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Bagel and Smear Or, if Ann Summers designed paps

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I have a brilliant idea for Dragon’s Den.

But then again, I can’t quite see Deborah Meaden trying out what I propose, not in front of the television cameras at any rate.

However, if anyone from Dragon’s Den does happen to be reading this and would like to make me an offer, I would gladly accept £125,000 for 25% equity.

My brilliant (but simple) idea is this: why not make smear tests more patient-friendly by replacing the regular bi-valved plastic vaginal specula with a Rampant Rabbit-esque tool? If you will excuse the pun.

I can’t be the only woman who, while closing her eyes (legs like an indecent frog’s) on the local surgery’s faux leather couch, desperately attempts to fantasise that the procedure is part of some elaborate sex game in order to make it a tad more bearable. I have even been known to recite the Shema in my head – one of the holiest of Jewish prayers, I’ll have you know; while the kindly doctor or nurse has a good scrape, never mind that I am a committed atheist. Actually, the Shema thing (taught to me as a little girl by my father) has accompanied me since that very first time: “Shema Yisrael…” as He or She has a proper look up there, until the Shema was replaced with rather more filthy thoughts of a biblical kind.

A bit of history for you. The not-so-humble vaginal specula was originally used by the ancient Greeks (Theo ‘Pap’hitis, I do so hope you are reading this,) and Romans. Later, in nineteenth century South Carolina, James Marion Sims developed the specula so that it consisted of a hollow cylinder with a rounded end divided into two hinged parts, a bit like the beak of a duck. And it hasn’t really changed. Any woman over the age of forty has experienced a nightmarishly cold specula made from stainless steel in her privates, although most speculum are now made of plastic.

Steel? Bi-valved plastic? You’ve got to be kidding. Every other ancient gadget has been properly updated in terms of comfort, so why not the specula? Look, I’m no product designer and a miserable failure in each of the sciences, but give me a moment here. All I ask is that the instrument tending to our intimate, most delicate parts isn’t produced from a material requiring scaffolding and a hard hat. Why can’t our cervixes be reached by something a little more, pleasurable? (While you’re up there…) In short – and without coming over all Heath Robinson, why not take a vibrator and use it as the basis for a proper, twenty-first century vaginal specula? According to its website, Ann Summers vibrators are “medical grade” silicone after all.

Okay, so it might be hard to imagine an impassioned bidding war between Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones or Theo for my aforementioned pitch, but then stranger things have happened.

A View from the Tub

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An elegant tree-lined road somewhere between Kilburn and West Hampstead, NW6. A hot tub crouching behind one of the unsuspecting white Georgian houses, simmering like a cauldron as one by one, we climb in, armed with wine glasses, week-old cigarettes, Aperol spritz. There are our beach towels hanging poolside on high alert, a saucer to use as an ashtray because the official line is that the hot tub hostess doesn’t smoke. Tentatively, various limbs are negotiated and arranged in the water, drinks poured, fags lit.

Shipped from China by way of eBay and installed into the rather more English back garden by eight local builders, the hot tub in question is a frothing disco diva, her underwater lights alternating red and purple and blue, while the Spotify app serenades us with Donna Summer, Stan Getz.

Winter hot tub evenings are best because it’s dark outside so it doesn’t matter if we’ve shaved recently or not, if we’re wearing our worst, stringiest, mixed-wash-iest swimwear. And it’s bliss to climb in, like a return to the womb, great female company; the warm, massaging jets, a tad mindful of not letting them hit our naughty spots in public. Last year, when the hot tub nights began, we dutifully took turns to undress in the shed (with the sun-loungers) by the ping-pong table, god forbid anyone should see a breast or – horror, worse. Now we don’t care.

We undress into our various bubble-trouble gear – and much later, dress back again into our regular, slightly soggy clothes in the kitchen inside, graced by large, open-shuttered Soho House-esque French windows. If anyone can see in, it doesn’t matter; if we can’t see them, they can’t possibly see us – not without our glasses on at any rate. And anyway, we like our bodies these days, after years of loathing them when our bodies didn’t have these marks, those additional bits. Better late than never.

So here we are, rub-a-dub-dub, four women at a time, five at a push if we rotate and one of us sits out. Welcome to our hot tub soirées; the dark, lathered heart where nothing spoken is off-limits, everything is permitted. We’re a motley crew of writers (all genres), mothers, daughters and lovers. We’re still wearing ‘L’ plates, yet we know what we want. We don’t claim to have any moral high ground, but put together we make perfect sense. Oh yes, and because the hot tub is in London, the neighbours can probably hear.

The view from the tub is distinctly feminine, soft skin, hair (tied up if long,) but unlike many pussy posses, not in the least bit competitive. We talk about what we did today, the films we saw last week, juggling our careers, orgasms real and faked. Then there is the increasing vulnerability of our parents, Death, what we would like to eat for our Last Supper, the most outrageous places we have had sex. We recommend books, art exhibitions to one another, discuss our dreams (we still have them), communal living, why they serve Twiglets at the Groucho. We sort out our other friends’ problems without the friends in question even being present, without them ever knowing they are a topic of heated debate. We try to fix the world.

And while there are most certainly conversations of the ‘what’s said in the hot tub, stays in the hot tub’ ilk, we thought it only fair to invite you to dip in a toe or two and join in.

Introducing Ingrid Stone: The Queen of Complaints

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Let it be said that good and proper complaining is an art.  Craft perhaps more than art, but I like to think that mine is done with the flourish of a particularly fine nib.

Most people shuffle and schlep with their tail between their legs at returns and refund queues, they have an odd complex that afflicts them: guilt + insanity hang-up + being pathetically grateful.  It’s even worse if they do it by phone.  No wonder they get a poor deal.

Age does have something to do with it. Of course it does. Like so many things, positive complaining comes with experience – and with that experience, a certain degree of confidence, of knowing how things are done.

I know now, for example, that when complaining, you go straight to the top.  Why mess about with customer services departments when you are most probably going to have to go back and complain to the CEO or MD anyway? Okay, so some customer services departments are great – all hail to John Lewis for one, but the vast majority are inundated will backlogs and quibbles – and if one thing is for certain, at our age, we really do understand that life is too short.

I also know that letter-writing, frightfully old-fashioned as it may be, is best.  In that way, you have a proper record of the situation.  We all know that emails can get lost in the ether or fall prey to the dreaded spam folder – and Twitter only allows you up to 140 characters. Letter-writing also means you can enclose photographs, documents and receipts to support your case.

My own complaining history began with my eight-year-old self’s scrawl (to Torquay Fun Fair) and since then, I have perfected my art, tweaked it, then refined it some more.

Let’s be straight.  When penning your missive, rudeness will not do and neither will shrinking violets and ranting is ugly.  Rather, I suggest a cocktail of polite charm, a dash of humour (if appropriate) and brute honesty.  Above all, treat the person you are dealing with as an equal (although chances are that you will be feeling the exact opposite is true of them.)  The complainee will appreciate your extra effort, while you will be far more likely to receive a positive outcome with everything to gain.

For more of The Queen Of Complaints’ top tips, go to my site here.

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