Illness Project, Six Months In

I have just spent a fun and fascinating week being investigated in hospital. I’m not sure this is how one is supposed to experience hospital, but that was how it was: the food was delicious and I had a view of the Edinburgh Tattoo fireworks. It might have been different had the various tests to rule out serious complications unearthed any new demons, but I appear to be safe. This seems a good moment, six months after the crippling joint pains of what turned out to be Lupus first appeared, to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from my “illness project” so far…

Give me a broken rock, a little moss…
And I would ask no more; for I would dream
Of greater things associated with these,
Would see a mighty river in my stream,
And, in my rock, a mountain clothed with trees.
John Ruskin
  • The only limit to your horizons is your imagination.
  • Show-offs are naturally cheerful in debility because it’s the only way they can still impress people.
  • It is difficult to do an ECG scan through breasts.
  • Serious misfortune is as necessary as a good education to give a lucky and privileged individual confidence in their convictions.
  • Physiotherapists are magicians.
  • Lupus gets its name from the belief when it was first discovered in the eighteenth century to be caused by a wolf bite. Cool!
  • Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels are rubbish.
  • The CT scanner is by far the most exciting piece of hospital equipment: like a trip in the Large Hadron Collider.
  • I can still remember almost all the words of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat after thirty years.
  • The staff of the Department for Work and Pensions are in fact quite helpful and sympathetic, and not mere Ian Duncan Smith robots out to meet welfare sanctions targets.
  • If I had to choose between an iron lung or an unhappy marriage, I would choose the former.
  • However often you take paracetamol, it doesn’t get any easier to swallow.
  • It is difficult not to regard the size of the bottle for a 24 hour urine sample as a challenge.
  • If you can’t sing or move your fingers, you can still make music on the swannee whistle.
  • It is difficult to find the spleen on an ultrasound scan.
  • Church folk are hilarious when you are ill. NO I DON’T NEED PRAYED FOR!!
  • Most interesting side effect so far: Tramadol makes your nose cold.
  • Shakespeare’s classical plays are splendid.
  • If you have to have a fasting blood test, it is wise to lie down.
  • The environmental crisis is more important than anything, and should be at the top of everyone’s agenda – not just those lucky enough to have nothing else to worry about.


Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels: I’ve read them, so you don’t have to

Can You Forgive Her? (1865)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1880)

When I was mad keen on all things Celtic, I remember being hugely amused by a scribe’s marginal note which went something like this: “Here endeth the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. The longest, most tedious work ever written. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God!”

This was pretty much my reaction to reaching the end of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Chronicles.

One of the good things about being ill all summer has been the opportunity to engage in some extended reading projects. I’ve always meant to read Palliser. Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles were the first grown-up classic novels I read. Warm, gently insightful and frequently hilarious, the cathedral precincts and rural parishes of Barchester with that subtle and loveable characters remain amongst my favourite fictional escapes. The first one, The Warden, was the inspiration for my modern retelling, “Ursula. The Last Chronicle of Barset is on a short list of novels which have made me cry.

So I decided it was high time I read Trollope’s other series. Written after Barchester, and dealing with the grander world of national politics, rather than the politics of an English diocese, I have heard them spoken of as the greater of the two. I found they were longwinded, humourless, snobbish, and shallowly sententious. That is (according to Kindle timings) 74 hours of my life I will never get back.

There are endless minor variations on the same handful of plot devices and character types. The narratives all hinge, not on any events or revelations, but on one character remaining unerringly and unreasonably stubborn until the denoument where they suddenly and inexplicably relent. Most depressingly, the only characters with a fragment of personality and pluck, Bergo Fitzgerald, Mrs Sexty Parker and Major Tifto, all fall victim to their own personality flaws and the grinding inevitability of the narratives, and all have their loose ends tied up by being made pensioned objects of aristocratic charity, with no hope of rising in the world again. The reader is supposed to be satisfied.

The final novel, The Duke’s Children, has a little more spark than the rest. At last, the comedy that pervades Barchester makes an appearance as election candidates go canvassing in pouring rain. The relationship of the shy and geeky Duke of Omnium, whose career we have followed throughout the series, with his grown-up children, is sweetly and delicately portrayed.

Yet one cannot dismiss the suspicion that Trollope created the love-interests in The Duke’s Children, the noble but low-born Frank Treagar and the angelic American Isabel Boncassen, to atone for his deeply snobbish treatment of the characters in the previous novel, The Prime Minister. The hero Arthur Fletcher, blonde, loyal, principled, with a landed pedigree going back to the Normans; and anti-hero Ferdinand Lopez, dark, charming, lying, obsessed with money, of obscure Portuguese parentage, are a shocking pair of feeble racist stereotypes.

If you get as far as The Duke’s Children you are doing well. You have to wade through the first one, Can You Forgive Her? nicknamed at the time, Can You Finish It? Phineas Finn is innocuous enough, and if you survive the cast of unpleasant characters which populate The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison. After struggling through the unpleasantnesses of The Prime Minister, one hopes that genial and now mature statesman Finn might make play some part in The Duke’s Children. He doesn’t.

I realise I did not read these novels as Trollope intended. They were the soap operas of the day, published in instalments over fifteen years in magazines. They served a purpose at the time: they made money, and passed the time of bored Victorians. The commercial nature of the project is evident in the numerous hunting scenes, which are by far the most exciting episode in the books. Trollope does not conceal his moral qualms about hunting: the swathes of land designated to aristocratic pleasure, the harsh crackdowns on poaching, the worldly pretension, display and waste of the whole charade. But he can write a gripping gallop over the fences, so he cannot resist doing it again and again, with only the mildest of authorial censure.

Our descendants may well acknowledge that Eastenders, Neighbours or The Archers were great cultural institutions of our time. Someone might well read through the entire scripts and write an interesting PhD on them. But we would not expect these compositions to be widely read as literature.

Everyone should read Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers. But don’t read his Palliser Chronicles. I did, so you don’t have to.



Prawn Wars

I was impressed by the BBC Scotland Landward special, “Prawn Wars”, still available on iPlayer until Wednesday.

I thought I was well-informed about Scottish fishing issues, a subject I first encountered in long “Church and Nation” reports at the Church of Scotland General Assembly, agonising about the state of Scottish coastal parishes. Earlier this year I discovered the excellent visitor interpretation at FSC Millport, which highlights the impact of scallop dredging on the delicate ecosystems of the Firth of Clyde estuary, and lets you practice sustainable hand-diving of scuttling scallops in big Belfast sinks.

However, I felt much better briefed after the Landward special, which discusses the similar conflict between trawlers and creelers fishing prawns off the west coast of Scotland. It is in-depth and impartial, exploring the interrelations between sustainability, economics and human communities.

The most important thing I learned was that in the nineteenth century a three-mile limit on trawling in inshore waters was established to conserve fisheries, regulation removed by the Thatcher government in 1984.

It also made me look again at a picture on my wall, painted around 1980 by my grandmother Margaret Jackson who was inspired by the Scottish artist Lowry.

It depicts a Scottish fishing community, although it is not on the west coast, but North Berwick, on the east. It’s based on a real scene, although there is not a little dash of fantasy. I believe that may be myself, being pushed in a buggy by my mum in red trousers.

Although the harbour is busy, the fishing industry seems to be struggling. One of the fishermen has retired to take tourist excursions to the Bass Rock. The boat in the foreground, which seems to be a trawler, has caught some rare bycatch. The little boats on the right, which look busy and businesslike, are perhaps creelers, enjoying the last few years of protected fishing.

Perhaps this fantasy scene of pipe-bands and mermaids does not add much to our understanding of the “prawn wars”. But, painted at a crucial moment in the history of Scottish fishing, it captures the entanglement of economics, employment, environment, tourism, history, and romance which form the human ecosystem of the Scottish coast.

Thank you, Landward, for making the picture so much more interesting.