Wednesday, September 28, 2005

'Now, Voyager'

A thoroughly good time was had at the Purple Coat meeting last night, lubricated by a generous donation of wine. 'Now, Voyager' was both touching and hilarious -- and afforded a real insight into the 1940s and what passed as female empowerment. The story draws on a rich tradition of 'transformation': in this case, neurotic 'ugly duckling', Charlotte, is sent on a cruise by her psychiatrist in an effort to overcome the negative influence of a domineering mother. There she meets and falls in love with a married man. Naturally, things must remain chaste so ritualistic cigarette smoking acts as a substitute for sex ('The film must have been sponsored by Marlborough', said AJ). The plot is satisfyingly twisty and wonderfully melodramatic. We all agreed the acting was splendid, especially Bette Davis as Charlotte and Gladys Cooper as the matriarch. One can see why this film is such a treat for film theorists. Although all the female characters are strong and powerful, the measures of success are still deeply paternalistic: beauty, wealth, social accomplishment and the love of a man. These are my views, informed by the lively post-film discussion. Please do chip in with more commentary...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Death of a Salesman

On the weekend I watched Death of a Salesman, which came heavily recommended by a close friend. Starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich, this Arthur Miller play was brought to celluloid in 1985.

Dustin Hoffman plays Willy Loman, and won a Golden Globe for best actor in this performance. Willy is a man on the brink of a breakdown cum late-life-crisis, as his once promising career as a salesman has dwindled to nothing, his sons have amounted to nothing and he experiences increasingly severe manic-depressive episodes.

The film retains the feeling of a play, with simple sets and minimal sophistication, being mostly filmed as mid-shots, with little zooming or long shots. Towards the climax of the film we see more close-ups, which is surprising considering the intensity of the film. I was blown away by the acting in the film as so often in the cinema, you are brought into the world of the film; yet this was the first time whilst watching a film that I felt like I was actually at the theatre. The performances are powerful and empassioned, the cast is small and scenery bare (set mostly in the Loman house, and disorientatingly occasionally in other locations), which all contribute to a raw sense of emotion throughout the film.

I was quite exhausted by the end, although the film was quite an experience. It is not the sort of film that one might watch idly, it requires concentration and thought - plus time (it is 133 minutes long).

Anyone interested in mental health will like the film for its handling of nervous breakdowns, mania, depression and kleptomania. Others will relate to the family dynamics and reflection within the film.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries

Last week I managed to watch The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles. Based on the journals of Alberto Granado and Ernesto Guevara (a.k.a "Che" Guevara), the film charts the companion's journey from Buenos Aires around South America on a battered 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle.

Alberto is a biochemist and Ernesto a medical student only one semester away from qualifying. Ernesto has various opportunity to practice his skills on their journey, not least when they arrive at a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon. We see the beginnings of Ernesto's later political inclination when he becomes bothered by the segregation in the leper colony, and refuses to wear gloves to treat the patients, irritating the nuns who run the colony. One night during his birthday celebrations, Ernesto swims across to the leper colony from the 'safe' side of the river where the uninfected live. This symbolic moment encapsulates Ernesto's 'crossing over to the other side' both politically and medically; his approach to patients is both unconventional and passionate.

Having travelled in Peru last year I had wanted to see this film for its footage of Machu Picchu and the Amazon, and was pleasantly surprised to discover Che Guevara was a trained doctor. Although he finished his training, he never completed an internship, and as we all know went onto pursue a political career before being assassinated in 1967. His companion Alberto is still alive today, living in Cuba, having co-founded the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Santiago.

There is a Guardian Interview and info about the film available too. Overall a good film whether you are medically or politically minded or interested in foreign culture.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Generation Gap

Her house smells comfortingly of shortbread and tea and young cat,
Stories spill flitting between all nine of her decades.

I stare at her head pondering on neurons,
The odd intensity of her delivery,
On and on, fast she talks, exhausting,
And only the inhaler interrupts.

In the digression I visualize her mind map;
Overlapping, intertwining and cloudy blots.
Expelling itself before the time takes over,
A lengthy legacy to be left.

Friday, September 23, 2005


A writhing snake
Bucks and quivers,
Thrilling bliss.

Red splashes
And orange streaks
Are its markings
As it slithers into the incision
Stealthily, a clear, hungry belly.

Fluid slurped turbulently
Gushes through its coils
A hard greedy mouth
Becomes blocked by debris
Choking the hiss.

‘Suction please.’

Alex J Hamilton

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Next Purple Coat Club meeting

There will be a screening of 'Now, Voyager' at 7.30 pm. Please note the change of venue: we'll be meeting in the MDL overflow room, level 1, Sir Alexander Fleming Building on the South Kensington Campus at Imperial College London. E-mail me if you need further directions.

Everyone is welcome -- there is no 'membership' as such. I received a very nice letter from Danny Abse giving me permission to reproduce on the blog the poem from which the Purple Coat Club takes its name:

Pythagoras’s song

by Dannie Abse

White coat and purple coat
a sleeve from both he sews.
That white is always stained with blood
that purple by the rose.

And phantom rose and blood most real
compose a hybrid style;
white coat and purple coat
few men can reconcile.

White coat and purple coat
can each be worn in turn
but in the white a man will freeze
and in the purple burn.

Hunterian Museum, London

I enjoyed a long overdue visit to the Hunterian Museum yesterday. It occupies floor space in the Royal College of Surgery, near Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. The museum was refurbished about a year ago and the results are very aesthetically pleasing. The museum is a showcase for the collections of John Hunter, younger brother of the more-famous William after whom the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow is somewhat confusingly named. John was originally apprenticed to his older brother before becoming an anatomist, a collector, and a surgeon in his own right. His collections, beautifully displayed in spot-lit glass cases, include a huge range of anatomical and pathological preservations as well as natural history specimens from all over the world. Particularly impressive is the skeleton of the 'Irish Giant', Charles Byrne. There is an art exhibition on at the moment showing the work of the Medical Artists Association.

There are free, half-hour tours of the Museum at 1 pm on Wednesdays where you can learn more about John Hunter -- it's a fascinating story.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Psychiatry on page and screen

It's a bumper month for those interested in the representation of mental health (or mental illness). First, Sebastian Faulk's new book, Human Traces, deals in depth with psychoanalysis. Some commentators say too much depth, but that's unlikely to bother those of us who are interested in the literary inscription of all things medical.

Then there's the adaptation for cinema of Patrick McGrath's novel, Asylum. The book was highly acclaimed, but the film has received mixed reviews. For anyone interested in the book, there is a rather nice set of discussion questions on it here.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

49 Up

Don't miss '49up' tonight at 9pm on ITV1. We watched some of it as part of our sociology course in the first year, and it is quite fascinating.

Michael Apted has followed several children every seven years throughout their lives. Ostensibly about class divide, the programme has inevitably evolved into a soap-opera cum reality-tv cum documentary. The children now have families of their own and this installment chronicles them at age 49.

7up, as it began, looked at various children representing the differing social classes in Britain in 1956. It compared their education, living conditions and aspirations. From the common thug to the snooty brat, seeing their change and development makes gripping television. Some children have turned out almost exactly as predicted; others have made surprising choices, some have opted to leave the programme.

The class system of the past is still present today, albeit greatly altered and less prominent - although a popular media issue when public school university applicants are selected against, for example. However we shall see whether the products of it still fit the same niches as before, and furthermore how it affects their own children.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

HIV Article

The Guardian had a very interesting article in the Weekend supplement on Saturday about HIV perceptions and the (flawed) subsequent government investment in HIV Awareness. Worth a read.

The celebrity campaign mentioned can be found here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It's a girl!

For those of you wondering about the silence from our irregular colonist, Tamzin, I am delighted to be able to tell you that she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Kezia, a fortnight ago. It was a tough pregnancy and we wish Tamzin and her family (she already has two sons) all the best.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Laughter is the Best Medicine

A panel of Doctors was asked to vote on adding a new wing to their hospital...

The Allergists voted to scratch it and the Dermatologists advised no rash moves.
The Gastroenterologists had a gut feeling about it, but the Neurologists thought the administration had a lot of nerve, and the Obstetricians stated that they were all labouring under a misconception.
The Ophthalmologists considered the idea short-sighted; the Pathologists yelled, "Over my dead body!", while the Paediatricians said, "Grow up!"
The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness; the Surgeons decided to wash their hands of the whole thing, and the Radiologists could see right through it.
Internists thought it was a bitter pill to swallow; Plastic Surgeons said, "This puts a whole new face on the matter."
The Podiatrists thought it was a step forward, but the Urologists felt the scheme wouldn't hold water.
The Anaesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas, and the Cardiologists didn't have the heart to say no.
And in the end, the Proctologists left the decision up to some arsehole.

'Finding your funny bone' has more information on the importance of humour in medical practice, as does this BBC article.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

I've seen that face somewhere before...

Opened the 'Rise' section of the 'Guardian today' and saw a mugshot of our own aj! I hope they paid an appearance fee.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Forthcoming events: September rounds

After a rather quiet August in London when all the activity seems to head north of Hadrian's Wall, London is buzzing with events again.

The Dana Centre (behind the Science Museum) is hosting a mini series of events on pregnancy and childbirth. It kicks off on 13 September at 19.00 with 'Unwanted Pregnancies: the evolution of abortion'. On 14 September, 18.30, there is an opportunity to play the much-hyped Democs card game. The game aims to stimulate debate on controversial science-based issues, in this case stem-cell research: more details here. There is a discussion on mental health on 15 September, entitled 'Is it You or I Who Should Be in the Asylum?' (there is something decidedly iffy about the grammar in that title). This event will be webcast here. Things are bound to get heated on 21 September when the topic for discussion will be 'Too posh to push?' on the role of elective caeareans in childbirth. If it all sounds a bit heavy, some light relief is scheduled on 28 September, 19.00, when Y Touring Theatre presents a play about memory called 'Mind the Gap'. On 29 September, 18.30, Full Beam Visual Theatre are putting on 'The Man Who Discovered That Women Lay Eggs' billed as the 'epic and comic story of how man finally unravelled the truth about his own origins in 1827'.

Over at the Royal Institution, in the hallowed Faraday lecture theatre, there are also a number of events that look interesting. On 27 September, 19.00, there is a lecture rather unimaginatively entitled, 'Processing of visual information' by Michael Brady and VS Ramachandran. There is a talk on 'Perspectives on our ageing world' on 29 September at 19.00. Worth booking tickets for in advance, I suspect, is 'Anatomy for the terrified!!!' by Susie Whiten on 11 October at 19.00. An 'evening of wonder' is promised. Can it live up to all those exclamation marks without being puerile or patronising? Tickets for all RI events cost £8 (concessions £5).

The Hunterian Museum, London, is running an autumn lecture series called 'Surgeons at War: Trafalgar to Tikrit'. It includes talks on medicine and surgery in the Crimea, plastic surgery after the WWII, and life in a field hospital. On 28 September, 18.30, there is a free talk by Fiona MacNeill, 'Breasts Laid Bare', 'iconography and history of breasts and the treatment of breast cancer through the ages'.

On in Edinburgh at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 27 November, is an exhibition 'The Healing Touch' which examines the role of Scottish men and women in medicine. It coincides with the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Shown here is Johann Zoffany's painting, 'William Hunter lecturing at the Royal Academy'.

As usual, if anyone makes it to one of these events, we'd love to hear about it.

When You Cure Me

The Bush Theatre is running a 'Tainted Love' season this autumn and one of the featured plays is called 'When You Cure Me' by Jack Thorne, directed by Mike Bradwell. It runs from the 16th November - 17 December 2005, tickets are £14 (£9.50 for students).

The blurb says: "Rachel and Peter have been going out for 6 months. Then Rachel gets ill. She doesn't want her mum to fuss, she doesn't want Alice to be her new best friend, and she certainly doesn't want James to tell bad jokes. The only person she wants is Peter. Peter doesn't know what he wants, but he thinks he can make her better again. When You Cure Me is a bittersweet tale of love and misunderstanding, and discovering that what we say and do can be different from what we think and feel."

A possibility for our arts-based outing for the Purple Coat Club?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Heart-felt dance

'Amu' is a dance work devoted to the heart. Created by Random Dance, it's premiering at Sadler's Wells. It was created in collaboration with heart-imaging specialists. Performances take place at 7.30 pm, from 15 to 17 September. Click here for more information. I am tempted to go, if only to see if it lives up to the promise, made in the billing, of 'questioning both the physical functions and symbolic resonances of the human heart'. As far as I know the physical function of the heart has beyond question for a considerable time, but I'm always happy to be proved wrong!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Before I Say Goodbye - Review

I did well to save my first tear until page 82 of this short (116 page) book. A beautiful yet terrible précis of the last few months of journalist Ruth Picardie's life, her strong sense of bravado and utter acceptance of her death mark it a unique read; moving, funny, awfully sad.

The book starts out as a collection of Ruth's e-mails to friends, and their responses. Gradually these become interspersed with Ruth's column in the 'Life' supplement of The Observer, which chronicles her cancer experiences in a brief, punchy style. With a surprising audacity she tackles issues of enormous emotional importance, capturing the whirlwind nature of her illness; discovery, chaotic spread, failure of both conventional and unconventional treatments, complications, the idea of her own death.

Abruptly, her column becomes a shadow of the strong, forthright memoir we are accustomed to: we learn that Ruth has in fact been admitted to a hospice. All the while we have been thriving from the strength of her column - the seeming invincibility means that we never really believed it was so bad. But it was. Then the shock hits - she is intractably ill and the column is no more. Indeed, her sister Justine closes the column in the final entry, explaining the turn of events.

After the first column, various letters from Ruth's readers are included in the book. In general, most write to share their own experience of cancer and to impart some morsel of advice or simply to lend their support. They focus on Ruth's dilemma of leaving her twin toddlers - how to create a lasting memory of their mother, who had been ill with cancer for half of their lives. The letters are immensely moving and poignant; most of those that pen them seem afraid that Ruth might find them too mushy, but as readers we are quite sure she valued and embraced every one.

Justine writes the final 'Before I Say Goodbye' column. Ruth has died, earlier than expected. But her last few emails were not the brazen, self-deprecant humour of the past; instead brief poorly punctuated messages - the decline is clear.

The book ends with a chapter by Matt Seaton, Ruth's partner and 'coparent'. He frankly discusses the unfortunate complications Ruth suffered before her death - her brain metastases involved her frontal lobe, meaning she experienced confusion, aggression, a lack of inhibition, and became stuck in repetitive thought cycles. We realise how attached we have become to Ruth, simply from reading her emails, as we witness her spiralling descent towards the inevitable end.

The book closes on Matt's handling of the end. He acts in a way some might perceive to be a little coarse - deciding not to be present at the moment of Ruth's death, and to take the twins to the hospice to see their mother's body - but I certainly sympathised with his logic. He believed the twins would not have a definitive idea that their mother was dead without the tangible concept of death via a corpse. A little raw perhaps, but conceivably important for Ruth to live on in her children's young minds.

The letters Ruth writes to her children are included in the book, as scanned copies. This is very powerful - the handwriting is so much more personal than the book's e-mail typeface, and her crossings-out and insertions are unedited. The letters are dear and bittersweet, and although there are hints of Ruth's mental involvement, they are example of pure maternal devotion and love.

I heartily recommend this book for its wonderful insight into a tragic world. It is a brief read that is more inspirational than depressing and makes one consider death in a different light. 10 pence from every copy goes to The Lavender Trust, a charity set up by Ruth Picardie and Beth Wagstaff to provide better support for breast cancer sufferers, something that Ruth felt lacking in her experiences. An important book.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Foetus Snatcher

Channel 4 is currently running a 'Psycho' season and on Tuesday 6th September will be broadcasting 'The Foetus Snatcher' at 10pm, a documentary about the phenomenon of women who steal unborn children from their mothers.

The write-up in The Telegraph's Televison and Radio supplement tells of a near-term mother who was strangled with her foetal heart monitor cord, subjected to a crude caesarean - her attacker using car keys and biting through the umbilical cord - and left dead, with her living baby taken. There have since been several similar instances in the States.

It will be interesting to see how such a topic is handled by Channel 4, who have produced some high quality health-related documentaries recently. Review to follow.

Although I didn't manage to catch it, also in the series was The Sperminator on Tuesday 30th August, also at 10pm. This documentary dealt with a cowboy fertility doctor who provided his own semen samples to his unwitting patients and is believed to have fathered 75 children in this way. Unbelievably, he is also apparently the doctor to have pioneered amniocentesis, a procedure where amniotic fluid is sample as a diagnostic procedure during pregnancy.

All in all 'The Psycho' season seems worth watching, if you can abide the grisly nature of the topics handled. Did anyone else catch any others in the series?

The Curious Incident of the Alternative Review

I found this review of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' by Mark Haddon today in the student BMJ, written by an Imperial Medic colleague named David Ellis back in February 2004.

It relates to my original post in June about C4's 'Make Me Normal' programme in their 'Only Human' season, about a school for autistic children.