Archives for the month of: March, 2013

This was the question posed at Cafe Scientifique, at The Royal Society tonight.

The speaker was Dr Matthew Piper, from the Institute of Healthy Ageing, University College London, who initially spoke about his research, which was then followed by an open discussion with questions.

Dr Piper’s research focuses primarily on the effects of nutrition on healthy ageing. First, he gave us a very comprehensive, and understandable, overview of where the hypothesis for his work originated.

The process of biological ageing appears to result from the (complex) interaction between our genes and our environment. Manipulation of environmental factors, although intuitive (for example lifestyle and cigarette smoking), does not appear to consistently influence longevity, and it seems increasingly more likely that genetic predisposition is the key. In 1977, a study in worms first demonstrated that a specific genetic mutation increased lifespan.

Research since then suggests that levels of insulin signalling seem to influence the process of ageing. The most accessible and realistic way of advantageously influencing these levels is through dietary intervention, specifically caloric restriction (it also appears that protein restriction is beneficial, but this may be specific to some amino acids, the details of which are currently unclear). Thus diets, such as the currently popular 5/2 diet (five days normal eating, two days restricted eating/fasting) that cut back significantly on caloric intake appear to turn off pathways when you do not need them (this applies to adults only, not children). A small amount of nutrients then appears to maximise the efficiency of the signalling pathways, without overloading them.

This, my reductionist summary, appears to be the scientific basis to current research that explores the biological causes of ageing, rather than ageing itself. The rationale appears to be that an understanding of the biology will help, not the symptoms of ageing per se, but the illnesses that partly, but not inevitably, define the process.

The science is fascinating, and I suspect I was not alone in the audience as I considered what I can do to positively influence my own ageing process…

However, I do have an issue with the medicalisation of ageing. To me, it is a natural and inevitable part of living beyond a certain biological age. Tonight I was confused at times as to whether we were talking about longevity (and I am not convinced of the value of this) or about ultimately decreasing age-related morbidity. Little was mentioned about quality of life.

I also worry that, given the fact that the elderly often feel invisible and neglected in society today, turning our attention to increasing lifespan may distract us from the non-medical issues that face our ageing population, such as isolation and social vulnerability (

My question following tonight’s most fascinating discussion is not whether growing old is an illness. Instead, I turn to the issue of increasing our lifespan, and question why that might be a good thing…


I have been acquainted with the artist Susan Aldworth’s work for some time, originally through her exploration of the nature of consciousness in Scribing The Soul.

Scribing The Soul (2008) was triggered by Aldworth’s experience of having a brain scan in 1999. Observing her brain ‘live’ on a monitor fascinated her: ‘You are seeing the inside of your brain with your brain…But where is the ‘me’ in all this? Since then, the artist has collaborated with doctors, neuroscientists, neuropsychologists and other artists, exploring the relationship between our physical brain and our sense of self.

The current exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery is titled The Portrait Anatomised, and presents portraits that may at first appear out of place amongst the other more ‘traditional’ portraits on display.

The exhibition consists of three works (which actually felt just the right number, as there is so much to consider in each) that were produced as part of a commission for Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital. The portraits are those of three individuals with epilepsy, Max, Elisabeth and Fiona.

As with her previous work, Aldworth here again questions the relationship between mind and body. The works contain adapted images from scans and EEGs, but also include images of the bodily self, thus combining elements of the physical workings of the brain (in this case those of someone with epilepsy), with more classical notions of portraiture.


Susan Aldworth, Fiona, 2012, monotype installation, 210 x 180cm. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London


Susan Aldworth, Elisabeth (detail 1), 2012, monotype installation. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London


Susan Aldworth, Fiona (detail 5), 2012, monotype installation. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London


Susan Aldworth, Fiona (detail 6), 2012, monotype installation. Photograph Peter Abraham. Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art, London

One person in a hundred suffers from epilepsy in the UK. Yet it remains a hidden condition, with sufferers often stigmatised, and thereby feeling alienated and isolated.

I have always been fascinated by portraits, by what we see when we see the other, and ourselves, and what it might say, or not, about who we really are. Portraits traditionally depict the face, and facial expression, which is undoubtedly the first thing you ‘see’ when encountering the other. But we are also more than this, which Aldworth’s work so beautifully challenges us to consider. As humans, we can share much with the other, yet as individuals it is often difficult to be truly seen. Even more so if one is afflicted by conditions such as epilepsy, which can so easily deflect and distract from the totality of the self.

Aldworth’s work challenges us to look at the individual as a whole, and thereby points to a much more meaningful notion of portraiture and how it can be presented to others. Her work, as always, leaves much to reflect on, not least who ‘I’ am, how might ‘I’ be depicted, and ultimately seen…


… and it has been difficult to choose just one poem to share.

Individual poems help me to pinpoint where I am at a certain time in my life, speaking to, and echoing, that which eludes my own self-expression.

The poem currently in my head and thoughts is one by Michael Gorman. It resonates much with my experience of growing up in Ireland.

From The People I Grew Up With Were Afraid:

‘The people I grew up with were afraid,

They were alone too long in waiting-rooms,

in dispensaries and in offices whose functions

they did not understand.’

‘And what were they afraid of? Rent

collectors, rate collectors, insurance men.

things to do with money. But,

especially of their vengeful God.’

It ends:

‘Our mother’s factory pay-packet

is sitting in the kitchen press

and our father, without

humour or relief, is

waiting for the sky to fall.’

This is why I so love poetry and so need it constantly in my life.

It succeeds in finding words to express my feelings and experiences, particularly where my own voice has failed me.


In 2011, Susan Spencer-Wendel, a journalist and mother of three young children, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given a prognosis of 3 to 5 years ( As her disease progressed, she has chosen to spend her time making the most of every moment. She made a list of things she wanted to do, including trips with each of the people she loves. She has now written a book, Until I Say Good-bye, which procured an advance of $2m, plus film rights for a further $2m, and which has facilitated achieving most of her goals thus far, as well as allowing her husband to give up his job and look after her.

Even now, as she becomes increasingly incapacitated and dependent, she continues to ‘do’, and to live.

People deal very differently with the fact that death is going to happen much sooner that they had anticipated. We are all going to die, but mostly we live our lives denying this. Faced with a life-threatening illness and no hope of cure, there seems to be a spectrum of coping strategies. At one end of the continuum are those who ‘make the most’ of what time is left. At the other end are those who socially die at diagnosis. Perhaps the majority lie somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong as to how we deal with our dying, although how we ‘manage’ it does have an impact on those left behind. Susan Spence-Wendel’s husband made an interesting observation:

“It may sound strange, but living with joy isn’t easy. It’s hard. You make your decisions about how you approach things. Susan works at being happy.’

On the flip side, it is also very difficult to witness the unsharable suffering of those who socially die well before physical death.

I believe that how we have lived our lives reflects how we live our dying. and pretty much determines how we deal with the knowledge that death is at once undeniable and soon.


My name translates, from Latin, into ‘dove’, a symbol of peace.

As a pacifist brought up in an Ireland that lived in the shadow of ‘The Troubles’, I grew to accommodate, even respect, my name (which was difficult at times, as it was ‘unusual’, often misspelt, and frequently a hindrance), mainly because of its symbolism.

Not so long ago, I embraced both my name and its connotations by getting a tattoo. Written and drawn on skin, I am proud of the work of art created, a dove in flight, wings outstretched, an olive branch in its beak.

Today, I came across a poem in the The New Yorker, titled The Dove, by Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by Bernard Horn:

‘The dove brought news

of the end of the flood, an olive leaf

in her mouth, like a man holding a letter

in his mouth as he searches for something

with both hands

or like a girl holding pins

in her mouth as she repairs her dress.’

I love this, it so encapsulates the power of poetry to just say, and to just say so succinctly and so beautifully.


I really enjoyed Barry’s earlier novel The Secret Scripture, although I was a little taken aback by the final denouement, which felt a little contrived, and unnecessary. The book had been magical up to that point.

Nonetheless, I eagerly began On Canaan’s Side this week, and finished it within very few days. Barry’s prose is seductive and addictive, creating a narrative that you do not want to leave.

Similar to The Secret Scripture, On Canaan’s Side has an elderly Irish woman as the main protagonist. In both, she looks back and tells her story. There the similarities pretty much end, and I did not feel that Barry was regurgitating a trope.

Like Colm Toibin (particularly in Brooklyn), Barry writes so sympathetically and impressively from a female perspective.

On Canaan’s Side opens with:

‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.’

Lilly’s story is that of a life beset and consumed by tragedy, and there is little in terms of redemption or relief from sadness throughout. As such, it is very much an ‘Irish book’. We are good at tragedy, and On Canaan’s Side does feel authentic, from this, but not only this, perspective.

Barry writes beautifully, and there are very many sentences and phrases throughout that make you stop, and consider:

‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’

Tragedy begins early for Lilly, as she remembers events from almost 80 years earlier, when growing up in Ireland:

‘The grief at first sat in us, and then leaked out into the chairs, and at last into the very walls and sat in the mortar.’

The memories of those times, the almost palpable grief, never leave Lilly, shadowing her life throughout:

‘We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.’

I was intrigued by Lilly’s assessment of her doctor, Dr Earnshaw. This is a discussion for another day, perhaps:

‘But he is very austere, and depressed-looking, and he never smiles. You can have confidence in a man like that, though, in the manner of doctoring.’

Lilly leaves Ireland, settling in America, where she initially spends much time lost and alone ‘a prisoner in the open asylum of the world.’ Her best possession at that point, she reflects, was her youth, ‘but that of course was invisible to me.’

Despite the tragedy and sorrow that follow Lilly throughout her long life, this is not a book of sadness. Uplifting perhaps not, but very real and believable, and in its own way life affirming. Similar to The Secret Scripture, I was unsure about the denouement. But I had already loved the book, and Lilly, at that point, and there was no going back. It is more of a mild niggle…

Life, loss, love, grief, tragedy, remembering and memory are all the stuff of life, and so it seems of Barry’s fiction-yet-real novels:

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.’


Susan Hiller’s work has long intrigued me, particularly The J. Street Project, in which the artist sought out and photographed all street signs that incorporated the word Jude (Jew) in Germany, finding a total of 303. The work has been described as an ‘expedition into the heartland of loss’ (

In the introduction to The J. Street Project, Hiller states that ‘All my work deals with ghosts.’

This rings especially true on visiting Hiller’s current exhibition Channels.


An audio-sculptural installation, Channels is comprised of TV screens, very many screens, stacked on top of each other, displaying mostly monochrome blue or brown colours, occasionally interrupted by static or flickering lines.

I sat at the other end of the large white space, initially observing the silent though changing screens. Voices then enter the space, many voices, all speaking at the same time, and in different languages, so that it is almost impossible to decipher the words.

The ‘disembodied voices’ are those of people from all over the world as they recount their ‘near-death’ experiences (NDEs).

The whole effect is very powerful, not in the sense that it made me consider NDEs in any depth (I have no idea what I feel about them, but whatever anyone experiences must be ‘true’, for them, in some way).

What I really value in Hiller’s work, and particularly in Channels, is how she attempts to address issues that we do not understand and therefore often choose to ignore or to dismiss. What I also respect, is how she, like the best documentarists, remains in the background so to speak, allowing her art to facilitate the expression of words and experiences of those who may not otherwise be heard.


I love happening upon something or someone in the world of art that I have never encountered before.
Living in London facilitates such creative discoveries…
Such was my experience today, when I visited The Jewish Museum, which I have visited on a number of occasions. This time, I set out specifically to explore the life and art of RB Kitaj.

The current exhibition, ‘The Art of Identity’, runs in parallel with ‘Analyst for Our Time’ at Pallant House Chichester, both together constituting the ‘R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions’ retrospective.

Kitaj’s work was last seen in London in 1994, when the Tate Gallery held a large retrospective of the artist’s work. The event was one that the artist believed would be the pinnacle of his career, his crowning glory, but instead, art critics almost universally slammed it, apparently with much vitriol at the time.

Kitaj was deeply hurt and incensed by the reaction the exhibition generated, but matters only got worse when his beloved wife Sandra Fisher died from a brain aneurysm two weeks after the Tate exhibition ended. The artist blamed the critics and the press for her death: ‘They were aiming for me, but they got her instead.’

As a result, Kitaj abandoned his adopted England in 1997, and settled in Los Angeles.

He never recovered from Fisher’s death. A photograph in the foyer of the exhibition area of Kitaj and Fisher is palpably tender and moving. Kitaj’s first wife committed suicide, leaving him with two children. With Fisher, he had a third child, Max, who was 10 when his mother died.

In LA, Kitaj surrounded himself with his sons and later grandsons, but otherwise became increasingly reclusive as he aged.

With age too, he became preoccupied by his deteriorating health. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease. and his frailty and consequent difficulty painting affected him profoundly. He was found dead in 2007, with suicide the presumed cause of death.

The current exhibition at The Jewish Museum looks at Kitaj’s obsession with his Jewish identity. He grew up in a left-wing intellectual home, with his mother Jeanne Brooks and stepfather Walter Kitaj. Neither practiced Judaism. Kitaj’s interest in his Jewish identity began in the 1970s, when he had read Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial.

Included in the current exhibition is Desk Murder (1970-1984), which appears to have been influenced by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, where the author coined the term ‘desk murderer’ for the SS officer Walther Rauff who was responsible for the development of mobile gas vans. In Kitaj’s painting, the outline takes the shape of a van, and features a tap with a cloud of gas streaming from it.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote his First Diasporist Manifesto, in which he laid out his theory of a Diasporic existence, ‘bound by neither national not religious constraints’ (from the accompanying exhibition notes). Also included in the exhibition is a quote from the manifesto:

‘After almost a

lifetime as a painter,

my painting thoughts

begin to dwell

on whether or not

the Jews are a nation,

or a state of mind.’

The Second Diasporist Manifesto was published a week after Kitaj’s death in 2007:

‘The Jewish Quest is my


my romance, my neurosis,

my war, my pleasure-principle,

my death drive.’

The exhibition is small and contained, yet there is much to consider here, from The Listener, which metaphorically depicts the Diasporist Jew, to The Wedding, reminiscent of his marriage to Fisher in a Sephardic Synagogue. I particularly liked some of the portraits of the artist’s friends, for example A Jew in Love (Philip Roth), a charcoal drawing of Kitaj’s writer friend, and Isaiah Berlin.

I am not sure I understand much more about Kitaj and his work following my visit, but perhaps the point is not to explain, but to experience what is presented before one’s eyes, and to let the art speak for itself.


This stimulating and thought provoking evening was presented by Poet in the City in collaboration with Medicine Unboxed.

I had not previously come across Medicine Unboxed, which ‘explores a view of medicine that exceeds the technical: one elaborated by the arts, philosophy and the imagination as much as science, and one that insists on care and human understanding as much as treatment’ ( I will certainly follow their activities from now on.

The session was chaired by Dr Sam Guglani, a clinical oncologist and curator of Medicine Unboxed. The panel consisted of poets Jo Shapcott, Jane Draycott and John Burnside, and Dame Sheila Hollins, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry of Disability.

I have thought much about the evening, both the poetry, the discussions that took place, and the questions that arose from the audience.

What impressed me most was the wide ranging and ambitious directions the discourse took. Narrative Medicine, Medical Humanities, and other such disciplines, have become much more familiar today, and I embrace them and what they do. Yet I also wonder whether discussions on poetry and medicine, or arts and the experience of illness, need to spend time outside their institutions too, within a broader context of empathy and compassion within society as a whole. Idealistically perhaps, I believe that this is the only way we can alleviate the isolation and loneliness of those who are ill, and who suddenly find themselves resident in another world.

I therefore welcomed the emphasis John Burnside placed on our compassion towards animals, as to all living creatures, which we increasingly erode.

I have been wondering whether compassion is strictly intuitive, innate, or whether it can be ‘taught’. I have also wondered whether you have to personally experience suffering in order to be compassionate, and as a corollary, to be capable of empathy.

I would have hoped not, but I am not so sure. I do believe, that to be alive is to suffer, not in any penitential sense, but the very nature of existing necessitates a suffering of sorts, to a greater or lesser extent, which of course applies to health care professionals as much as it does to everyone else. Whether this suffering is acknowledged and ‘felt’ perhaps separates the compassionate from the (apparently) non compassionate.

I enjoyed last night’s session very much at the time, and in its aftermath, there is much to reflect on, and to consider.


A friend gave me this poetry collection some time ago, and I have been dipping into it a lot of late. I had not heard of Timothy Donnelly before (he is poetry editor for Boston Review), and as I read more and more of his work, I find that it creeps further and further into my sensibility, settling in some recess of my psyche where I return to it again, and again, and again.

Powerful and apposite, Donnelly’s work resonates much with my own experience of life and living.

Below is an excerpt from one poem, No Diary, from The Cloud Corporation:

Through the chinks of the trap door / what we call life

presents itself as a kind of task, namely that of acquiring

amid all the horrors / more of itself, but as this task is

undertaken, stepping out from its shadow, there appears

a few minutes later / another, more difficult task, namely

that of distracting one’s thoughts from the burden of

at every moment / that which one has striven to acquire.’

I am so so grateful to have been introduced to Timothy Donnelly’s work.

Thank you E…