July 2008


 

 

As it passes the eastern elevation of Chatsworth House, the flow of River Derwent is delayed by a weir.  Moorhens and Coots disturb the reflections of the trees lining the banks where Herons stand sentinel and Sand Martins nest.  Beyond that the park curves up to the hilltop plantings of spruce  – a single sweep of green, interrupted only by strategic stands of trees. A herd of fallow deer turn their heads towards me  and flick their tails. This a landscape to impress,  a stylised caricature of the natural environment.  It was Lancelot Brown, the pioneer landscape artist, who first realised its capabilities two hundred and fifty years ago.  He created a landscape fit for Dukes to own, with inspiring vistas, a wide river, miles of gallops, woods stocked with game.  It was a leisure landscape to suit the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful.   

 

Brown’s landscape has survived.  Successive Dukes have preserved it, despite the gradual decline of their relative power and wealth.  Chatsworth is now a business.  It markets a nostalgic impression of natural ‘unspoiled’ beauty.  The road through the park is concealed from the house, power lines are buried, new buildings are forbidden.  No longer a privileged playground for the Duke’s wealthy and well connected guests,  Chatsworth is now open to all.  Families from Manchester or Sheffield picnic on the grass, leaving scorched circles, barbecue tins, bottle and packaging.   Youths play football and swim in the river.  Trail bikes roar up the lanes.  There are motor rallies, horse shows, concerts, an adventure playground, demonstrations of country crafts in the farmyard and Sleeping Beauty on Ice in the big marquee. Chatsworth has become a theme park.   

 

In April I rented a bijou cottage in the estate village of Edensor, one of a score or more designs the 6th Duke selected from his architect’s catalogue in 1830.  My brother, Simon, came to stay with me this week.  He is an artist.  He believes that art should be about more than making things for people to look at and artists should be integrated  in the design and maintenance of the spaces we inhabit. 

 

Chatsworth, we agreed, is a beautiful environment.  The present incumbents acknowledge the ongoing importance of the artist by displaying sculptures throughout the park and exhibitions of paintings in the house. But are artists consulted in the management of the park?   They may be, but the question begs a bigger one,  ‘What is the role of the artist in the creation and maintenance of the environment?’  

 

Artists are concerned with the aesthetic qualities of the environment and, since ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, what the environment means or can be taken to mean.  More than ever, our insecure society needs a spiritual dimension. Landscape has always been and remains a vital source of inspiration and meaning, and, as Richard Maybe expresses in his book Nature Cure, solace for the troubled soul.  So perhaps artists should work alongside planners, conservationists, environmentalists and estate managers to ensure that landscape not only satisfies the practical necessitities of life but also fulfils the spiritual requirements. 

 

Chatsworth has always been a managed landscape.  Stately homes have had to transform themselves into successful businesses to survive.   Chatsworth markets nostalgia and privilege – a way of life that no longer exists.  It sells its soul.  It has to.  It gratifies a commercial incentive while seeking to satisfy a spiritual need for beauty and meaning.  To be fair, Chatsworth just about pulls it off, though the result can seem an uneasy compromise.   The monoculture of rye grass is hard wearing and low maintenance.  It survives being scuffed away by football boots, scorched by barbecues, but it doesn’t support the growth of wild flowers.  The peace of village life is shattered every Sunday morning by the roar of trail bikes.  The conversion of the  shop and post office into a café has torn the heart out of the community.   The rural farm shop is now an upper class supermarket – the Waitrose of the peak.  As a tenant,  I feel like I am living in a film set.  I am!  The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightly and Ralph Fiennes – who else? – was filmed here last October and is being released on 6th September.   

 

Do I sound ambivalent?  Well, I am.  On the one hand, I feel that our heritage is a rich source of identity.  It may be a fiction – the kind of life described by Jane Austen and embodied in the fabric of Chatsworth was available to very few.  Most people in England lived in poverty and died young of exhaustion and tuberculosis.  But it’s a sustaining fiction.  At the same time, I wonder whether we need to create a simalcrum of the past to get meaning from life. We should look to our artists, poets, storytellers of all persuasions to help us find beauty and meaning in our current landscape. 

 

The Peak District National Park is more successful in maintaining a living environment, by perhaps not having to manage it very much at all.  The peak is self sustaining.  People live there, own their houses, run businesses from their homes or commute to Manchester or Sheffield.  They form communities and these communities adapt to changing needs.  There is some management.  Farmers are restricted regarding their use of land, they have to maintain the fabric, but theirs is still a viable existence.  Within limits this is a viable landscape, it is quite beautiful and still possible to find peace and inspiration within remote valleys full of birdsong and wildflowers.

 

Other environments are more difficult.  Every few weeks I get a request from the RSPB to support the purchase land for the establishment of another reserve, where endangered species can be protected.  I usually give support.  I applaud the RSPB’s reclamation of the reedbeds and saltmarsh at Minsmere and at Leighton Moss, though Minsmere is threatened by rising sea levels and coastal erosion.  Will it be possible to protect this habitat without destroying the essential aesthetic?     

 

I still feel that watching birds from hides in reserves is cheating – Avocets – this way,  Marsh Harriers over there.  Oh and have you seen The Purple Heron yet?  How much more satisfying it is to observe birds unexpectedly outside of these enclaves, like the Crossbills I saw the other day in the woods near my cottage,  the Peregrines teaching their chicks to fly on the Cornish coast and the Choughs – though I am aware how grazing cattle on the coastal heathland has encouraged their return.        

 

The heathland at Dunwich is a wonderful habitat for the Nightjar, a magic bird that evokes the dark sorcery of a summers night.  But this is not a wild natural environment.  It is agricultural land left to go fallow.  It is there for the moment, but left to itself, it will, in time, disappear.  The same applies to the New Forest.   The glens in the Highlands of Scotland have also been abandoned  but they are among the most beautiful and inspiring landscapes anywhere. But they need more management, more aesthetic input, if they are to avoid desecration by the creation of reservoirs and the planting of forests of fir trees.

 

 

As Simon, explained to me, management is necessary to create biodiversity and beauty.  If you dam a stream up, the bog and pond created will quickly become colonised by waterplants and insects. Frogs and newts will take up residence and Herons and moorhens will fly in.  Clear away some of the well established scrub and you will invite new growth of flowering plants that will attract insects and birds.  It must be wonderful to be able to create that on a small scale in a garden.  And perhaps that is the point.  We should not just be passive observers in order to  benefit from landscape, we need to feel ownership, responsibility.  Things mean so much more if we can partake in them.                

 

Our environment is under threat from a warmer temperatures and rising seas.  This poses a challenge.  Should we emulate the estate managers of Chatsworth and try to preserve the romantic notions of the past with modern business acumen, or should conservationists, geographers and developers work along side artists to create new environments that are secure, take full advantage of the changing conditions and yet still provide that essential spiritual aesthetic?       

Advertisements

The sea hisses and spits,  rattling against my oilskins as I kneel up onto the heaving rail, turn, clutch the tarred rope and climb.  ‘Go on, It’s just like going up a ladder!’, the bosun shouts. Some ladder!   This one tilts violently as the ship drops into another trough and rears up the next wave.  ‘Keep climbing! Don’t stop!  Don’t look down!’.  Two thirds of the way up,  I transfer to an overhanging ladder to reach the first platform, then climb unprotected  to an open frame of metal girders bolted to the mast.  To get onto it,  I lean back so I am hanging at 45 degrees.  My arms are getting tired and so I must move quickly.   Two thirds of the way up the next flight, I reach out with my left hand and, grabbing the metal rail along the top of the topgallant mast, transfer one foot onto the loop of rope beneath it.  Far below, the deck twists and heaves and red and black figures stagger in orchestrated drunkenness.  Nobody looks up as, straddled across the stomach-churning void,  I unhook the long sling from around my neck, clip it to the safety wire and edge along the mast.   It’s noisy up here.  The wind hums through the rigging like an electric generator and the loose canvas snaps and flaps.  Holding on with to the mast with my right hand, I bend my knees and reach down with my left to pull up the rope that is attached the back of the rucked-up sail, creating a fold into which I stuff the sail using my right forearm.  I then pull the package up onto the top of the mast and tie it to the rail with a slipping clove hitch.  I move across onto the next hitch and continue until the sail is neatly tied.  Working with the sail makes me forget my fear.  I gaze out across a grey sea, frothed with white and feel, for the first time, a sense of exhilaration. 

 

The Prince William is a modern two-masted brig.  It measures 200 feet from stem to stern  and the mainmast soars 150 feet above the deck.  It was built just ten years ago and fitted out with an auxiliary motor, the latest computer navigation systems and basic but comfortable accommodation.  Nevertheless the 18 sails,  five on each mast – course, lower and upper topsails, topgallant and royal, –  four jibs, three stay sails and a spanker (the large wedge shaped sail behind the mainmast) are worked in the traditional manner by the crew.  Sailing ships are run on ropes.  There are 10 ropes for pulling each of the sails up and down,  20 for raising or lowering the masts, and another 20 for turning the masts. Turning the ship into the wind is known as tacking.  Turning it away form the wind is termed ‘wearing’.   Both require all the crew to pull on the horizontal masts or yardarms so that the sails are set at the correct angle to the wind.   The lower yards are very heavy and it takes a ‘hauler’ and three or four ‘sweaters’ to pull them round.  Like Nelson’s sailors, the hauler synchronises the efforts of his team by shouting ‘two–six’, and sweaters respond by calling ‘Heave’ and pulling on the rope. 

 

The ship is owned by the Tall Ships Youth Trust, a charity dedicated to the personal development of young people, especially those from deprived backgrounds.  But some voyages are available to paid ‘guests’; adventurous spirits from of any age from 18 to 75.   We were those guests.  There were 48 of us,  divided into three watches of 16; red, white and blue.  Each watch takes it in turn to run the ship in 7 periods (also called watches) throughout the day;  five of four hours and two dog watches in the early evening of two hours each.

 

Each day at sea begins with a briefing by the captain and an educational session;  flags, lights, rules of the sea and turning the ship.  This is followed by ‘happy hour’, during which the crew clean the ship.  Thereafter, activity is determined according to the ‘watches’.   Life on board soon settles into a round of sleeping, eating, cleaning and hanging about waiting for things to happen, interrupted by intense periods of strenuous and often dangerous activity.  You get frightened, you eat.  You get exhausted, you sleep – at any time.   I found the motion of the ship lulled me to sleep and I could cat nap for an hour and feel fresh again.  The voyage crew sleep in pipe cots, canvas hammocks attached by rope to the frame of a bunk.  Men and women sleep in the same cabin with only a thin curtain by each cot to provide a semblance of privacy.  Although somewhat disconcerting at first, you quickly get used to the snores, farts, groans and bodily odours of the others on your watch.  This is what is known as ‘bonding’.  But just in case anybody is tempted to bond too much, a notice outside each of the cabins forbids sexual activity between crew members under threat of the Captain’s displeasure.  

 

During the course of the year, The Prince William sails to the Caribbean, the Azores, the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean.  Our voyage was less romantic; Brixham to Swansea in late October. 

 

We left port on the motor at midday. The weather was bright with just a light breeze,   but by the time we reached Berry Head,  a few miles south of the harbour  the wind freshened, the sea became ‘lumpy’ and half of the voyage crew hung over the rail regretting breakfast.  Setting the sails eased the motion and we blew down the channel on an easterly wind and were south of Falmouth by evening.  The sun shone all the next day as we passed Land’s End.  We watched gannets cruise  the waves like warplanes, turning themselves into living darts to spear schools of mackerel in a bursts of spray.  And a pair of wood warblers, late migrants to Africa, joined the ship south of The Lizard and fluttered around the rigging, oblivious to the fact we were carrying them the wrong way! 

 

That night, I was on watch as we ghosted up the coast of Cornwall.  Meteors scorched their way across the rotating tapestry of stars,  The Plough pivoted around The Pole Star to stand on it’s handle and the brand new moon smiled, a sliver of bright light on a pale disc of earthshine.  And on a slippery sea that resembled dark treacle, wraith-like dolphins materialised in trails of phosphorescence. 

 

A bright dawn found us sailing up the western shore of Lundy Island, but by afternoon,  the wind shifted and we sailed down the eastern shore.  At anchor in Bideford Bay, the beer lent nostalgia to our songs; reminiscences of our youth, hymns from the Welsh valleys, and the Captain’s unforgettable rendition of Allouette.    

 

Crewing on a tall ship offers something that is rare in our risk aversive society;  that real sense of comradeship and confidence that develops out of the challenge of facing up to our fears.  For older crew who have reached the age of reflection, it is pure nostalgia, but for young people, struggling to find their way through the turbulence of adolescence, it can provide the pivotal experience, around which their emerging identities crystallise.  Self awareness and confidence are gained, not only through the acquisition of new skills and the solving of problems, but also by taking responsibility for themselves and others and through the supportive relationships they form with adults and peers.  And what’s more, it’s fun! They may forget how to tie the knots but the friendships and confidence will last for life.

As soon as I open the door, she flies down and hovers just inches in front of my face, She calls out a warning.  I retreat.  Her two chicks squat on the roof of the outhouse across the passageway.  They are fully grown but lack the red bibs of their parent.  Confident that I am no longer a threat, she flies to them calling repeatedly.  They take off and do a few circuits, twisting and wheeling in the confined space between my house and the church wall and land again. Then they take flight again and flutter over the door and up to the roof of the house opposite, where they sit twittering, waiting for the next instruction. 

 

My swallows have learnt to fly quickly.  As soon as they left their ledge high up on the back wall of the outhouse, they followed their parents between the narrow gap between the dustbins and roof edge and turned upwards onto the roof.  I witnessed the second lesson.  Swallows are very vulnerable for the first few hours after leaving the nest.  No wonder she wanted to keep me away. 

 

Magpies take longer and make more fuss about it.  They line the ridge tiles, trying to maintain their balance, while their parents fly around them, maintaining an incessant chatter.  Eventually one takes flight, but it lacks the long tail feathers of the adult bird and the performance is clumsy.  It makes the beech tree and crashes.  Another follows, misses the tree and lands in the garden, calling loudly to its parents.  I am alarmed and want to go out and rescue it.  I don’t.  An adult bird flies down to join it and by sheer willpower, encourages it to gain the top of the fence.  All is well.  Soon they are perched on the ridge tiles again ready for the next lesson. 

 

Some birds have no lessons at all.  The auks that nest on cliff ledges, just seem to know when they are ready and launch themselves into space, wings whirring frantically, but losing height all the time.  They land heavily on the sea about 200 yards from the base of the cliff.  And that’s where they stay.  They are not strong enough to return to the ledge.  They must practice from the waves instead. 

 

In St Ives, Herring Gulls nest noisily on the roofs of the boarding houses.  This time of year the chicks, clad in their grey, beige and dirty cream camouflage fatigues, venture out on to their practice platforms, the flat roofs of dormer windows. There, they face into the wind, beat their wings vigorously and slowly leave the ground, hovering just two inches above the roof.  Then they let themselves down.  It’s like they are testing the power of their wings. It may take several days before they feel confident enough to leave their platform.           

 

Just west of St Ives, out of sight of the tumble of Victorian terraces, the broad sandy beach and the classic beauty of the art gallery;  here, where the grassy headland is gashed to create a rocky gully, a precipitous chasm where waves burst angrily against the rocks and run back grumbling over tumbling pebbles,  a drama is being played out.  An urgent call rises above the roar of the waves.  I inch forward.  A magnificent tiercel darts in from the sea and swoops up just a few yards in front of me.  I feel mesmerised, pinned to the spot.  His eyes are focussed and yellow rimmed, the markings on its face severe as an executioners hood, his chest barred and his feet and the skin above his cruel beak shining bright yellow.  He spreads his wings and banks away,  soaring up and over the grass short cropped grass and out to the darkening sea.  He is soon back, speeding up the gully like a fighter plane, firing staccato cries against the wall.  After five or six passes without obvious response, he flies away west.  I descend to a point where I can see into the gully over a grassy bank.  There on a ledge a chick sits unmoved.  Its head and chest are light brown, somewhere between beige and cinnamon, its wings darker.  I  watch it for twenty minutes expecting its parents to return,  but it sits on in its sulk scarcely moving until, perhaps detecting my attention,  it flies heavily out of the gully to land on a tussock of grass a score or so yards away.  This youngster is not ready for aerobatics.  It takes about two months training for a Peregrine to become a completely competent hunter.

 

Further on I encounter a more advanced pupil.  It is perched on a rocky outcrop protruding from a grassy slope high above the sea, it is calling, an insistent mewling.  Suddenly, two dark arrows are swooping around the rock uttering their own urgent calls.  The chick takes off and joins them, diving, twisting and soaring,  – a drama of sound and motion.  It follows the tiercel into a stoop, dropping faster than a stone, both birds twisting in the air to lock talons, wheeling away at the last moment and speeding with scarce a wing beat, dark and low over the waves. 

 

Something makes me look up.  Two Kestrels are hovering low over the flowering heather.  They are almost touching and although the breeze is not strong, they are finding it difficult to keep station; the lower of the two is noticeably more clumsy. 

 

It’s that time of year.    

North west of Cape Cornwall, the scene changes.  Relentless waves, walls of white-tipped water from deep in the Atlantic surge in and crash, breaking off rocks and creating a coast as irregular as a torn off bit of pie crust.  Here the cliffs are striated like streaky bacon with tin bearing lodes, and engine houses like chapels cling high above the restless sea. 

 

In this remote toe of the British Isles it is not easy to get a good dinner.  First you have to catch your food.  Perched high on an isolated crag, a peregrine chick,  lacking the cap and sideburns, the dark jacket and the striped waistcoat of its parents, patiently awaits its next lesson in aerial gastronomy.  Two dark shapes appear gliding fast and direct over the sea.  They bank and swoop around the rock, screaming urgently.  The youngster spreads its wings and floats into the abyss to join its tutors, and all three effortlessly ride the stiff Atlantic breeze to soar upwards, gaining height for the stoop.   The parents – five star flying aces – commence the tutorial with a heart-stopping display of skill and daring. With wings folded into delta configuration,  they dive to pick up speed then, screeching wildly, turn to each other and lock talons.  The youngster then joins in, stooping, locking talons, and breaking off, squealing with excitement too as the game of catch ‘high tea’ becomes ever more daring.

 

A mile inland at the village of Treen, stands The Gurnard’s Head, an ancient inn, large, four-square and painted ochre.  The owners, Charles and Edmund Inkin, are  gastronomic missionaries.  Building on their success at the Felin Fach Griffin Inn near Brecon, they have created a French ‘auberge’ in the wild west of Cornwall.  The décor is homely;  scrubbed tables, relaxing chairs, inspiring local artwork and rows of interesting books to browse while sipping your aperitif.  The space murmurs with the contented chatter of a pub while creating a repast that is both original and delicious.      

 

With the ocean just a mile away, seafood was an essential choice – salt and pepper squid cooked in a light batter with plenty of seasoning and garnished with aioli and rocket to start, followed by wild sea trout served in a sea vegetable broth. The latter was a masterpiece.  It resembled a rock pool.  A generous fillet of gently poached coral pink fish relaxed in a clear broth containing a single scallop, bronze ribbons of dulse, bright green tufts of sea lettuce, nuri and sprigs of marsh and rock samphire, gathered from the shoreline by local forager, Caroline Daley.  Linking the sea to the land were mini carrots, freshly podded peas and a delicate portion of potato.  To help mop up the broth was a basket freshly baked soda bread and fresh butter.  It was a meal to savour slowly, a lingering memory – the taste of the sea, the cool tug of the breeze and far off, the excited cries of the afternoon’s flying lesson.   

Imagine how exciting it must have been to study medicine a hundred years ago.  Within a few years, the mediaeval dependence on purging, bleeding, cupping, sponging, the reliance on herbal remedies and the various charismatic cures was yielding to groundbreaking discoveries, based on scientific observation and experiment. Louis Pasteur had discovered the germ theory of disease with observations on anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox and developed the use of immunisation.  Ronald  Ross had discovered the cause of malaria and a means to eradicate it.  Jean-Martin  Charcot had described the microscopic pathology of many common neurological illnesses.  Sigmund Freud was employing psychoanalysis to understand hysteria.  Wilhelm Roentgen had discovered X-rays and used them to generate images of the human body.  Marie Curie had identified radioactivity.  Ivan Pavlov’s work on the conditioned reflex heralded the science of psychology.   The herbal of the past was being refined and specific drugs were being manufactured.  Medicine was becoming scientific.  No longer would doctors sit beside the bedside of a patient with pneumonia administering sympathy and tepid sponging, He would soon be able to treat it.  Over the next fifty years, discovery built on discovery in every area of medicine.  Antibiotics were developed to treat infections.  Effective treatments were developed for ulcers, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, colitis and depression.   The safe use of anaesthetics lead to surgical developments. Organs could be repaired, blood vessels dilated, tumours excised, cataracts removed and worn out joints replaced.  The discoveries occurred at such frequency and were so miraculous that by 1970 people looked forward to a time when all human illness would be vanquished and people would live, if not forever, for much longer.    

 

But that expectation was not realised.  Illness is still with us.  In fact, more people suffer from a long term illness now than did in the nineteen seventies.  The heady optimism in medical science has been replaced by a cynical and expensive realism.  Scientific medicine has lost its charm.  People are again reverting to charismatic treatments with little evidence to support them. There are few new groundbreaking discoveries. Much of the research that is done these days seems to repeat what is done in the past. More papers are published than ever before but the pace of real advance has slowed.  Why is this?    

 

Last week, I discussed this with my friend and colleague,  Professor David Thompson of Manchester University.   Our discourse ranged widely.  Ruminating with nostalgia on a gold age of academic freedoms, regretting the erosion of curiosity and the demise of the enthusiastic amateur, we concluded that regulation and control was stifling creativity.          

 

As a young lecturer in physiology I had established my academic reputation on a minimal budget by encouraging medical students to conduct simple experiments on themselves.  That would now be impossible. Low-budget blue-skies research no longer exists.  Ethics committees would frown.  Health and safety would forbid.  University finance officers would complain. 

 

Universities are businesses.  Government funding has declined.  They need to raise money from research and teaching.  For a young lecturer, advancement depends on more on grant income than the importance of the results, though it is to be hoped that the two are occasionally linked.  Research is highly competitive,  requiring complicated proposals and expensive funding.   

 

The great discoveries of the past often occurred as a result of painstaking observations.  Richard Ross dissected thousands of mosquitoes in his sweltering shack in Secunderabad before he found the one that contained the plasmodium larvae.  Charles Darwin took more than 20 years before he amassed sufficient evidence to write his theory of evolution.  Gregor Mendel meticulously pollinated 28,000 pea plants in the garden of the monastery at Brno.  Freud deduced his psychoanalytical theories from hour upon hour sitting behind his green leather couch, notebook in hand, listening to what his patients told him.  Each of them was free of the pressures of obtaining grants, justifying their existence.  Like artists and novelists, composers, they were compelled by curiosity.  This couldn’t occur now.  Universities, funding councils, biotech and pharmaceutical companies require gratification, if not immediate, pretty soon.         

 

Creativity, we agreed, requires an environment that is relaxed and free and supports curiosity.  But we live in a society under threat.  Global warming, terrorism, economic recession, unemployment, credit crunch, food contamination and depression affect us  us all.   Faced with threat, medical science like all other aspects of our society, has become controlled, restricted.  No longer can one make uncontrolled observations.  No longer can you have an open mind.  Scientists have to justify their activity all the time.  It is said that in order to obtain a grant, you already have to have done the experiments and shown they will work.  Otherwise, nobody would take the risk. 

 

Medical science, like other aspects of society has become risk aversive.  Perhaps the catastrophes of the past,  Thalidomide, the Alder Hey organ scandal, the Summerlin affair at Sloan Kettering, where Bo Summerlin faked his results,  have made scientists over cautious.  But while science must conform to high ethical standards,  it has also to embrace risk. 

 

Discovery favours the prepared mind, but the prepared mind also needs to be an open mind.  Medical scientists need to take intellectual risks, dare to be mavericks, stand up against the crowd for what they suspect to be true. 

 

This is more and more difficult to do.  Medical science is so bound by diagnostic criteria, accepted protocols, statistical method, peer review that it is impossible for its exponents to think out of the box.  The maverick is seen as dangerous and excluded.         

 

For example, common human ailments like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Functional Dyspepsia that have no basis in pathology and no well defined cause, are defined by sets of rigid symptomatic criteria, determined by committee. To be published, all studies on unexplained illness  have to conform to this medical encyclical.  If a scientist ignores that, his work will not be published and his career will be stillborn.  The medical sociologist, David Armstrong, commented that such illnesses are representative of the medical textbook, as arbiter of the political belief system.  In other words, doctors determine what an illness will be like and the patients conform, just as they did when Jean-Martin Charcot defined La Grande Hysterie.  Yet, people with Irritable Bowels, for example often have a myriad of symptoms affecting other parts of the body.  They also have emotional disturbance.  Talk to them for a few minutes, it soon becomes clear that they are suffering from a state of dysphoria involving mind and body.  Many suffer from unresolved guilt or shame, others from fear, from despair and nearly all from loneliness.  But there no medical definition of guilt.  And no government agency would ever wish to acknowledge loneliness as the common ailment in western societies.  As Professor Bryan Tucker once declared, ‘Illness is a language, the body is representation and medicine is political practice.’ 

 

Clinical scientists are exponents of evidence-based medicine.  This means that their hypotheses are tested by randomised, placebo-controlled, double- blind clinical trials.  In other words a homogeneous population with the same illness is treated randomly with either a drug or an identical placebo, but both the patient and the clinical investigator is unaware of the identity of the treatment.  Such studies may assume a methodological rigour, but the reality is otherwise.  People are individuals, they may not have the same illness, and their reaction to the same treatment varies not only between individuals but within the same individual at different times.  Take any physiological measurement, blood pressure, pulse rate, blood levels of hormones, gastrointestinal absorption,  liver function, mood;  they all show continuous fluctuations.  Yet measurements of often just taken once and treated as if they are representative. 

 

There is considerable noise in any biological system, so much variation that it is difficult to come to any definitive conclusion.  In the past, scientists would often study the same system repeatedly until they were sure.  Professor James Hunt measured how his own stomach emptied hundreds of times repeatedly until he understood its variations.  In the past, family doctors knew their patients really well, they knew how their ailments fluctuated according to the vicissitudes of their lives and were therefore acutely aware when something happened that didn’t fit the pattern.  Yann Maertal makes the same point in his book,  ‘The Life of Pi.’  Talking about zoo-keeping, he writes that animals are creatures of  habit – so that if a stork for example is not standing at his usual place at a certain time of day, then you know something is wrong.  Few scientists have the time to get to know their subjects or even the system they are studying that well any more.  Dr Ronald Ross had dissected thousands of mosquitoes.  He knew what he was looking for.  He only needed to see plasmodia in the gastric wall in one Anopheles to realise the cause of malaria.  But it is more expedient to study a large number of subjects briefly and let the stats sort it out.  The difficulty with that approach is that statistics are only as good as the population studied and the quality of the data.  Ronald Fisher developed his statistical methods from a study of genetics and crop variation, where the data is homogeneous.  If the population is heterogeneous and the measurements variable,  any amount of statistical analysis cannot make the conclusions right.  I would suspect that too many otherwise important results are obtained by hurried experiments and the lazy use of statistics. 

 

The philosopher Karl Popper influenced the conduct of research by insisting that the role of the scientist was not just to establish a hypothesis by painstaking observation, but to ensure that it is presented in a way that can be disproved.  While Popper’s condition of falsifiability upholds standards of intellectual rigour, it seems at the same time to stifle curiosity and imagination.  Instead of saying,  ‘I wonder if’, it seems to declare ‘don’t believe anything you can’t prove’.  How would William Harvey have fared if he had spent his time trying to prove that the blood didn’t circulate?  It might be argued that Popper’s influence has led to a whole raft of research that attempts to disprove the obvious or to contradict the accepted wisdom of previous studies.  For example,  the government recently spent 20 million pounds to attempt to disprove that providing children with a one piece of fruit a day would not lead to a fructarian habit and better health.  They succeeded!

 

Publish or perish is truer now than ever before.  No medical scientist can ever hope to succeed without publishing their results.  To meet the demand, the number of medical journals has multiplied exponentially.  There is a journal for everything.  No editor can possibly hope to keep pace with the sheer complexity of the area covered by their journal.  They all operate a peer review system to assure studies are conducted according to rigidly controlled protocols and the results valid.  But papers on a certain topic tend to be reviewed by the same magic circle.  This forms a cosy club; a case of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.  Some journals even ask authors to suggest reviewers.  Nobody wants to rocks the boat.  So the research tends to confirm the status quo, conform to an agreed philosophy and everybody feels happy.  Nobody, not even scientists, like change.   The same system operates when research grants, of course, are reviewed. 

      

In the film industry, the same small group of celebrity actors get the best parts.  Presently it is Keira Knightly.  A year or so ago, it was Kate Winslet.  In the nineties, Meryl Streep. To them that have shall be given more, while those that have not shall be denied.  The same occurs in science.  The same people get the grants and get their papers published.  It can be hard to break into the magic circle but also you have to do something very wrong to be evicted.

 

Medical science has become big business, but the purse strings are controlled, not by fellow scientists, but by powerful organisations,  national governments,  multinational industries, world banks.  Although lip service is given to the opportunity for individual scientists to gain funding for their own original ideas, the reality is more that these organisations set their research priorities and invite key scientists to come up with proposals to investigate them.  There is little scope for curiosity. 

 

The Pharmaceutical industry is the biggest player.  Multinationals exist to sell drugs.  So they manipulate medical research by funding key scientists, sponsoring new medical journals, supporting academic appointments and laboratories and underwriting conferences as well as withholding negative negative results and publicising favourable studies.  There is little medical research that is carried out that does not have the dead hand of the pharmaceutical industry on it.  Money is power.   So if a drug company is developing a new drug to treat – say the symptoms of burning mouth,  first they will co-opt all the scientists who have ever written about this symptom to conduct research on it, next they will organise conferences on it, they will implant the idea that perhaps burning mouth is distinct disease – oralgia syndrome,  they will sponsor a meeting to define criteria and devise priorities for research, they will underwrite ‘The International Journal for Oralgia.’   By all these methods, they establish a condition, which only they can cure.       

 

In a political climate of nepotism, institutional pressure, governmental control and pharmaceutical manipulation, is it any wonder that the well of knowledge seems to have dried up.  Even the most honest and well intentioned scientists are compromised  by political forces from thinking out of the box.  The cost is control is creativity. Free thinking is dangerous and discouraged.  So how can scientists ever make truly groundbreaking observations any more.  It is not surprising that medical science appears to discover more and more about less and less. 

 

Any scientist worth their salt has to liberate the imagination from external control.  They have to be able to day dream; their head in the clouds while their feet are firmly anchored to the earth.  Discovery thrives in a free environment.   You can’t regulate creativity.  You can’t contain inspiration.  This would be like trying to bottle moonshine.   Discovery needs space to think and time to reflect.  So instead of expending efforts trying to establish rigorous definitions and rigid experimental protocols, medical scientists would do better to learn the lessons of the past, try to encourage curiosity and emulate as far as is possible the conditions in which the  breakthroughs were achieved.  There is little that is more fun, more exhiliarating than the thrill of discovery, recording something that nobody has seen before.  Unless medical science can inspire its acolytes to find that sense of excitement that comes from intellectual activity, it is lost. 

 

(Comments, critiques of this article would be very welcome)      

The sea was brighter near the shore – a light turquoise – almost green as the sandy beach filtered through the water.  Further out, over the rocks, it darkened to a regal hue and beyond that, a slate-blue, air-force serge.  Persil-white tumbled duvets of cloud rose layer upon layer, towering over the headland and backlighting a fidgety sea.   Patches of yellow gorse flashed from slopes of dark bracken that resounded with the songs of birds;  the insistent two-tone calls of stonechats and chiffchaffs, the neurotic chatter of the whitethroat, punctuated with emphatic whistles and scolding churrs, the descending notes of the parachuting pipit, and the loud, insistent instruction of the diminutive wren.  Far below, Atlantic Grey Seals had hauled themselves out on the rocks and were stretching and curling into smiles.  Two bright  blue and red lobster boats, tethered to a yellow buoy, rocked on the waves, their occupants lying in the gunnels dreaming of  good beer and wicked girls, while Gannets plunged around them.  A Buzzard, its tail spread, hovered heavily above the ruined engine house.          

 

And then, as incongruous as a barrel organ in church, a sudden gaiety of wicked squeals fractured the afternoon’s reverie. The Choughs had returned. Three of them careered along the slope, banking and tilting, twisting, diving with folded wings and then swooping up, feathers spread wide, fingering the wind for some purchase.  Choughs are the most aerobatic of our crows.  Seen head on, their profile resembles an inverted ogival arch; the upturned wing tips conferring stability where none seems possible.  

 

Choughs are birds of mountains and celtic fringes.  Yellow-billed Alpine Choughs scavenge leftovers in mountain top cafes in Austria and have even been seen at the Everest base camp.  In Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, they thrive around remote farms, stalking the stockyards in their red boots and probing piles of dung for beetles with a  blood-red bill, as curved and sharp as an inverted comma.  They declined in Cornwall after the pit ponies disappeared from the cliff tops. The last pair nested in 1947, but the male lived on for another 26 years and was last seen in 1973.  Then, seven of them turned up here in 2001.  Protected from egg thieves and encouraged by the wild grazing of highland cattle, their population has increased.  Walking from Falmouth to Padstow, I saw them in three different sites.           

 

The Latin name for the Chough is Pyrrocorax, which means fire-crow.  Like other crows, notably the Jackdaw (of Rheims) and the (thieving) Magpie, it is attracted to bright objects, rings, coloured glass, spoons, and in the case of the Chough, firesticks.  In the middle ages, Choughs had the reputation for stealing sticks off the fire and dropping them onto the thatch of the houses, setting them alight.

 

They coveteth firestickes, which they ficlhest and hideth away in the thatch.’         

 

Choughs are birds of misrule and hazard.  They take risks on life.  They have fun. They inspire.  Just to go out on the cliff top on a bright, breezy morning and watch them play tag, twisting and tumbling and squealing with delight is to find joy in life.  Rejoice, but watch out for your thatch!   

 

I am in the South West Wilderness of Tasmania,  a week’s trek across precipitous mountains to the nearest habitation.  There is buzzing and ringing in my trouser pocket.  I reach for my mobile phone, a slim lozenge about the size of a box of tablets.  It’s my son in England.  ‘Happy Birthday, dad!, he says.  I am delighted but not amazed. I take it for granted.  But a hundred years ago, his greeting might have just reached me by my next birthday. 

 

It was on December 12th,  1901, that Guglielmo Marconi, waiting patiently in a small shack beside a kite aerial in St Johns, Newfoundland, heard a signal, a repetitive series of three pulses – the morse letter ‘S’, generated from a similar shack in a field at Poldhu, near Lands End in Cornwall.  It was very faint, but its significance was vast.  For the first time, a signal had been transmitted across the Atlantic. They had told him it couldn’t be done.  The power needed to generate a signal was enormous, the aerial vast and even if the signal could be transmitted, it would never follow the earth’s curvature but go straight into outer space.  But Marconi was obstinate.  He believed the signal would stay close to the earth.  It did.

 

Discoveries never come out of the ether.  Science favours the prepared mind.  But what prepared a hitherto unknown Italian’s mind to make this leap of faith 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean?   Did Marconi get the inkling of radio waves by interference on the telephone, like when somebody operates a vacuum cleaner and it produces white noise on the radio?  Probably not, though it is of interest that the British physicist, David E. Hughes, observed that his induction apparatus produced a noise on his telephone receiver.  He presented it to The Royal Society in 1878, but the reception was not good.

 

There was a wealth of observation leading up to Marconi’s experiment.  From the 16th century, mariners had noted that lightning strikes perturbed a compass needle.  On 21st April 1820, the Danish physicist, Hans Christian Oersted, observed that a compass needle deflected when he turned the current from his simple battery-operated circuit on and off.  Later, James Clark Maxwell developed his theory of electromagnetism.  He declared that light was a propagating disturbance in an electromagnetic field and postulated that different frequencies of oscillation gave rise to different forms of electromagnetic radiation.  Radio waves transmit at a much lower frequency than other electromagnetic waves and a much longer wavelengths.  In fact, it is possible for man to generate a weak radio signal by waving a charged stick.   

 

Marconi was not the first to capture and transmit radio waves.  Heinrich Hertz used a spark gap transmitter and a long aerial to send a signal to a coil of wire with a gap.  When activated, the receiving coil generated a spark and produced a signal.  Hertz realised as early as 1886 that radio-waves could travel over some distance, but declared his observations of no use whatsoever. It was the Serbian, Nikola Tesla who first developed radio as a form of communication, beating Marconi by two years, but Marconi, by the use of enormous aerials and powerful generators, was able to transmit over longer distances and realise the commercial potential. Tesla accused him of stealing seven of his patented ideas, but by that time, his more extravagant claims had led to him being ignored as an archetypical mad scientist. 

 

For his leap across the Atlantic, Marconi used a simple interrupted high voltage spark between two charged poles.  This was amplified and transmitted via an aerial the circumference of a field;  his receiving aerial a long wire carried aloft on a kite   Radio 4 LW operating at a wavelength of 1500 metres, still requires an aerial of 750m to generate the long wave.

 

Improvements in technology (thermionic vacuum tube valve, sensitive coherer receivers, automated tone generators) rapidly increased radio’s scope and potential.  On March 8, 1916, The American Radio and Research Company (AMRAD), broadcast the first continuous broadcast in the world from Tufts University under the call sign 1XE. The company soon broadcast a daily schedule of dance programs, university lectures, weather forecast and bedtime stories.  British public broadcasting commenced in 1920 with Dame Nellie Melba’s rendition of The National Anthem from the Marconi factory in Chelmsford.  In 1924, a short wave signal was beamed (narrowcast) from Poldhu on the tip of Cornwall to Marconi’s motor yacht anchored off Cape Verde Islands in the South Atlantic.  In 1936, the first television image was transmitted. 

 

The ability to transmit a code over long distances made the world a much smaller and more immediate place.  Improvements in technology meant that more signals could be passed more quickly and the code could be reconstructed in images or speech or pixels on an internet screen,  But in essence the signal was the same, a simple on off switch, but it could be encoded by adjustments in amplitude (AM) or frequency (FM), or more recently phase – like syncopation. 

 

The path to discovery involves informed observation, vision, experiment, but also enterprise and backing. Marconi could see the prospect of commercial radio from his simple faint code transmitted across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, he had the energy to promote and the backing to develop it.  But the implications of his achievement are said to have both excited and scared him.

 

‘Have I done the world good or have I added a menace?’, he pondered. 

 

We might still wonder.  We exist in a post Marconi electronic age.  Our computers and mobile phones increase our communication and efficiency.  We can organise our  business, keep in touch with family and friends and carry out many of our domestic tasks without ever having to leave our desk. But has Marconi enriched our lives?  Is our communication as meaningful?  Have we enough time to reflect?  Are we more healthy?  I don’t think so, but such is the price of progress.  Good or menace?  Maybe that’s a futile question.  Marconi’s bequest just is.   It challenges us to adapt. 

Next Page »