Archives for the month of: December, 2012

… died suddenly over the Christmas period.

I had not realised until today.

I so love his work, and will return to it in more detail at a later stage.

I quoted from his poem Life in my last blog.

Now, I leave you with more of his words, from Nocturne:

‘Time for sleep. Time for a nightcap of grave music,

a dark nocturne, a late quartet, a parting song,

bequeathed by the great dead in perpetuity.’


I recently saw Paul Cox’s film The Life and Death of Van Gogh, and during my reading around the director I came across his memoir Tales From The Cancer Ward.

In February 2009, Cox first developed symptoms that quickly led to a diagnosis of liver cancer, for which the only possible hope of cure was a liver transplant. Tales From The Cancer Ward is a diary-like account of Cox’s experience of his illness and of living a waiting life on a transplant list.

The initial part of the memoir was written retrospectively. Cox then recorded events and his thoughts as they happened:

‘There might not be a final page, but I can’t let all this happen to me without doing something constructive.’

He also used the new world in which he found himself as an opportunity for self-exploration:

‘I have been trying to unwind the clock, to find the very core of my being. To find out who I really am.’

Cox is a shrewd observer of himself, and of others. When speaking of the medical consultation at the time of diagnosis he comments:

‘There was no eye contact, which worried me more than all the potential bad news.’

I have mentioned before how serious illness can sometimes heighten, even enhance, the experience of living, as reported for example by Dennis Potter and Philip Gould. Cox had a similar experience, as if ‘another dimension has been added.’ From his ‘newly acquired vulnerability and raw emotional state’ he began to respond to others differently, and became much more responsive to their kindness. He also acknowledges the importance of love in his life:

‘I’m still here because I probably started to love more.’

Cancer, once diagnosed, is always there and present:

‘It has become my constant companion.’

‘It’s hard to escape the thought of cancer and that creeping sense of loss.’

He struggled with the side effects of chemotherapy and, like Christopher Hitchens, wondered at the time if the treatment was in fact worth it:

‘I become convinced that if you have to live like this to keep yourself alive, it’s better to have no treatment.’

Of one medical encounter Cox comments:

‘He is not as knowledgeable as the experts but more human.

It’s humanity, warmth and tenderness I need more than expert advice at this point.’

Yet, humanity does not necessarily involve tears:

‘As I say to others who tend to cry over me – your tears are of no use to me.’

Tales From The Cancer Ward is about more than illness. It is also a political book, and Cox shares many of his passionate and strongly held views. He believes, for example, that ‘artists must protest’, as he is convinced that they have within them the power to change the world.

For Cox, ‘Life isn’t merely for living, but what we live for.’ For Cox too, this purpose lies through art. He quotes Oscar Wilde:

‘When I get out of prison, the only people I would to be with are artists and people who have suffered. Those who know what beauty is and those who know what sorrow is.’

He speaks openly of fear, the fear of losing his life, and of the force that makes us cling to life, and our refusal to accept mortality.

I thought of a poem I recently came across, Life by Dennis O’Driscoll:

‘Life gives

us something

to live for:

we will do

whatever it takes

to make it last.’

Tales From The Cancer Ward also contains many of Cox’s dreams, which he reports in some detail. For him, dreaming is ‘the most powerful religion of them all.’

Cox’s memoir depicts the author’s personal attempt find out who he is, to get to the core of himself, in the midst of crisis, as well as a seeing and contemplating of what he has personally learnt as he tries to create a reality out of the unreality that surrounds him.

Post transplant, and well, his final words are:

‘Life is beautiful’


It feels appropriate to return to Munch as we approach 2013, the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

Munch has dominated the arts world for much of this year, and he has been in the news again this week (

Apparently the artist, despite wide acclaim globally and record numbers this year viewing his iconic work The Scream, is less acclaimed in his native Norway.

Munch bequeathed much of his work to the city of Oslo. There has been a dedicated museum in the city since the 1940s, but one which attracts relatively few visitors, despite housing two versions of The Scream. There have been plans to build a more appropriate setting for the artist’s work, but as yet none of the plans have come to fruition.

The house that Munch bequeathed to the city of Oslo has since been demolished.

Perhaps 2013 will witness a resurgence of interest in the life and works of the artist in his homeland…


I like this, from the poet Galway Kinnell:


Whatever happens. Whatever

what is is what

I want. Only that. But that.

[From Soul Food: Nourishing Food For Starved Minds, Astley & Robertson-Pearce (eds), Bloodaxe Books, 2007]


I missed this play first time round as it very quickly sold out. I was therefore determined to catch it during the current run. It was predictably wonderful.

The play, by Hattie Naylor in collaboration with Sound&Fury, is solo performed by John Mackay as Max, an astronomer who develops Retinitis Pigmentosa, which initially affects peripheral vision and eventually leads to blindness.

We are led into the auditorium in almost complete darkness, and the opening minutes of the play take place in pitch blackness. It was an extraordinary experience, and I have no idea how it was achieved. The darkness, the ‘non-seeing’ felt so absolute that whether you shut your eyes or kept them open, the experience was the same. I initially found this scary, even a little panicky, and almost claustrophic (it was a very packed auditorium), but when we were again immersed in complete darkness later in the play, it felt much less threatening

Perhaps at that point we had, at least to some extent, empathically entered Max’s increasingly dark world. As an astronomer, his life had centred around big cosmic questions, and the play contains many interesting thoughts on what considerations of the night sky might reveal about our place in the universe.
Sound&Fury’s first show, War Music, was staged in total darkness. The company’s work primarily focuses on the effects of sense deprivation. Thus, by immersing us, the audience, in this instance into blackness, the possibility of ‘seeing’ in a different way is created.
The two main questions at the core of Going Dark are ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘what in fact is our reality, our notion of existing?’

Big, and unanswerable, questions, and Going Dark does not attempt to provide the answers. However, the play, and Sound&Fury in general, powerfully challenge us to consider these imponderables with innovative, unique and exhilarating theatre.


The timing of this release, which deals with the awfulness of alcohol excess and alcoholism, is perhaps no accident.

It is a great film, shocking and tragic at times, but also moving and ultimately uplifting.

The story revolves around a young married couple, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fabulous, and such a challenging role) and Charlie (Aaron Paul), who appear to have a great and fun time together, albeit mostly in a state of drunkenness.

Drinking too much ceases to be fun, and becomes scary and destructive for Kate, a primary school teacher, who starts vomiting in front of her pupils post binge. She also wets the bed. A kindly colleague introduces her to AA, and a road, of sorts, to recovery.

Getting rid of alcohol from Kate’s life throws other issues into sharp focus, particularly her marriage, which she had never before experienced sober.

The rest you will find out for yourself, when you experience this must-see film…

What I particularly admired was the film’s (and director James Ponsoldt’s) refusal to shirk away from portraying the shocking reality of the drunk alcoholic. At times it was difficult to watch Kate’s excruciating behaviour when drunk. This is not a pretty, or funny, or remotely endearing depiction. Just, almost unbearably, tragic.

Smashed makes no attempt to soften the reality of alcoholism. At the same time, it is neither maudlin nor overly sentimental. An almost perfect balance. It is a gem of an authentic, honest, thoughtful and considered movie on a very difficult condition that affects so many, both directly and indirectly.

As a work of art, it unifies humanness and suffering, while at the same time embracing the optimism and hope that drives us to make our lives honest and true and meaningful.


I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.


A self-portrait, which was partially destroyed by its creator, the Scottish artist Craigie Aitchison, has been bought by the National Portrait Gallery. (

The artist apparently slashed the work when a friend commented that the portrait was ‘flattering’. Aitchison was persuaded by Martin Wyld, Head of Conservation at the National Gallery, to allow restoration of the painting, yet at the same time retaining the laceration markings. The relined painting, with the slashings clearly visible, remained in the artist’s possession until his death in 2009.

Aitchison’s large body of work is very distinctive. He tended to zone in on specific elements, for example animals and birds, portraying them in ‘simplified’ depictions, which were vibrantly coloured.

He was particularly interested in the Crucifixion, which is the focus of many of his works. These paintings tend to focus on Christ on the Cross as the sole element in the piece, and, perhaps unusually, the colours remain vivid and bright, far from the sombre tones that more usually define works of art on this theme.

Aitchison viewed the Crucifixion as pivotal to human experience:

“The Crucifixion is the most horrific story I’ve ever heard,” he said. “They were all ganging up against one person. As long as the world exists one should attempt to record that. It was so unfair.” (


This play by Margaret Edson (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000) is a must read for anyone working, or considering working, in healthcare. Particularly, most particularly, doctors.

Edson, a school teacher, worked in a cancer and AIDS unit, an experience that inspired the play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.

The play does not feel like a work of fiction, and I guess it is probably more of a fact/fiction hybrid, as presumably the narrative was informed by many individual stories Edson encountered in real hospital life. I saw the TV adaptation of the play, with Emma Thompson in the main role, some years ago, which was extraordinary. Only recently have I read the play itself, twice as it deserves a re-read, there is so much to experience in just 55 pages. It is a deeply moving, and harrowing, literary work.

Vivian Bearing, a Donne specialist, is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. The play is set in a Cancer Centre, where Bearing is currently having chemotherapy. Flashbacks piece together her story, from diagnosis, and before, to ‘now’, the opening scene, which takes place just a few hours before her death.

She opens with her musings on how the ill are greeted:

‘I have been asked ‘How are you today?’ while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, ‘How are you today?’

This reminded me of John Berryman’s Dream Song 207:

‘ – How are you? – Fine, fine. (I have tears unshed,

There is here near the bottom of my chest

a loop of cold, on the right.

A thing hurts somewhere up left in my head.

I have a gang of old sins unconfessed.

I shovel out of sight

a many-ills else…)’

With some irony and a dark humour that to some extent define her personality and coping ability, Bearing concludes on the question ‘How are you?’ that doctors routinely, and often unthinkingly, ask:

‘I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.

I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.’

The humour continues (and we are only on page 2):

‘It is my not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.

They’ve given me less than two hours.’

Thus, from the very outset, we know where this story is heading… But the remaining minutes in Bearing’s life are so worth attending to, and witnessing. We are invited into a (at least partly unneccessarily) tragic story that powerfully highlights the gap between how doctors behave and deal with illness and what the experience of such illness might be for the sufferer.

We hear of words such as ‘insidious adenocarcinoma’, ‘primary adnexal mass’, which are dropped into the initial breaking bad news consultation. We share Bearing’s experience of the medical ‘Grand Round’, where ‘the patient’ is discussed in the third person (or merely as the condition from which they suffer), and is visible only in a medical sense.

Bearing is keenly aware how the doctors ‘anatomise’ her, armed with a ‘potent arsenal of terminology’, which is mostly incomprehensible.

Cancer and its treatment constitute a life mostly of awfulness:

‘I receive chemotherapy, throw up, am subjected to countless indignities, feel better, go home. Eight neat little strophes. Oh, there have been the usual variations, subplots, red herrings: hepatotoxicity (liver poison), neuropathy (nerve death).

But she survives the radical treatment, and indeed becomes a somewhat celebrity case:

‘I have survived eight treatments of Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity.’

And then, with insight and poignancy she observes:

‘But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries.’

It is this insight and knowing (and seeing-through the medical profession) that makes Bearing’s story feel, not just real, but authentic.

When pain becomes a major problem, and Bearing needs aggressive pain management to ‘stand it’, she comments:

”It’: such a little word. In this case, I think ‘it’ signifies ‘being alive’.

Donne provides a backdrop throughout. Bearing was an expert on the poet’s Holy Sonnets and her life had always been suffused and intricately linked with his words, words that now become acutely apposite:

‘Death be not proud, though some called thee

Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe.’

To mention Bearing’s death at the end does not indeed betray the plot. It is an important, and tragic, ending, which says so much about what is wrong with the whole business of how the voice of the ill is listened and attended to.


I went to see this film primarily as I was interested in how it portrayed mental illness. The experience of mental illness has often been skimpily and superficially dealt with in most fiction films, and so I was hoping for something deeper and more meaningful from this current release.

I was indeed entertained by the romantic, redemptive, uplifting storyline, where loves cures all (even crazy, which is not unusual in cinematic depictions of mental illness, for example Spellbound and Prince of Tides).

Undoubtedly, we need feel-good stuff in our lives.

But, and this is a significant ‘but’, I was not at all sure about the film’s depiction of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease.

Bipolar disease, or manic depression, can be devastating for the sufferer, albeit the severity of the condition varies from one individual to the next. What was reassuring in Silver Linings Playbook was to see those suffering from the condition leading a ‘normal’ life, which is certainly possible for many sufferers.

In the film, the sufferer Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, appears to be mainly affected by problems with anger management. We learn that his 8-month stay in a psychiatric hospital resulted from beating up his wife’s lover. Presumably this event alone did not lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disease, but we are kept in the dark as to what else defined his condition.

When he leaves hospital to live with his parents, we do see some (vaguely) manic episodes. Pat decides, for example, in an attempt to win back his wife, to read all the books on her teaching syllabus. Incensed by Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, he wakes his parents up at 4am to espouse on all that is wrong with the book, and eventually hurls the offending tome through a closed window. Anger, inappropriate behaviour, yes, but mental illness, bipolar disease? I am not so sure that this is necessarily so…

I was also perturbed by the comedy. In parts, the film is funny, and cleverly so. But I struggled with the humour in places, particularly where it felt like the audience was laughing at symptoms of bipolar disease, the acting out and inappropriate behaviour that mental illness can entail, and which also alienates and isolates sufferers in real life.

A further issue that bothered me was compliance with medication. Pat didn’t like how the pills made him feel, which is a very reasonable and common management problem. However, there is so much evidence that bipolar disease can be contained, even controlled, with appropriate treatment, and this was such a golden (and missed) opportunity to stress the importance of compliance.

I suspect that Pat did eventually take his medication on a regular basis, but in the end the film leaves one with the powerful sense that love, not medication and compliance, conquered mental illness.

So, overall, a missed opportunity I felt, as the portrayal of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease, is rarely the subject of mainstream cinema (and, interestingly, most of what we have to date originates from the US), and also the fact that the director David O Russell has such a way of winning over his audience, so much more could have been achieved. Most fiction films that deal with the topic of mental illness portray sufferers as victims in a melodrama (for example Splendour in the Grass (1961)). Documentaries and autobiographical works, for example The Devil and Daniel Johnston, are different, and often much more harrowing, and need to be explored as a separate entity.

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy, which is also billed as having mental illness within its core focus. Observing Pat’s journey and recovery through the film may serve in some way to de-stigmatise mental illness, but I suspect that many of those in the auditorium with me a couple of nights ago will remember it as a sweet and endearing romantic story, rather than as a melodrama that dealt with the real, and less immediately solvable, issues that underlie the experience of living with mental illness.