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.

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