Archives for the month of: February, 2015

I recently travelled to Brighton to see this exhibition, a collaborative project led by Sussex NHS Community Trust

A Cancer Landscape presents works by the artist Michele Angelo Petrone, who died as a result of Hodgkin’s disease in 2007, as well as those by others personally affected by cancer that had been created during a series of workshops at ONCA in 2014. Images from the Wellcome Medical Photographic Library are also on display.

Petrone’s paintings are “images of the emotions and feelings experienced during the cancer journey”. The companion book, The Emotional Cancer Journey, includes the images on display as well as accompanying reflections and quotes from the artist. Petrone’s lymphoma diagnosis was made in 1994. Many years of intensive treatment and relapses ensued until his death 13 years later. The book, completed in 2003 when a relapse had just been confirmed, is an expression of Petrone’s experience of living with cancer:

“I have to tell you all about my journey of illness.”

“Illness and death may be familiar to you, But what is it really like when its your own illness? What is it really like when your life feels as if it’s being taken from you?”

The journey to where?

image1 (1)

“I don’t know where my life will take me”

Two intersecting elements dominate Petrone’s journey: the medical component and Petrone’s emotional response to his illness. His distinctive art movingly encapsulates this intertwining, for example the piece titled The pain of it all, which does indeed visually say it all:


Sorrow, loss, love, life’s fragility are amongst the themes covered by Petrone. The alienation that accompanies serious illness, when those affected are isolated from diagnosis in the kingdom of the ill, is dealt with in Life goes on:

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“Having treatment, my life is fossilised. Everyone else’s life progresses, goes forward. I just watch as life goes on for everybody except me.”

The other works on display, also inspired by the experience of cancer, are equally moving and haunting.

Much lingers to consider and to reflect on in the aftermath of visiting this exhibition.



I saw this fascinating play recently at the Battersea Arts Centre

The production was simultaneously challenging, perplexing, moving and utterly absorbing. The piece was inspired by a radical treatment – dialogically based, inspired by the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin – for schizophrenia that has seemingly virtually eradicated the condition in Western Lapland.

The play concerns four characters, a mother, her two sons, and a doctor/psychiatrist. All compete to speak and to be heard, all demanding our attention. It is never absolutely clear who is mentally ill within the cacophony of words and dialogue, but that may well be the writers’ intention. There is also an intriguing sense of something relatable about any ‘craziness’ witnessed. The resulting polyphony – even chaos – usefully reminds us that we are actually observing life as we probably witness it everyday, where we cannot be sure what is real, what is unreal, what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ behaviour and thinking, or not, including that which we ourselves act out in our daily lives. Definitions of mental health are at best fluid and inconsistent, and perhaps we all at times spend time at either side of the shady borders of psychosis.

The production involves a staging of two halves, not in the sense of merely being divided into two acts, but as two separate stories happening simultaneously on stage. Although aware of another story on the periphery, one’s focus is primarily directed towards the narrative directly in one’s gaze. After the interval, the audience switched to the other side of the auditorium so that you then directly experienced the alternative narrative. This may sound confusing, but it in fact added to the sense that life, its people and its stories are complex and chaotic, both real and unreal at the same time, and our interpretation of same is largely context-driven.

The writers state that ‘Our aim is to de-stigmatise and normalize psychosis and ultimately engage you in a quiet revolution in social interaction.’ This they achieve, working within the principles of the Lapland dialogical approach to treatment where uncertainty is allowed and a polyphony of voices flourishes.

The production challenges audience expectations using the technical device of switching space, stories and perspective in the second half of the performance. The play also questions what might be expected from an audience. There is no room for passivity here, audience involvement is pretty much demanded.

Unsurprisingly, there are references to the words of the psychiatrist RD Laing, who was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement and wrote extensively about psychosis, focusing on feelings as expressions of lived experience rather than mere symptoms of mental illness:

“I experience you and you experience me.”

“I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me.”

This funny and tragic play moved and troubled me. Most of the time, I was unsure what exactly was unfolding on stage. Life was happening, I guess, equally troubled, unpredictable, inconsistent, indefinable, frightening, and at times joyous.

The production will have a short run at The Albany Theatre at the end of February. If you can, don’t miss.




Everyone can’t

be a lamplighter.


Someone must

be the lamp,


and someone

must, in bereaved


rooms sit,

unfathoming what


it is to be lit.


Andrea Cohen

I have just finished reading Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad. This is the Hungarian writer’s lesser known novel. Her later The Door (1987) first brought her work to the wider attention of the international reading community.

Iza’s Ballad (Pilátus in the original Hungarian) was written much earlier, in 1963, but has only recently appeared in English, translated by George Szirtes.

Szabo immediately draws the reader into a world of grief, its confusions and complexities, through the eyes of the elderly Ettie, whose husband has just died:

‘She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.’

Widowhood brings desolation – ‘her very breath a form of sadness’ – and profound aloneness in a world where ‘the dead did not answer’.

I was reminded of another work of fiction that also has at its core the grief that follows the death of a spouse. In Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (2014), Nora’s husband has died prematurely, and she is suddenly catapulted into an alienating and isolating world:

‘So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.’

Tóibín also considers how society deals with the bereaved, highlighting a wider need to have grief ultimately contained, if not annihilated:

‘ “And stop grieving, Nora. The time for that is over. Do you hear me?” ‘

In an article on the topic of grief and literature by Tóibín shortly after the publication of Nora Webster, the author draws our attention to other works that exemplify the theme, including Mary Lavin’s The Widow’s Son, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life [].

I have just re-read Barnes’s Levels of Life. The writer’s wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, died within 37 days – ‘from a summer to an autumn’ – of diagnosis of a brain tumour. The final chapter of the book – The Loss of Depth – deals specifically with Barnes’s grief following Kavanagh’s death:

‘And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.’


‘Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have entered a new geography, mapped by a new cartography.’

Barnes addresses the difference between grief and mourning:

‘Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal.’

He concludes:

‘And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest.’

There are very many works of literature  – fiction, non-fiction, poetry – that hold grief as the central theme. A list of such works, like grief itself, can never be finite, or closed. Grief touches all our lives, an essential and unavoidable component of the lived experience. Within the words of those who have chosen to share such experiences we might come to discover a kindred compassion and empathy that goes some way towards defining our humanness and our salvation.