Monday, February 25, 2008

Behind the Broken Façade

Two events this week have served to remind me of the importance of not underestimating the human brain.

For as long as I can remember, I have consciously made an effort to speak to disabled people as though they were able. This is no less important when it comes to addressing people who have had strokes, are in a coma, or have a condition that causes severe speech problems, such as severe cerebral palsy. One can never be sure as to how much they understand, so surely it is best to err on the side of caution and assume that they understand everything?

A newspaper article in The Daily Telegraph (Saturday, 23rd February 2008) illustrated the point about people in comas. It was reported that a woman was brought out of a coma by her husband shouting at her (Husband’s love and a rollicking save a coma wife, p. 7). Apparently, doctors told the husband that they were considering the need to turn off his wife’s life-support equipment, as there was no sign of recovery. The husband, who had been holding a bedside vigil for two weeks, grabbed his wife’s hand and shouted at her, telling her to make an effort, fight back, and not to leave him. He then left for a couple of hours to ‘get some fresh air’. When he returned two hours later, his wife was breathing spontaneously and subsequently made a full recovery. She reported that she could remember hearing him shouting at her and that made her cross; thus the stimulus to recovery.

Neurologists have confirmed that the unconscious brain continues to process information. This, of course, is a topical subject, having been brought to us in the television series Life on Mars, and most recent with the program’s sequel, Ashes to Ashes.

Which brings me to the second event of this week.

On Thursday, I went to the cinema to see the film The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly. This is not a blockbuster film. It is, however, a remarkable story and a very moving one. It was a film I really wanted to see, having read the original book in 1997.

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly was written by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 42 years old and the editor of Elle magazine in Paris. In 1995, he suffered a massive stroke, which left him completely paralysed apart from the ability to move the lids of his left eye. This became his only means of communication. Over the next year, he managed to write the story of his stroke and to describe what it is like to suffer a perfectly active mind with no means of communication or movement. The condition is called ‘Locked-in Syndrome’. The story was dictated by having a secretary sit for hour upon hour, slowly reciting the vocabulary. Each time she reached the letter Bauby wanted, he would indicate by signalling with his eyelid. Thus, by such painstaking action, he dictated his words. Bauby died ten days after the book was published. I defy anyone not to be impressed by his tenacity and achievement, and not to be emotionally moved by those same endeavours. I also know that no one, who has either read the book or seen the film, will ever see a person with such a condition in the same light again. The story has the power to change perspectives. As the Evening Standard critic, Gilbert Adair wrote when reviewing the book:

‘…his closing sentence, just twelve flutters long, is one of the most heartrending in all of modern literature.’

It is.

The poet, Elizabeth Jennings, wrote a poem entitled Old Man. The title suggests the topic – that of an old man, beyond his prime, who requires the daily attention of carers for his well-being. In 2007, I wrote a response to Jennings's poem, suggesting that matters are not always what they seem to be. I reproduce it here:

Life’s Denouement
(after Old Man by Elizabeth Jennings)

Do not be fooled by my inaction.
My silent world is not what it seems.
You see an old man confined by
a bed, a chair, a room.
You perceive tranquillity, yet
I have no need for communication.


I am not even earthbound.

My spirit has earned its freedom from
materialistic chains.
Knowledge now powers my
unencumbered travel. I exist
disassociated from your reality.

You think you tend to an old man.
Yet, you are satellite images
to where my world revolves.
That shadow is the real me:
waking with dawn, slipping away
by midday and, for now, returning
with the setting sun.

Time knows no boundaries.
Age is not what it seems;
death, a powerful invocation.
Your delusion is
my ultimate illusion.

I am not the old man you see before you.

I am.

© Copyright 2007 Dr Tusitala

Whatever the disability we are dealing with, whether it be a coma, paralysis after stroke, or the effects of old age, we must never assume that what we see is all there is. One day, we might be in a similar position of infirmity. Wouldn’t we then all wish that some enlightened person would see beyond the broken façade?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Spare a Thought for the Poor Librettist

How many people listen to the early hit songs of Elton John and think ‘wow, Bernie Taupin had a great way with words’?

How many people watch an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and knowingly admire the poetry of Tim Rice?

And the neglect of the poor librettist is not confined to the modern day. How many Mozart arias and duets can the opera buff sing along to...yet give not a moment’s thought to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote the lyrics to The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte?

Of course, there are numerous other examples of misplaced admiration. The musician gets the praise, but it is often the poet who has stimulated the ideas in the first instance.

So next time you admire a song (of whatever genre), do spare a thought for the neglected poet.

The Starting Line

Religion means many different things to many different people. For some it means an entire philosophy for living; others call upon it as a crutch at times of need. A large proportion of society professes to acknowledge no religion at all; they draw strength from their secular avocations.

William Ralph Inge (1860 – 1954), writing in Idea of Progress (1920):

‘To become a popular religion, it is only necessary for a superstition to enslave a philosophy.’

Perhaps he was right. If that be so, then I personally consider the philosophy underlining Christianity to be a very reasonable way of guiding the conduct of one’s life. However, I then ask myself, can a philosophy on its own cause a spontaneous uplifting of the spirit? Can a philosophy recharge drained emotional batteries? Can a philosophy bring renewed strength when mind and body are failing? There may be some who would answer these questions in the affirmative, though I am not convinced.

I have held a strong faith for the major part of my teenage and adult life. It was not imposed upon me by my parents. It was something I was drawn to by personal desire. Over the years, the influence of religion on my life has varied, but never disappeared. For a while I was strongly drawn towards the priesthood and would probably have continued down that path had it not been for the commencement of a life-changing, personal relationship. The irony is that the relationship which so magically reformed my personal life (and continues to do so) was also contrary to the teachings of my faith. The values of the relationship were (and are) sound; it was just that my religion did not allow one to get it wrong first time round. So the idea of ordination was set aside and, for a while, I lost the spiritual magic I had once felt on entering a church, on picking up the Bible, on gazing at a cross, and so forth. And that troubled me because I was aware of an emptiness, despite the glorious warmth, love and passion of my new relationship. Something was missing.

Time went by and gradually, for a variety of reasons and in ways which were at times imperceptible, my faith was returned without me trying to restore it. I even questioned its validity. It stood the tests I imposed and has under-shored my life ever since, often without me thinking about it. Just as, I suppose, we do not on a daily basis consider the presence of the foundations of our houses; we just take it for granted that they are there doing the job of supporting the rest of the building.

So what makes me so sure that my faith is genuine and not just a reassuring “club membership” where I can find like-minded people? The answer is in happenings such as that which occurred a few Sundays ago.

It was the occasion of my parent’s Golden Wedding Anniversary and we had taken them back to Bromley in Kent, where they had lived as children and subsequently married. On the Sunday, we visited the church where their wedding had taken place, namely, Christ Church in Highland Road, Bromley.

The church has undergone many alterations over the past fifty years, and continues to have a thriving congregation. However, it is no longer the traditional Anglican Church that my parents knew. It has been re-born as an evangelical church. The altar is now in the north, to allow for a re-arrangement of the seating and facilitate the building of a three-sided gallery to accommodate the enlarged congregation. The traditional prayer books are no longer used and the hymns are modern. There is even a gospel choir and band.

For someone who has always appreciated the litany and proceedings of ‘high church’, such a setting might be daunting. However, I sat there and, with an open mind, took in my surroundings. Almost immediately, I sensed something special was taking place in that building. There was something uplifting about it; something which caused an inward excitement, that elevated the emotions and gave strength to a tired mind; something that I had not so readily felt for a very long time.

It was then that my mother whispered a few words which, to her, were a ‘by the by’ but for me were illuminating.

‘Of course, this is also where you were christened.’

Her words entered my ears and, like an electric current, surged through my mind, thumped my heart and fizzled into my limbs. For a moment I felt slightly dizzy as realisation dawned. THIS was where it had all started for me. It was in this very building that I had been first received into the house of God. It was here that I had crossed the starting line on a journey which was to offer all sorts of challenges; challenges which I would rise to and obstacles which I would overcome. For it was from here that I took with me the strength of a living Christ. I gazed towards the west-end of the church to where the old font would once have stood. That is where it all began. And no wonder I felt so positive about the place.

I do not believe that a philosophy on its own has the power to induce the significant and spontaneous surge of emotion and energy I felt whilst I sat in that church. I have no doubt that my faith is true and substantial. I may not be able to rationalise it, but whoever said that God is rational?

Karl Marx wrote in A Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in 1843:

‘ the opium of the people.’

Well, if he was right, then I confess to being a hardened addict – and am proud to be so.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (10)

Saturday, 9th February 2008

A delightful meal and good bottle of Barolo last evening at the award winning Italian restaurant, La Locanda, in Gisburn, Lancashire, were in need of being removed from the waistline. With a cloudless sky and temperatures approaching a remarkable 14°C, the stage was set for another walk.

Staying within Malhamdale, our route began in the village of Airton, wandered across pastureland to Kirkby Malham and then on to Hanlith, before joining the River Ayre for the journey back to Airton.

Although only 4¼ miles, the walk was full of interest, not least because of the magnificent views afforded by the clear skies. Rye Loaf Hill, Pikedaw, Fountains Fell, Malham Cove, Malham Moor, Gordale Scar, Weets Top and Hanlith Moor provided the scenery in front of us, whilst behind stood the imposing Pendle Hill. Contrary to the surrounding areas, a light mist circled around the base of Pendle Hill, giving it an air of mystery quite in keeping with the folklore of witches thereabouts.

The route from Airton soon intersected the historic Kirk Gait: an ancient path, trodden by the inhabitants of Otterburn each Sunday as their quickest way of covering the three miles to church. The pastureland was boggy in places and I marvelled at the thought of those devout people tackling this walk in all weathers; the women no doubt in long skirts and everyone without the benefit of the modern waterproof walking boots we take for granted.

Although spring was tentatively making its presence known, with snowdrops in abundance, daffodils making their first appearance, and buds starting to form on the surrounding trees, the scene was still a reflection of the starkness of winter. The bare branches of the trees and bushes, broken only by an occasional splash of vivid red from small clumps of surviving hawthorn berries, provided a skeletal foreground to the wonderful variety of greens and yellows of the pastures of the lowlands and hillsides. The novice artist in me started to imagine mixing the various paints from my palette as, in my mind’s eye, I painted a watercolour of the scene before me.

The age of these small hamlets is advertised by the dates on the lintels of several properties, giving a sense of timelessness to the environs. In Kirkby Malham, a cottage with mullioned windows had a date stone from 1637, whilst in Hanlith, Hanlith Hall dates from 1668, a cottage in Airton bears the date 1696, and the Friends’ Meeting House in Airton was built in 1700. The path re-entering Airton runs between the River Ayre and an old mill-race, once belonging to an old cotton mill (now converted into flats).

As one passes through all these places, a real sense of the past is a constant companion. With the surrounding countryside, there is a continuous reminder that we are mere visitors to this wonderful landscape, which has witnessed centuries of change imposed onto the backdrop of its timeless presence. It is a salutary reminder of our own impermanence and relative insignificance.

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (9)

Friday, 8th February 2008

It has been well over a year since my last Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales. This beautiful early-spring weekend deserves the production of another.

The ability to escape from the rigors of the surgery on Thursday afternoon last week, allowed my wife and I to arrive in the Dales that same evening, with the promise of a long weekend ahead. With the dawning of Friday, the promise became reality with weather to match our enthusiasm for shaking out the walking boots.

The village of Gargrave was our starting point. From there, the seven-mile walk took us alongside the River Aire for a short distance, before climbing up to where the Pennine Way awaited. The latter served as the route to East Marton, from where the Leeds-Liverpool canal’s towpath became our course back to Gargrave.

Just prior to joining the Pennine Way, the track took in a bridge over a railway line. The line nestles within a deep cutting, the two sets of rails disappearing into the curves of the hills in both directions. High above, the rolling dales were pre-eminent. Standing on the bridge and gazing down at the line, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the mammoth undertaking that the fathers of the early railways set their minds upon, when the concept of a railway was first envisaged. The task of taming a corridor through this rugged countryside, with the manual digging of cuttings, blasting of tunnels, and levelling of tracks, must have been a Herculean project in those early-industrial days. The presence of the railway is something we now tend to take for granted. However, standing on that isolated bridge, with nothing but the hills and wind for company, one could not help but sense the magnitude of their achievement.

East Marton is a small hamlet adjacent to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Its major architectural attraction is the presence of a double-arched bridge: not in the sense of twin spans, but one arch on top of the other. The increasing volume of road traffic over the first bridge meant that a stronger structure was required. Instead of rebuilding the entire bridge, a second arched structure was simply placed on top of the first; a concept which now gives the erroneous and initially disorientating impression that the canal must have once run at a level some twenty feet above its present location!

The English canals have long been a fascination for me. It is as though the process of stepping from the towpath onto a canal boat takes one through a time warp. Time itself slows, the frenetic pace of the modern world is banished, and peace and tranquillity reign. I harbour this dream of one day owning a broad-beamed barge (similar to a narrow boat, but twice as wide, and for which the northern-most canals, such as the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, were specifically constructed). My imaginary barge is painted a deep green (of the ‘British Racing’ variety), with its name, The Apothecary, emblazoned on its side in scripted gold lettering. Other gold-painted motifs, drawn from my personal armorial bearings, such as a fox rampant, holding a saxophone and quill pen, would further adorn the sides. I would spend my days gently meandering through the serene countryside of the Dales; whilst my evenings would be passed with The Apothecary moored to the towpath in an isolated spot, far from evidence of modern civilisation. There, I would sit on the roof, playing jazz and blues on a tenor saxophone, with only the sheep in the surrounding fields for an audience. After dark, I would retire to the candle-lit saloon, where I would write deep into the night, accompanied by a crystal glass of malt whisky and my Labrador, Thea.

Et in Arcadia ego.

The Spring Muse Awakes

Writers, poets, musicians, and artists have long looked towards their own personal muse for creative inspiration. The Egyptians had Hathor, the goddess of music, love, and beauty to assist them in their endeavours. Greek mythology offered an entire sisterhood of nine goddesses (‘the nine muses’) who were devoted to stimulating the artistic mind. Whereas the Romans looked to the Camenae who, like the Greek muses, were also water nymphs and hence known as the goddesses of springs.

For me, the first part of winter has often been a low period for creativity. The dull, cold days seem to suppress imaginative thoughts. The coming of the New Year has usually served to reawaken the urge to write, as the turn of the calendar offers the promise of new beginnings. If that does not work for me, then my birthday (at the end of January) usually does. Then, Janus, the Roman God of beginnings and endings (after whom the month of January is named), applies the influence of his two faces (one looking forwards, the other backwards) to allow me to take stock of what has been and what may yet come. This year, that reviving moment did not really have a chance to happen, as I found myself caught up in the whirlwind of other family celebrations.

However, the coming of spring has often heralded a further reawakening of inventiveness and enthusiasm. Such has been the effect of this weekend’s weather. The past two days have seen glorious blue skies and sunshine. Together with two walks in the beautiful countryside of the Yorkshire Dales, the effect of the elements has been one of instant cerebral reinvigoration.

For me, the onset of an early spring has certainly acted as my personal muse. The desire to write has started to bubble up from deep within and I feel spoilt for choice as to where to begin. The Greeks called the Goddess of Spring and fresh beginnings, Maia (hence the month of May). In reality, it may only be February, but I welcome the early presence of Maia with delight. Already, several ideas have started to tumble around the grey matter, with concepts for a poem and short story amongst them. Then there is my partly written novel, and not forgetting to mention this blog.

Now all I need is for Kronos (also known as Cronus), the Greek God of time, to look kindly upon me and bless me with the gift of a little free time in order to bring all these ideas to fruition. Perhaps, Maia could have a word or two with him on my behalf.

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading  Newman: The Heart of Holiness  (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In...