Internet care proves food for thought

A recent ad across the entire centre spread of The Daily Telegraph was both deeply puzzling and strangely reassuring.

Measuring some two and a half feet across and about two feet in depth, it pictured a plate, a fork, and two knives. That much was clear. But what was on the plate was a mystery. An amorphous blend of whirls, textures and substances, it might have been a Danish pastry, one of those confections made of fruit, sugar, flour, and glue, or a meat dish part shellacked and part regurgitated, or, heaven help us, an elephant’s placenta. I looked at it many times and could not recognise any part of it, let alone the whole, that resembled anything I have eaten or would want to eat.

The advertiser offered a clue: the border of the plate bore the legend “Au Petit Marguery”. So whatever was on the plate was of French provenance, or possibly Belgian. I don’t know what Marguery means. It takes a masculine adjective, so that rules out some derivation of marguerite, the feminine noun meaning daisy. It might be a corruption of marguillier, or churchwarden. It seems unlikely, however, that the mess on the plate is in the style of a small churchwarden, unless he eviscerates stoats as a hobby.

So Marguery is probably a proper noun, a man’s name, a chef maybe. But why petit Marguery? Surely this heaped dog’s dinner isn’t a small version of what he usually turns out? Perhaps he is a man of slight build, who has earned the mocking sobriquet “petit” because he is too wise and circumspect to eat his own cuisine.

In the absence of enlightenment, the mess on the platter will remain one of life’s great mysteries along with the Marie Celeste, the Angel of Mons, the Turin shroud, and why anyone should pay money to see or hear Madonna.

That is not all. Right across the page there is written, “I hope I can finish this before the ambulance gets here” – a ritual pleasantry uttered at many a business luncheon where the food is rich in saturated fats and the diner makes light of his indulgence.

Could this extravagant centre spread, then, be the work of the BMA, the Health Education Authority, the British Heart Foundation, or any other of the multitudinous throng of nannies and wowsers who fret each wakeful hour browbeating the rest of us into asceticism? Must we turn the page to read yet another homily on the lethal properties of food and the insane, suicidal impulse to eat it?

Amazingly, the answer is no. Instead, we read, “Here’s the scenario. You’ve got a heart condition. You’re wearing a small monitor that sends a constant signal to a medical service your hospital subscribes to. Minutes before you even know there’s anything wrong, bids for emergency services are going out automatically through the Internet. Paramedics are dispatched, the best cardiologist within 20 minutes of your location is tracked down and a prescription is electronically sent to a pharmacy that’s confirmed to have your medication in stock…It’s about the explosion of the service-based economy. The next chapter of the Internet is about to be written…Hewlett Packard.”

Wonderful, isn’t it? Sod the wowsers, tuck your napkin into your collar, roll up your sleeves and wade into a mixed grill, or, if your internal electronic wiring is steel clad, into something prepared by little Marguery. Let arteries fur, let liver shrivel, let bacon fat course down your chin. Let hell and damnation lurk in every forkful. Out there, deep in cyberspace, there is a guardian angel tuned in to your ticker, sleeplessly on the qui vive for a thrombotic tremor. Fiddle-de-dee, send for the pastry chef.

Hold on, though. Computer technology isn’t all that smart. Or at any rate, not infallible. What about the Millennium Bug, which, we are confidently assured by the government agency in charge, will plunge us into a new Dark Age on the stroke of midnight come this year end? If computers can’t tell the difference between 1900 and 2000, what chance have they got of counting your intake of pork sausages and taking an accurate dipstick reading of the gloop in your vital tubes?

I can see it now. There you are in Rules Restaurant, breaking open the crust on your second steak and kidney pie, when your small monitor is inadvertently triggered off by your companion’s Psion organiser. Before you even know anything is wrong (because it isn’t) all hell breaks loose. Sirens wail across Covent Garden, an ambulance shrieks to a halt in Maiden Lane, the doors of the restaurant burst open, and in rush a dozen white-coated paramedics, followed by the best cardiologist for miles around whose invoice is already printing up on his pocket fax.

Within nano-seconds, you are stripped to the waist, spreadeagled across the napery, and given the best mouth-to-mouth resuscitation money can buy while the giant fists of a burly nurse beat a crunching tattoo on your chest. And the pharmacist has still to come. You would, after that, need to be of a singular disposition to straighten your tie, resume your seat, and ask the waiter for the dessert menu.

Maybe that is an unduly pessimistic scenario. Perhaps Hewlett Packard is right about the e-services of tomorrow. But I would still like to know one thing: what the hell is on that double-page plate?

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