite narrow but has only recently been made single track due to the increasng volume of coach traffic using the road – previously everyone just squeezed in and hoped they’d get through without getting stuck. When you come out on the far side of the tunnel, the road winds down through some spectacular scenery to sea level again.

[View down from the Homer Tunnel]

As you come down to the Sound itself you are greeted by the classic postcard view. Don’t expect views featuring clear skies and reflective waters – the chances are that if it’s not raining it’s at least going to be fairly misty and cloudy, but this has it’s own beauty. We were lucky and the weather held for our trip. There was just enough mist to add some atmosphere but not enough to obscure the views completely, and all the moisture was feeding the waterfalls which cascade down the cliffs into the dark waters, further adding to the ambience.

[Milford Sound]

The obligatory boat trip was fun, although there are a lot of boats out on the water at any given time. Fortuantely the Sound is pretty big so it’s not too bad, but forget any fantasies of a sense of splendid isolation – you’ll never get away from the fact that there are hundreds of other people around. Milford Sound is a beautiful spot with many things to recommend it, but being off the tourist trail is not one of them.

Don’t let that put you off, though. It is an amazing place – the cliffs tower above you to almost dizzy heights. Getting across a sense of scale is very difficult. The boat in this picture is around the size of a double decker bus and probably had about sixty people on board.

[A ship at the bottom of the cliffs]

The trip takes you down one side of the Sound, out into the Sea, then back down the other side. Almost all the boat trips do the same route, but offer slightly varying levels of comfort.

When the boat emerges from the entrance to the Sound you can look out across the Tasman in the direction of New Zealand’s nearest sizable neighbour Australia, several hundred miles away, and ponder just how far from everywhere else the place is as the boat swings around and starts to sail back inland.

[View from the Sea entrance to the Sound]