Saturday, 19 February 2011

Big Sleep & Silent Reader

Maybe it's something in the stars, maybe it's the month of February, but everyone seems to be stretched to the limits (just one more email/ task/ emotionally needy vampire friend and *snap*). I am afraid I am no exception at times. Of course, it is at those times that the phone rings, an important email comes in or there's a knock on the door. Reliable, mysterious, rubbish. And there's not even anyone to blame: the tension really is just an accumulation of unfortunate circumstances paired with one planet or other finding itself in the wrong house.

There are several techniques to avoid unpleasant encounters of any ordinal number's kind. Sleeping, a good diet, more sleeping, exercise, sleep... I'm drifting. But most of the time the situation is not completely in our control, and no manner of Olympic sleeping will clear the inbox or magic up an exhibition. Let's be frank, mid-frenzy, pressure, isolation due to being glued to one's office chair and the instinct to flap one's arms madly until everything goes away all blend into each other, even if you hope it's all going to be right eventually. What is a girl/ boy /woman /man /lady /lord /nerd (circle as appropriate) to do?
Not everyone can stay as cheerful under pressure
as Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940)
Image from Wikipedia

On a faux (you'll see) non-sequitur, allow me to muse on the solitary writer for a minute. In days before electronic communication (including the telephone), letters were the most immediate form of communication when visiting was out of the question. (I've been thinking about this a lot while preparing my exhibition, glued to my office chair, flapping my arms wildly, see above - the exhibition is on early modern letters, more anon = in a different post closer to the opening). Picture the scene: you are a Renaissance woman/man, write a letter and, no, you don't affix a stamp and put it into a funny red/ blue/ yellow (circle as appropriate) pillar/ contraption/ box-with-a-flap (ditto) - we are talking pre-Royal Mail/ USPS/ Deutsche Post (ok, circling the dead horse now). Instead you hand it to someone who has offered to carry the letter to its destination. If you're

  • lucky it's one of your family or a trusted servant
  • semi-lucky, a professional letter bearer who will also carry half a gift horse to the recipient, and is known to be reliable
  • unlucky, someone who appears shifty but hey ho, you're desperate and have sealed the letter, written in cipher, extra carefully
Miraculously, most of the time, your letter got to its destination, and an answer was soon on its way, sometimes even returned by the same bearer (who is chatting up the recipient's maid while waiting for the former to write a reply). Point: instant gratification. You might have been a lone letter writer, but the writing and receiving of letters made connections which warmed the heart and its cockles.

Nowadays, awash with emails, many don't have a choice but to let emails go unanswered, promises un-followed-up, gift-horses unacknowledged. And life has probably taught us all the lesson that this silence is, more often than not, an unintentional and unfortunate effect of the general overwhelm. The same (ok, slightly different) rationale applies to blogs: comment forms don't always work, who has the time to log in anyway, and blogs are not really meant to be interactive. But in both cases, any reaction or reply, however brief, does warm the heart!

Yet I am keenly aware that some recipients consider thank-you emails unnecessary bulk and thank-yous a waste of time. It is a tricky situation for both parties, but two events (of several years and several hours ago respectively) made me realise how much I appreciate the extra step.
Scene from The Big Sleep (1946)
Image from

1. Many moons ago, while blogging for a former employer, I was wondering why there were very few comments coming in even on controversial posts (you see, I was trying to provoke to elicit a reaction - the only one I ever got was censorship, but hey ho, I was desperate). One post asked readers to get in touch with the lone blogger and comment on the absence of comments. And voila, three types of comments materialised: the common-sensical (no time); the nice (sorry, and we really are enjoying the blog); and the elaborate. This final one explained on a grander scale that most blog readers read many blogs, consume them, and take away what they liked in a private sort of manner, mulling it over in brains of their own. At the time, though, I appreciated the feedback, and blogging became easier in the knowledge that there was a silent crowd of appreciative readers, most of whom needed to sleep more.

(On a proper non-sequitur, I still haven't read any Raymond Chandler, nor watched The Big Sleep. And anticipating your silent reaction this very moment, let me say: I KNOW!!)

2. Last week, I was pottering along, alone, writing while putting myself into the shoes of the average exhibition goer, when a student popped his head into my office. First thought: He must have a question. Second thought: Not. Now! Third thought: Students, eh? Silent crowds that only pipe up when they have a problem. But life made my cynical, isolated old self beam with joy within seconds that very second: in fact, the student popped in to let me know how much he enjoyed my lectures. Nothing more and on his way. How nice!

The moral of it all? A little thumb-up (to someone who is otherwise a solitary figure writing for imaginary friends or giving without receiving) can help make a rainy, cold, occasionally stressful February feel like spring is just around the corner. If this post inspires you, I'm glad - if not, no harm done. And I vow to return with more mysterious, more alchemical and less twee posts very soon...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Recycling Again - The Valentine's Edition

Reader (because, as someone quipped on last week's Just a Minute, I assume there is one), I am head over elbows in work, preparing an exhibition while the head is spinning and the elbows need greasing. But it is Valentine's Day, and as much as I mock those who buy into the consumerist pan-loverian rituals (farmed roses, cheap chocolates and high expectations) and applaud those who use the day as an excuse to do something really nice for their partners (not that that should be restricted to mid-Feb, but why not then, too) - as much as I do not agree with my mother's theory that I'm going to spend the rest of my life with the first man I spot on the morning of the 14th of February (after all, a taste in plumbers scented with bacon butty aroma, drinking (the cheek!) builder's tea and having personal hygiene problems is an acquired one)... ok, now I've lost the plot.

Just to say: whoever you are, wherever you are, this is for you. A recycled bit of work done at the Chemical Heritage Foundation three years ago, explaining love and chemistry in a slightly unusual and highly scientific way. To be enjoyed with fairtrade roses and Zotter chocolate. Enjoy!
(note the PG warning at the top of the page - for the very delicate among you-
and the credits, including those for the fabulous picture above!)

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Using It Up

The other day, I almost choked on my mid-morning digestive biccie-cum-coffee, and only managed to hold back a wail of frustration because I did not want to cause a scene - a scene that would be playing in similar form around the country another 999 times (or thereabouts). But I bet the 999 other people who received the very same email that had so unpretentiously, with a little plink, popped up on my screen also had an urge to stamp a foot or two, tear hairs and punch someone. That plink was the sound of failure. And that email was a rejection letter from an application to the BBC, to be exact to the AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme. Although I knew that this was not a personal rejection (rather, I had become the victim of difficult and efficient decision making, and there is no way of telling why someone else's writ appealed more than mine), I found, still find, and insist: 'snot fair!

Well, I am one of many academics who go through the constant strain of researching, teaching, simultaneously applying for funds for more of the above, and receive rejection letters on a regular basis. It's a good day if they spell your name right... I have also been on the other side of the table, in committees, and learned that in many instances, really good applications really do have that certain something. Sifting through the pile of applications may take some time, but decisions are often rather easier than expected. And those candidates who were chosen because they looked good on paper, against that little voice of intuition that found them, without knowing exactly why, just plain funny, were, upon personal inspection, well - just plain funny, really. That's funny-strange, not funny-hilarious. (This did not apply to the New Generation Thinkers, I suppose: picking 60 out of more than 1,000 candidates cannot be a cake walk; it sounds more like a stream of coffee and paracetamol and a healthy look beyond all distracting funnity).

I am currently heating up more irons in the fire of my intellectual... ... oh no, reader, I'm plain exhausted and cannot follow through with even a simple metaphor. Exhaustion probably also accounts for the weird dinners I've had lately. Weird-nice, not weird-weird, that is! Upon the current daily mix of teaching, applying for grants and organising an exhibition, I was often lost in thought (and in Glaswegian rain) on my way home and made do with what I found in the fridge. In the spirit of using things up I had a lot of vegetable omelettes which were actually quite delectable.

On a semi-sequitur: I find cooking for oneself does not furnish one with leftovers, and hence deprives me of enjoying the art of using up the same. If I want bubble and squeak, I have to make myself cook extra potatoes - and more often than not I have seconds which make those extras vanish in an act of alchemical gluttony. Nevertheless I seem to have inherited my parents' streak of The Fear Of Letting Things Go To Waste - not only in food-related matters.

And in this spirit, I present the little review I wrote for the abovementioned application, in the hope that it may delight in some way or other.
Image from

Review of ‘High Society’ –
Exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, London (11 Nov 2010-24 Feb 2011)

As I enter “High Society”, the exhibition on drugs and drug culture at the Wellcome Collection, my head starts spinning – from the large, looming case full of drug paraphernalia to the object notes, stencilled onto the wall opposite, and back again. I see betel nuts and mate spoons, snuff boxes in the shape of ladies’ boots and pragmatic injection kits, objects from more than two millennia and from all over the world. And coffee, served freely in the cafĂ© just a few steps away, is included among these objects. The mission of this exhibition is to document the history of drugs, their definitions and risks, and the constantly changing concepts of blame and responsibility. Right here, at the entrance, I am reminded that my gut reaction to drugs is a result of my cultural background and education. I proceed towards the core of the exhibition with the intention to succumb to its many colourful, bewildering and fascinating facets.

It is not coincidental that both medicines and illicit substances are known as ‘drugs’ in the English language: deriving from the word ‘dry’, ‘drug’ became a medieval shorthand for dry medicines made from plants. The line between medicines and illicit substances has always been thin. Little did the eleventh-century scribe of the Bury St Edmunds herbal know that the beautiful plants in his manuscript would cause significant harm just a few centuries later. Nearby engravings of opium farming sit uneasily beside references to the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars, which took place only shortly after Alexander von Humboldt had explored Latin America; Sigmund Freud had proposed an understanding of the human mind through psychoanalysis; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had put his drug-enhanced creativity to eternal rest. The nineteenth century was a mind-altering period on many levels.

Famous minds who defined our culture feature throughout the exhibition: in a section on ‘self-experimentation’, Humphry Davy’s writings on nitrous oxide are closely followed by first prints of Alice in Wonderland and a wonderful 1955 documentary on Dr Humphrey Osmond’s mescaline experiment. But there are also unfamiliar faces, in photos of Venezuelan and Mexican rites illustrating a section on ‘collective intoxication’; or in contemporary artist Tracey Moffat’s series of nostalgic, disturbing photos of Victorian women’s laudanum experiences. Installations designed to induce a state of altered perception through a flurry of lights and flashes add the visitor to this list of personalities in drug history – a cue for the cautionary tales told in temperance movements and inspiration behind the exhibition’s section on ‘Sin, Crime, Vice and Disease’.

As I leave the Wellcome building, once more foregoing the smell of coffee and cakes (which feature prominently in “High Society”-related events), I applaud the curators for an approach to a difficult topic which induces a sense of wonder, and a curiosity not about drugs, but about their meaning in different contexts. The overall effect of “High Society” is neither sobering, nor unduly alarming. It is stimulating. And that is perhaps the most appropriate effect a well-executed exhibition on drugs can have.