Friday, December 19, 2014

The Couch on which John Hunter Died

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London is a fascinating place full of dead things in jars. The surgeon John Hunter (1728-93) collected specimens of lizards and other animals, using them to teach the next generation of doctors.
"While most of his contemporaries taught only human anatomy, Hunter's lectures stressed the relationship between structure and function in all kinds of living creatures. Hunter believed that surgeons should understand how the body adapted to and compensated for damage due to injury, disease or environmental changes. He encouraged students such as Edward Jenner and Astley Cooper to carry out experimental research and to apply the knowledge gained to the treatment of patients."
- Hunterian Museum website
It wasn't just medicine that benefited from Hunter's collection. In 1824, Gideon Mantell tried to match a fossilised fragment of jawbone he'd discovered to a comparable modern-day creature. He visited the Hunterian Museum, where assistant-curator Samuel Stutchbury saw a resemblance - in shape if not size - to a specimen of iguana. The following year, Mantell announced to the Royal Geological Society the discovery of Iguanadon - "iguana-tooth". Along with the fossilised remains of two other creatures, Iguanadon would later be used to define a new kind of animal: the dinosaur.

I visit the Hunterian Museum a fair bit, most recently to look up what it has to say on regeneration - the way some animals are able to regrow lost limbs. (I should also declare an interest: my dad volunteers there and gives a good talk every other Friday on the history of syphilis.)

The collection, though, is not just of animals: there are also plenty of human bodies - whole ones as well as partial bits of interest. If this can leave visitors feeling a bit squeamish, the ethos is very clear: by better understanding the body and how it can go wrong, we can better mend injury and cure disease. That said, deciding what specimens count as "better understanding the body" can be open to debate, such as the museum continuing to display the body of Charles Byrne, the "Irish Giant", against his clearly stated views.

I don't have a problem with Byrne's skeleton being displayed, but I was struck by something else I saw this week. By the reception of the Hunter Wing of St George's Hospital in Tooting there's a display devoted to Hunter. The hospital has just done very well in the results of the Research Excellence Framework for 2014 and links its current research to the precedent set by Hunter - who worked at St George's, but back when it was based at Hyde Park Corner (the hospital moved in stages between 1976 and 1980).

I can see why it might not be appropriate to show medical specimens as people go to their medical appointments in the hospital - it would be too blunt a reminder of our inevitable fate. But is the couch on which Hunter died a more tasteful relic for display? It doesn't seem to do much for the better understanding the body. I find myself more bothered by that the bones of Charles Byrne.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015

Out now is the Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015, a sumptuous celebration of all this year's Doctor Who. It includes some things I done wrote:

An interview with Albert DePetrillo, senior editorial director at BBC Books who oversees the Doctor Who titles.

A feature on fans who have been inspired by Doctor Who to make the most extraordinary things. I spoke to: Billy Hanshaw who posted a video on YouTube earlier this year that led to him designing the show's opening titles; Ailsa Stern who is the brains (and nimble fingers) behind Dr Puppet; Mette Hedin who creates the most amazing monster costumes for wearing to conventions; and Steven Ricks who hand-tailors exquisitely precise recreations of the various Doctors' clothes.

A piece on all the awards Doctor Who has won in 2014.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Doctors Who and all their friends

I am in love with this magnificent effort by the amazing Red Scharlach:
As Red explains:
I set myself a few ground rules: canon Doctors only (so no Shalka Doctor or Peter Cushing, sorry); not all recurring characters are companions (so no Jackie Tyler or Kate Stewart); and companions must have appeared more than once but not necessarily in the same medium (e.g. Sara Kingdom has been in Big Finish and Grace has been in a comic). But then I broke those rules on occasion (e.g. to include Cinder, the War Doctor’s only companion), so the end result is all a bit wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fuzzy-brainy won’t-fit-in-the-box-neatly. Rather like Doctor Who itself, in fact.
Anyway, the design is now on sale in my Redbubble shop as a poster or art print (i.e. on heavier paper) and there’s still a little bit of time to order one before Christmas
But look: Oliver, and Amy/Abby and Zara, and even Decky Flamboon...

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Box of Delights and dreams of Christmas

I've written another piece for the Lancet Psychiatry, this time on The Box of Delights and other stories about dreams.

Having loved the TV adaptation from (whisper it) 30 years ago, writing the feature gave me an excuse to compare it to the original book and marvel at Alan Seymour's adaptation - full of small improvements that never intrude themselves on the source.

The cast are all excellent, too, but special mention must go to Bill Wallis, whose performance as Rat is brilliantly disgusting. What a brilliant actor he was.

I'm also thrilled to learn the top fact that as well as the casting of former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as the wizard Cole Hawlings, working as an assistant floor manager on the production was Paul Carney - grandson of William Hartnell. Thanks to Guy Lambert for sharing that!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Oliver Cromwell's Fundamentalist Queen

The Fundamentalist Queen, a Radio 3 documentary I've produced, is broadcast tonight at 6.45 pm, and will thereafter be available on the Radio 3 website. Official blurb as follows:
Samira Ahmed explores the extraordinary rise and fall of the Lady Protectress Elizabeth, wife of Oliver Cromwell - a commoner who became "queen" in the 1650s.

Elizabeth lived through an extraordinary time - for women as well as men - as the country was divided by a decade of civil war in the 1640s. In the new regime that followed the execution of Charles I, Elizabeth found herself a consort like no other, an ordinary housewife elevated to Lady Protectress.

But the Protectorate, and its efforts to forge a new kind of state power based on strictly Puritan grounds, lasted only a few years. In 1660, the monarchy was restored, Oliver's allies were executed as traitors and his own dead body was dug up and hanged in chains. The widowed Elizabeth, scorned and taunted, was forced to beg Charles II for mercy.

So why is so little known about her? Helped by leading Cromwell scholars and tantalising historical documents - including a satirical cookbook - Samira goes on the trail of the fundamentalist queen, from the church where she married and her kitchen as the young wife of an MP in Ely, to the extravagant gifts that came to her Puritan court and the secrets that may lie within her anonymous grave. With Louise Jameson as the voice of Elizabeth Cromwell.

Presenter Samira Ahmed. Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier. A Whistledown Production for BBC Radio 3.
Samira has written her own blog about the documentary, wrote a piece about Elizabeth Cromwell for the BBC's online magazine, and discussed her on the Robert Elms show on Wednesday (1 hour 9 minutes in; and she's followed by an interview with my chum Dick Fiddy from the BFI and the amazing Paddy Kingsland of the Radiophonic Workshop). The documentary is also one of BBC History Magazine's picks of the week's TV and radio.

Samira makes the point, too, that the documentary came about because I researched the life of Oliver Cromwell for a Doctor Who audio - The Settling. Grateful thanks to Gary Russell, the director-producer who commissioned me, on the condition that I'd do the reading. (Researching the prospect of the documentary also led me to look round Ely, which in turn led to the setting of another Doctor Who story - Home Truths.)

It's been a joy to make the documentary, and that's all down to the generosity of the people with whom we made it. Thanks to Samira for her faith in me and brother Tom, and to David Prest and everyone at Whistledown for so patiently shepherding us through the process. Thanks to John Goldsmith, formerly of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, Traci Bosdet and Tracey Harding at Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely, and Diane Corbin at St Giles Cripplegate, and to Jane and John Trevor for letting us look round their home. Thanks to our experts: Professor Laura Gowing at King's College London, Professor Peter Gaunt of the University of Chester and the Cromwell Association, and Dr Patrick Little of the History of Parliament. Thanks to David J Darlington for assistance with bringing the 17th century vividly to life (just as he did with The Settling). And thanks to Louise Jameson for bringing Elizabeth to life.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Briefly, we had a daughter

Early this morning, our eight day-old daughter died, peacefully and calmly, with me and the Dr holding on to her. What follows is mostly for friends in real life, as I've been struggling to manage updates.

The past few months have been exciting, terrifying and surreal, a strange dream from which we've now woken.

Having been shown rather definitively in 2010 that we couldn't have biological kids of our own, we'd moved on, created an identity as a barren couple, and adopted our beloved Lord of Chaos. So the pregnancy came as a complete surprise this spring. We assumed, given our history, that it simply wouldn't work and it was another complete surprise when the hospital rang to ask what we were playing at - as we'd crossed the first important milestones but hadn't booked any appointments or tests.

We were still dubious, and avoided saying anything online, preferring to tell people in person. (Then forgetting who we had and hadn't told, and making a bit of a meal of it. Sorry.)

But as we went to our appointments, all look just fine, and we allowed ourselves to believe it. The Lord of Chaos was relieved to be getting a sister because - he said - he wouldn't have to share so many toys. We bought things for baby and things were bequeathed. I took on loads of freelance jobs so I could afford some time off round the birth. We even worked out how we'd refer to our second child online: as "Minotaur". We looked forward to her arrival.

Then, last week, the Dr was rushed to hospital as - it turned out - her waters had broken eight weeks' early. Friends and grandparents moved at short notice to come to our assistance, looking after the Lord of Chaos and running errands while I dashed to the Dr's side. But the tests showed things were okay with Minotaur. She would just be arriving early - they hoped in 2-3 weeks.

Minotaur had other ideas about that and with very little notice arrived one morning last week. She was swooped on by doctors but everything looking fine. I watched Minotaur being carefully placed in an incubator - like all premature babies - and grinned at her funny monkey face as she blinked dolefully back at me. Much later, exhausted and relieved, I went home to Champagne with my delighted Dad, and began letting people know.

But 12 hours after being born, Minotaur took a sudden turn for the worse. We were told straight away that the prospects were not good. The Dr and Minotaur were rushed by ambulance, all lights blazing, to a specialist unit across town, but we were put under no illusion that things were very grave.

We expected her to die, but Minotaur held on tenaciously over the weekend. There were even small signs of improvement. We let ourselves hope that she would pull through.

But on Tuesday the results of a series of tests proved that Minotaur's condition was every bit as severe as first suggested. There would be no happy ending. And yet, even in that terrible moment there was still some joy: they released Minotaur from her incubator so we could at long last hold her.

I'm grateful to have held her, to have spent time with her away from the tubes and machines, and that at least some family were able to see her, too - and note her eyes and hair being her mother's, and her long skinny feet from me.

Last night, just the three of us had a room to ourselves and we spent the long hours talking, reading stories, clinging on. Minotaur gazed at us dolefully and held the Dr's finger, and knew that we were there. We poured out our hearts to her, and loved her. I think she knew that, too - and that's why she hung on so long. This morning she died.

We are in pieces. But we are grateful to have held her and for so many small moments with her. Friends and family have been incredible - even though there was so little that anyone could do. We're very grateful, too, to the staff at both Croydon University Hospital and St George's Hospital, who so diligently cared for us and our poor Minotaur, making her short life painless, peaceful and something we can cherish.

We will retire now to heal, and try to get back to some kind of normality. A few people I've already been in touch with asked how they could help. At the moment, we need to work this through ourselves. But as our world was tumbling, the charities First Touch and Ronald McDonald House were there to embrace us. You could help them help others like us - and maybe even spare some of that pain - by making a donation.