Archives for the month of: July, 2013

I like this, from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

The Greeter

He’s not the Reaper, but he does stop by

To say, to everything that’s ever lived, “Nice try.”

Robert N. Watson

I first came across the writer and medic Gabriel Weston when I read her debut book and memoir Direct Red (2009), which won the PEN/Ackerly Prize for Autobiography. I liked it. Weston’s personal account of the challenges of balancing clinical committment in a morally ambiguous (male) world resonated strongly for me.

Weston’s current book is also her first work of fiction. However, with the scenario remaining firmly within the world of medicine, the workings of a medical mind behind the pen of Dirty Work were apparent throughout. Clinical moral dilemmas remain pervasive in the novel, specifically in this case that of doctors performing abortions.

I enjoyed the experience of reading Dirty Work, particularly when Weston’s medical background facilitates thought-provoking reflections:

‘A good doctor needs to know how to spin a yarn. That’s what they teach you at medical school, though no one ever says it in so many words… They call it history-taking, this supposedly neutral process in which a patient and doctor collaborate to weave a shape out of what’s gone wrong. They make it sound straightforward.’

Weston continues to consider how, as doctors ‘take the history’, they encourage patients to dwell specifically and exclusively on symptoms, ‘ignoring the white noise of emotion’.

‘The doctor is rewriting the patient’s story while seeming only to bear witness to it.’

A mistake, a clinical error, results in suspension for the female medical protagonist, who is subsequently investigated by the hospital Fitness-To-Practise committee. The novel follows her throughout the three week questioning period, and witnesses her change of attitude towards medicine in general, as well as the part she herself plays within the field.

She learns much about herself throughout this process, and concludes:

‘I have done much worse than not articulating the particularities of my own experience. I have been deaf to those of my patients.’

‘What a doctor needs…is a quiet appetite for truth.’

I enjoyed the experience of reading this book (an experience that reminded me of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard, perhaps the not dissimilar themes of female protagonist, career woman, moral dilemma, ‘perfect’ life going astray…).

The plot went a little off track for me towards the end. The ending itself left me dissatisfied, and brought to mind something I heard the film director Mike Figgis say recently. Figgis deliberately chooses open-endedness in his films, this sense of not being finished or closed allowing viewers to create their own conclusions. Whenever he reads a book, he stops 20 pages or so before the end, as most imposed closures ultimately disappoint. I can relate to this. The ending in Dirty Work was not a ‘bad’ one. It just left me a little disappointed, and flat.

It will be interesting to see where Weston’s writing heads from here. To date, her medical background informs the content of her books. Whether she will stick to this theme or whether she will explore other literary terrains, remains to be seen.

CQ

I often reflect on how grey most of the stuff of life and living is, and I certainly have tried to impress on my teenage daughter that life is less black and white that we think it is, or need it to be.

I just came across a poem, Black and White by Jean Bleakney, which has prompted me to reconsider my stance:

‘Facing up to the truth of shooting stars

– that the earth is a whirling medieval flail,

making fire and dust of tiny remnant worlds –

is a terrible flicker

of how the black-and-white of things

can sometimes leave us inconsolable.’

Perhaps the need for a world that is grey, and softer in its muted tones, is merely my own personal desire, rather than the actuality of how things really are…

CQ

I saw this tonight, and really enjoyed it. Even though the subject matter – illness, death, difficult relationships, loss – may appear ‘heavy’, I am glad I experienced it.

Melanie Spencer’s play is not perfect – it felt slightly too long and would have benefitted from deleting some scenes – but it effectively deals with very tricky life events imaginatively, sensitively, and with an appropriate, and important, dose of humour.

Daisy is almost 16. She is off school in her GCSE year, as she has recently been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus). She lives with her dad, Peter. Her mum died from cancer just 18 months earlier.

Much of the play focuses on the relationship between Daisy and her dad, which is mostly fractious and involves much shouting (and non-listening) and storming out scenes. Peter still grieves for his wife. Daisy feels not understood by her dad.

Daisy’s best friend Alice loyally visits her pal regularly at home, updating her on school work and on school gossip. Theirs is an affecting and touching relationship, which holds much that feels real and raw, and full of teenage-appropriate angst.

As Daisy embarks on a course of low dose chemotherapy treatment, her dad calls on his wife’s sister Diana for help. Struggling to make ends meet, he cannot take the time off from work to accompany Daisy on her hospital visits. Diana, who appears to have had some mental health issues, is initially reluctant, but rises to the occasion, and ultimately thrives on this new challenge, and purpose, in her life.

There are many issues here, including serious illness, death of a parent/spouse, grieving, loss, mental illness, and not least, the challenges that teenagers face, which are so greatly enhanced by the arrival of serious illness.

I particularly loved the ending. It was open-ended enough to allow you to consider and to personally reflect on much of the stuff you had experienced, but also poignant and touching, and importantly spotlighted on teenagers, whose story it ultimately is…

CQ

Whenever I get the chance, I seek out whatever London culturally has to offer. And there is always so much, way more than I can get to see and to experience.

Here are some of my cultural highlights from the past week, both within London and beyond…

Film

The London Mexican Film Festival

I had a day pass over the weekend, and saw two amazing films. Parts of a Family tells the story of the director Diego Gutierrez’ parents’ marriage, how it imprisoned both his mother and his father, and how love died within the constraints of a bond that began so positively and optimistically, yet ultimately became so destructive. An honest, brave and tragic portrayal of life, love, and loss.

The second film was Three Voices, the finale of the festival, a documentary about three women of three different generations, who share their personal stories of life, love and relationships honestly and unflinchingly. Glorious.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams

This film, originally released in 2006, follows the struggles of a single mother and her teenage daughter in the aftermath of the Balkan war. Another raw and real reflection of living and suffering, yet this is not a despondent experience, but a redemptive and hopeful one. I loved it.

Theatre

Conor McPherson’s latest play The Night Alive is currently showing at The Donmar Warehouse. Like much of McPherson’s earlier work, this piece also focuses on the plight of the lonely Irish male. The acting is superb, particularly but not exclusively Ciaran Hinds, yet I was less involved than I expected to be. The play felt a little too long and the plot seemed to unnecessarily complicate. Nonetheless, I recommend.

Books

Claude Gallay’s novel The Breakers was first published in 2011. This is a book that exudes loss, constantly alluding to it, yet also never truly declaring itself. An enigmatic piece, I was seduced by it, increasingly so as I became less impatient with the pace and allowed myself to move synchronously with what it chose to deliver.

CQ

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I saw this play in the lovely Arcola Theatre in Dalston over the weekend.

With just two characters, the piece is about a marriage, about all marriages perhaps, and how fragile and precarious their survival can be.

I loved it. It is about words, those spoken and often misunderstood, and the unspoken, which can be equally treacherous.

In the end, it is about humanness, and our innate potential to reach out to those we truly care for.

CQ