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The old lady who swallowed a fly

While some mystery seems to surround exactly why the old lady of nursery rhyme song fame swallowed a fly, all things being equal, it seems likely it was an accident rather than a conscious choice – after all, who among us hasn’t had the unfortunate experience of going blamelessly about our business when a bug that appears to be in the grip of directional insanity suddenly hurls itself into our unwisely slack-jawed mouth and down our gaping gullet?

In any case, the why of the fly in the poor old biddy’s gastrointestinal tract isn’t as important as the way in which it “wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her” and what she then decided to do in an attempt to alleviate these unpleasant symptoms.

Now, beyond some obvious questions about the uncommon physiology of the lady in question – including a jaw that can presumably unhinge and a truly cavernous stomach – the nursery rhyme does at least follow some kind of logic insomuch as she chases [literally and figuratively] each swallowed creature with its natural predator [spider, bird, cat, dog], which at least affords the theoretical possibility that this radical approach to self-medication may prove efficacious.

Alas, this semblance of rationality falls apart – along with the old lady’s apparent grasp of the food chain – when she swallows a goat to catch the dog, and then a cow to catch the goat.

When she finally dies while trying to ingest a horse in the hope that it will in turn eat the cow, it’s surely a mercy, not least for any other innocent livestock that happens to be in her vicinity.

At this stage you’re no doubt muttering, “Ok, but what’s your point?”

Glad you asked.

Now, this nursery rhyme song is generally regarded as nothing more than a nonsensical story; just a bit of fun to amuse the kiddiwinks while we wait for the iPad to be invented so they can amuse themselves and stop interrupting our doom scrolling.

However, after 50 years or so of sporadic contemplation, it now appears obvious – to this writer at least – that this rhyme is really about what might be described as “the cascade of intervention”, whereby an initial attempt to correct a particular issue then necessitates another intervention to address the first one, and so on and on and on – with diminishing returns and quite possibly steadily climbing costs [the ‘cure’ is worse than the ‘disease’, to put it another way].

Examples abound of this kind of phenomenon, although they thankfully seldom reach the kind of mad momentum ye olde lady managed.

One example that hops to mind is the way in which the cane toad was introduced to Australia to prevent beetles from devastating sugarcane crops – which it has done, but only at the cost of laying waste to much of the local ecological system.

But the one that’s most relevant right now is how our government has encouraged vaping as a “smoking cessation tool” in its monomaniacal pursuit of SmokeFree aims – with the result that [per figures released on Thursday] the daily vaping rate of those aged between 15 and 17 years old has increased from 8.3 per cent in 2021/2022 to 15.4 per cent in the past year.

That’s a shocking outcome that urgently needs to be addressed. One can only hope that it’s approached with an attitude of ‘first do no harm’ rather than the ‘worth a crack’ option that too many policymakers appear to have adopted in recent times.

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