Saturday 17 December 2011


“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing” - Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) is one of my favourite painters. He was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland on March 30, 1853. He was the son of a pastor and although he was brought up in a religious and cultured atmosphere, Vincent was highly emotional and lacked self-confidence. Between 1860 and 1880, when he finally decided to become an artist, van Gogh had had two unsuitable and unhappy liaisons and had worked unsuccessfully as a clerk in a bookstore, an art salesman, and a preacher in the Borinage (a dreary mining district in Belgium), where he was dismissed for overzealousness.

He remained in Belgium to study art, determined to give happiness by creating beauty. The works of his early Dutch period are sombre-toned, sharply lit, genre paintings of which the most famous is “The Potato Eaters” (1885). In that year van Gogh went to Antwerp where he discovered the works of Rubens and purchased many Japanese prints. In 1886 he went to Paris to join his brother Théo, the manager of Goupil's gallery. In Paris, van Gogh studied with Cormon, met Pissarro, Monet, and Gauguin, and began to lighten his very dark palette and to paint in the short brushstrokes of the Impressionists.

His nervous temperament made him a difficult companion and night-long discussions combined with painting all day undermined his health. He decided to go south to Arles where he hoped his friends would join him and help found a school of art. Gauguin did join him but with disastrous results. Near the end of 1888, an incident led Gauguin to ultimately leave Arles. Van Gogh pursued him with an open cut-throat razor, was stopped by Gauguin, but ended up cutting a portion of his own ear lobe off. This led to Vincent’ hospitalisation in Arles.

Van Gogh then began to alternate between fits of madness and lucidity and was sent to the asylum in Saint-Remy for treatment. In May of 1890, he seemed much better and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise under the watchful eye of Dr. Gachet. Two months later he was dead, having shot himself “for the good of all”. During his brief artistic career he had sold only one painting. Van Gogh’s finest works were produced in less than three years in a technique that grew more and more impassioned in brushstroke, in symbolic and intense colour, in surface tension, and in the movement and vibration of form and line. Van Gogh’s inimitable fusion of form and content is powerful, dramatic, lyrically rhythmic, imaginative, and emotional, for the artist was completely absorbed in the effort to explain either his struggle against madness or his comprehension of the spiritual essence of man and nature.

In this painting, "Courtyard of Hospital in Arles", completed in 1889, Vincent depicts the courtyard of the Arles hospital in which he was confined after mutilating his ear. The artist made a drawing of the courtyard of the hospital in June 1889. The vantage point for the painting was his room within the hospital. Van Gogh’s description and his painting of the garden allow for identification of its flowers, such as: Blue bearded irises, forget-me-nots, oleander, pansies, primroses, and poppies. The original design of the courtyard as described by Van Gogh has been preserved. Radiating segments are surrounded by a “plante bande” now filled with irises. A difference between Van Gogh’s painting and the garden is that Van Gogh increased the size of the central fish pond for better compositional results. Adept at using colour to convey mood, the shades of blue and gold in the painting seem to suggest melancholy. The yellow, orange, red and green in the painting are not vivid shades seen in other work from Arles, such as “Bedroom in Arles”.

This is a painting by a man meditating on death and his colourful brushtrokes and vital composition is a last ditch attempt at clutching at life and using the beauty of the world around him to haul himself out of the black hole into which his mental state had made him descend into.

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Friday 16 December 2011


“May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night and a smooth road all the way to your door.” - Irish Blessing

For Song Saturday today, a beautiful song by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). It is his “Mondnacht”, written in 1840 and sung here by Barbara Bonney, accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy on the piano. The lied is from the collection “Liederkreis”, opus 39 and the lyrics are by Joseph von Eichendorff.

In case your German is a little rusty, here is a translation of the text:

Moonlit Night

It was as if the heavens
Had silently kissed the earth,
So that the earth had only to dream of it
In shiny blooms.

The air caressed the fields
With the ears of corn swaying slightly;
A rustle whispering in the woods,
The night as clear as stars.

And my soul expanded,
Spread its wings,
Over the quiet lands,
As if it were flying home.

Thursday 15 December 2011


“If beef is your idea of ‘real food for real people’ you'd better live real close to a real good hospital.” - Neal Barnard, M.D.

At the pain of being considered one-tracked today, I am continuing on the health/sickness theme I initiated a couple of days ago with my friend’s diagnosis of cancer. I will consider hospital food for Food Friday, something that will make some people cringe, I am sure. Hospitals do not have a good culinary reputation, the idea being that sick people should have wholesome, plain, healthful food that should help them on the road to recovery. Most patients’ experience of hospital food is of rows of bowls of dun-coloured tasteless fluids that pass off as soup, greyish glop sitting on plates with some wilted vegetables for main course and unidentifiable bright neon-coloured glutinous sticky messes that masquerade as “dessert”.

Gourmet cooking is not for the hospital menu, I agree. The place is not a resort and God forbid that anyone should enjoy their stay there. However, the “wholesome, plain, healthful” descriptor has been much used in the past to hide a multitude of culinary sins. Bread that tastes like mushy cardboard and vegetables that have lost colour, texture and taste do not pass muster. Meat and fish that have been cooked to death until they are the consistency of vulcanised rubber or chopped bits of rope (depends on the recipe!) do not tempt the epicurean palate by any stretch of the imagination.

Visiting the hospital (admittedly a private one) nowadays, however, left me somewhat surprised. Hospital food has come a long way since my memories of it the last time I had to sample it (and that was decades ago). First, there is a menu. Not an à la carte one, but at least a menu where there are several options, allowing for a difference in people’s tastes and preferences. It was surprising to read descriptions that vied with those of restaurant menus, such as: “Succulent, pan-seared fillet steak cooked to perfection with your choice of crisp salad or steamed garden vegetables served with jus and béarnaise sauce on the side”. The remainder of the menu was in the same tenor and I was visualising gastronomic delights served in an elegant manner, with perhaps even a single rose in a vase and a candle in a silver candelabrum.

In addition, it was heartening to see that many meals had several symbols following the description of the dish, indicating “heart-friendly”, “vegetarian-compliant”, “kosher and halal-approved”, “diabetic-recommended” and various other indicators of the foods’ qualities. This was certainly an advance on “hospital glop” and I was once again impressed.

Call me naïve… When I saw the meal arrive, my jaw dropped. Firstly the china was not china but horrible plastic that immediately put one off the food – add to that plastic glasses, that I personally detest drinking out of. The meal looked worse than I imagined, certainly no restaurant would serve that sort of meal and hope to remain open for a week afterwards. It was, however, better than the traditional glop one associates with hospitals. The vegetables were actually recognisable and the meat was edible, or so my friend said. The soup was very nice and the dessert was actually delicious (never mind the plastic bowl it was served in).

Logistically, it must hell on earth trying to cater for hospital meals. There are many factors to consider, the most obvious being the multitude of dietary restrictions that are of necessity forced upon the patients by their impending procedure or existing disease. Numerous food allergies to be noted and catered for. A variety of religious and dietary preferences that must be accommodated. Add to that the sheer numbers of meals that must be prepared, delivered and served within a short period of time, as well as factors that relate to budgeting and availability of foods at the time of preparation.

Nutritionally, hospital meals do provide the basics and the hospital is equipped of course with staff dieticians. How far they do indeed contribute to the planning of hospital meals and to what extent do they quality control the finished meals is debatable. The only consolation perhaps is that for the majority of patients, hospital stays are relatively short and the diet of hospital food is an attendant misfortune of the disease one suffers from. Maybe it is just as well. For many people gastronomic indiscretion may have contributed to or directly caused their disease. It is only fair that they should be chastened by plentiful servings of “glop”.

Wednesday 14 December 2011


“He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured” - Ethiopian Proverb

Billions of cells in our body, growing, dividing, carrying out their manifold functions, growing, dividing, degenerating, dying. These are the microscopic workhorses of the body, the ordinary foot soldiers that carry on and win the endless battles that assure survival of the organism as a whole. Like soldiers they receive commands – through hormones and other chemical messengers, through contact with their neighbours or nervous system signals – and these commands they obey. There are rules, instructions, hierarchy, routine. And all is well, and all functions as it should.

Until a single cell rebels. The soldier who would be general suddenly stops being controlled and assumes command, becoming an autonomous renegade. It is wildly different from its neighbouring cells and begins to divide more rapidly than them, making copies of itself at a prodigious rate. The mass of rapidly growing cells in this clone expand and impinge upon the normal cells adjacent to them. The normal cells shrivel up and die. All the while, the mass of renegade cells keeps on growing larger. They obey no more signals, they are not under the body’s control any more.

And as time passes, things may get worse. The rapidly growing cells infiltrate the space between the normal cells and grow between them. They invade the surrounding normal tissues and mingle imperceptibly with them. All the worse is that they still masquerade as our own cells, our body still sees them as belonging to it, misled by their lineage. Usually by the time the body recognises that they are renegades and mounts a defence against them it is too late. The tumour is too large and unable to be controlled.

These cancerous cells will rarely cause pain or other early warning symptoms. As they grow further they may invade body vessels and being more likely than normal cells to become detached from their neighbours, they will break off in small clumps and move through the body vessels to distant parts of the body. Once there, each of these groups of cells will grow and become a new colony, each colony destroying more normal tissue, undermining more and more of the body’s vital functions. If there is no intervention, malignant renegade cells like these will kill the very body that hosts. A Pyrrhic victory for a renegade soldier turned to mad general…

Such is the life and death natural history of a cancer. We know a lot about what makes a cell cancerous. Ultimately every cancer is due to a mutation. A mutation is a change in the genetic material of a cell – the DNA – that can be inherited by daughter cells as the mutant cell divides. Mutations in the DNA can be harmless, causing little or no change in function, to fatal mutations that kill the cell. Somewhere in between these two extremes is the disrupted function that we know as cancer. Uncontrolled, autonomous, excessive growth that continues and allows the abnormal cell to make more and more of itself, the cancerous mass serving no useful purpose in the body.

As to what causes the mutation in the DNA, in some cases we know for sure. For example, radiation such as ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays can directly damage DNA and cause mutations. That is why we should use sunscreen when we are out in the sun: To protect our skin cells from the mutating effects of sunlight’s ultraviolet radiation. A small number of viruses under special circumstances can cause cancers by mutating the cells they infect. For example, the genital warts virus in women causes cancer of the cervix – hence the vaccine that is now being used to prevent it. Our diet can cause mutations in the cells lining the gut. We know that certain foods that we eat habitually will over a long time cause cancers of the gut. For example, pickled, smoked and other preserved foods are associated with cancers of the stomach. A diet high in red meat and saturated fats while low in fibre, fresh fruits and vegetables will cause cancer of the large bowel.

We know of a huge number of chemicals that cause cancers. Perhaps the best documented example is that cocktail of about 200 chemicals that smokers inhale with each puff of smoke from a cigarette. These chemicals are irritants that cause damage and inflammation, they are carcinogens that directly damage the DNA of cells and many of them are promoter chemicals that help cancer cells grow faster once they have formed. Smoking is the foremost cause of lung cancer. Before smoking became widespread in the early 20th century, this cancer was a rarity. Most cases of lung cancer that we see occur in heavy smokers.

Hormones and other internal factors can be traced to cancer causation in genetically predisposed people. The prime example is breast cancer, which is influenced by secretion of female hormones, whether or not a woman has had a child (and at what age – the younger a woman becomes a mother the more protected she is from developing this cancer) and whether there is breast cancer history in the woman’s sister, mother or grandmother.

However, despite the examples of known cancer causes given above and quite a few more that we are aware of, there are many cancers that seemingly arise out of the blue with no known predisposing factors that we can demonstrate. Some of these occur in genetically predisposed people. Some families are more prone to develop cancers as they carry assortments of faulty genes that can spontaneously mutate, or be more likely to mutate in circumstances that genes in normal people will not. It is indisputable that cancer development is linked to genetic factors some of which we understand, some of which we still are researching. Some cancers arise out of the blue spontaneously in people who logically should not get them (remember my friend from yesterday’s post?). These random, sporadic cancers are the most difficult to understand, but fortunately they are rare.

Many cancers can be cured effectively nowadays. Cutting the tumour out is the most obvious treatment and surgery remains the cornerstone of cancer treatment for the majority of cancers. Drugs can be used to selectively kill the cancer cells and this is the principle of chemotherapy. This is the only option with some widespread cancers like leukaemia. Yet another treatment is radiotherapy where high energy radiation is used to kill the cancer cells, which are more susceptible to damage than normal cells are. Many brain cancers are often treated in this way, given their vital position and high risk of damage to normal tissue through surgery. New treatments for cancer include combinations of the above, but also there are newly developed treatments with immune system modulators and monoclonal antibodies against cancer cells.

Prevention is still the best option for reducing our risk of dying of cancer. We know that preventing our exposure to many of the substances that are known to cause cancer will reduce our risk of developing the disease. Taking care of our diet, exercising and keeping fit, limiting our exposure to ultraviolet light, protecting ourselves against viral infections that are associated with cancer through vaccination (in particular Hepatitis B and Genital Warts), having appropriate tests to catch cancer early and have it cured, all can all help us live a cancer-free life.

cancer |ˈkansər| noun
The disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body: He's got cancer | Smoking is the major cause of lung cancer.
• A malignant growth or tumour resulting from such a division of cells: Most skin cancers are curable by surgery.
• A practice or phenomenon perceived to be evil or destructive and hard to contain or eradicate: Racism is a cancer sweeping across Europe.
cancerous |ˈkansərəs|adjective
ORIGIN Old English, from Latin, ‘crab or creeping ulcer,’ translating Greek karkinos, said to have been applied to such tumors because the swollen veins around them resembled the limbs of a crab. Canker was the usual form until the 17th century.

Tuesday 13 December 2011


“No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.” – Euripides

A friend has been diagnosed with cancer. He was one of the most unlikely people to have got this disease as he is otherwise very healthy, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke has a healthy diet, is relatively fit and has no family history of the disease. The only thing the doctor could say about it was that he must have been one of those unlucky “random” cases where the tumour just turned up out of the blue. This is precious little consolation for him. However, the good news is that the cancer was diagnosed in its early stages so fortunately, treatment is likely to be effective, with everyone hoping for a complete and utter cure.

We take our health for granted and it is commonly enough said in this context that we don’t appreciate something until we lose it. So it was with my friend. One moment life was good, with his routine of work, family, recreational activities, planning for the coming holidays, Christmas, and the next moment a barrage of tests, admission into hospital and surgery. The whole world seemed to turn upside down in an instant. Add to that the dreaded word “cancer” that most people still view as a death sentence, and the sum of this is a shock to the system, a major upset in the equilibrium of a balanced life.

Such cases that challenge our worldview and overturn our place within the orderly pattern of our existence, can prove to be catalytic for a major reassessment of our priorities, our values, our plans and our objectives. Confronted with a very real and immediate image of our mortality we are obliged to think deep and hard about what is important and what is unimportant. We divest ourselves of illusions and we look at life as a precious, finite commodity, which suddenly seems to be running out, fast. Our possessions, the money in the bank, the plans for next year, for our retirement, for tomorrow even, are all suddenly jettisoned while we try and keep the little boat of our life afloat just for a little bit longer amidst the stormy seas of our failing health.

The people we love assume an overwhelming importance at times like these. The support and affection that we usually may take for granted become abruptly a vital caring force. The comfort and sustenance these loved ones provide become an essential part of our ability to cope with the challenges that we need to deal with. Our family and friends become our prop that underpin our efforts, they are the buttresses that provide the strength for us to overcome our trials.

It is difficult for someone healthy and happy to imagine the predicament that my friend has found himself in. It is hard to think that such a terrible turn of events should happen to us. Whenever we think of ourselves, we think we are invincible, immortal, all-powerful, somehow immune from all the horrible things that always happen to others. It is a humbling and chastening experience when it does indeed happen to us. No amount of preparation or forethought can make us adequately ready for the reality of the actual experience. It is a perspective that is observed only from the one, unique position. That of the actual person who is experiencing the situation first-hand. It is a condition where the observed becomes the observer and vice-versa.

We all know that death is an inescapable certainty that all of us will experience sooner or later. We live our life for the most part ignoring this inevitable ending, or some of us may shun all thoughts of it because we fear it. Acceptance of this unavoidable eventuality can allow us to live life more fully and more productively. Entertaining the idea that our own death could occur tomorrow, next week, next month can help us put our life in perspective and help us give due importance to those who really matter most in our life.

I am sure that readers of this will join me in wishing my friend all the best, with a speedy and complete recovery.


“The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases” - William Hazlitt

We all wish to go on a journey that we have long dreamed about, to some exotic destination, some distant shore… How many hours got towards planning this trip, how many happy thoughts, how many dreams! For some such a journey must remain a dream.
Magpie Tales has shared this week an image by Mostafa Habibi that prompted me to contribute this poem.

The Never-Journeyed

“My life’s trapped me”, he said,
And looked forlornly at the sea.
“I wish it were otherwise,
But I’m a prisoner, a slave
To my everyday routine…”

The sea sounds speak softly to his soul,
Each susurration a sibilant invitation,
A bewitching beckon that traps his gaze,
And evinces salty reflections in his eyes,
Leaving wet trails on his wrinkled cheeks.

“Circumstances conspired against me”, he said,
And bowed his head, embarrassed,
“Family first, brothers and sisters;
Then a wife and children.
Responsibility, duty, obligation…”

The wind caresses his brow and tussles his hair,
It blows in a seashell and, magnified, the sea
That lurks there is revivified and he hearkens;
Each beat of his heart quicker, stronger now
As he looks longingly at the horizon.

“Jamaica, Zanzibar, Bali, Japan!”, he said,
And pointed far away to the distance.
“How I wish I could have sailed away
And seen them with my own eyes!
The spice islands, Andaman, Java, Ceylon…”

The boat taunts him and with the sea conspires
To rub salt into his wounds, and to laugh at his inaction –
Motionless there, as though he were rooted to the ground.
“Some are born sailors,” he said, “Some are landlubbers.
Some grab life in a fist of iron and shape it as they will –
Some life grabs and mangles into lifeless puppets.”
He looks afar and sighs and after while turns away.
“Keep for yourself your boat,” he said,
“For me six feet of sea-sodden strand will have to do…”

Monday 12 December 2011


“Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke” - Steve Martin

There are some actors one hates or loves and one of them I think, is Englishman Steve Coogan. I started off disliking him intently and now I am finding myself on the opposite side. He is certainly a talented comedian and his quirky, straight-faced deliveries can be very unsettling – hence the success of his comedy. He has done much more television work than films and his signature “Alan Partridge” shows are sure to elicit groans from even his ardent fans (followed of course by guffaws of laughter). We watched the first of his movies at the weekend, the 2001 John Duigan crime/comedy, “The Parole Officer”.

Coogan plays Steve Garden, an unsuccessful London parole officer who is called to account for himself after everyone he works with complains about him. In order to chasten him the Board of review sends him to Manchester (no accident as this is in fact Coogan’s birthplace!). There, he is framed for a murder committed by one of Manchester’s leading police constables who has turned crooked. The only evidence proving to Garden’s innocence is a CCTV videotape which is locked inside a bank vault. With the help of four inept ex-criminals and love interest Emma (Lena Headey), Garden must break into the bank and steal the CCTV tape in order to prove his innocence.

The film is no major landmark of the cinematic art and the plot is anything but original nor is the acting exceptional. It is just a pleasant, amusing, often clever B-grade movie that is good to watch and have a few laughs over. Coogan’s antics are up to the script, which Steve Coogan co-wrote with Henry Normal. There are references to famous movies in this film (for example quite a funny little soliloquy about Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing” - 1988) and the whole of this movie does remind me of “The Pink Panther” series a little bit. It does send up the “crime caper” genre and Coogan’s inept leadership and bumbling team manage to cancel each other out in order to bring the film (you guessed it!) to a happy end.

Omar Sharif has a prominent cameo role, but his performance is pedestrian and anything but impressive. The rest of the cast work much better with the material, which is funny mainly because it is delivered well, with great timing. For his cinematic debut, Coogan plays it safe and much of his improvisatory comedic talents are underutilised in this film. The movie is likeable and idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t deliver huge numbers of belly laughs. Most of the jokes are subtle and quite dry, so when the gross sight gags come along (e.g. the rollercoaster scene), they seem to be out of place. We enjoyed it overall and would recommend it to anyone with a quirky sense of humour who enjoys British comedy.

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Sunday 11 December 2011


“What is art? Nature concentrated.” - Honoré de Balzac

Claude Monet (1840-1926) was the chief proponent of Impressionism, one of the major art movements of the 19th century, which shook the foundations of the art world and prepared the ground for the wave of modern art schools in its wake. For Art Sunday today I am highlighting one of his works from 1883, which is to be found in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It is the “Gros Temps à Étretat” (Rough Weather at Étretat), oil on canvas.

In the 19th century, Étretat was a popular seaside resort on the Normandy coast and Monet visited it in January 1883 for a “working holiday”, influenced perhaps by the location’s recreational reputation. Étretat is located directly above the beach, immediately to the right of the view depicted in this painting, however, no indication is given here of the bustling resort town.

Instead, Monet frames his viewpoint to focus on the awesome power of nature with the wild waves and stormy skies on the left counterbalanced by the massive rock formations on the right. Between the two and pivotal in the composition are the two human figures in silhouette on the lower right. The one on the left is pointing out to sea – a gesture of awesome admiration, while the second figure is more interested in keeping his hat on! A comment perhaps on the romantic versus the pragmatic in human nature.

The walkers are a reminder of the recreational activities at Éntretat, further underlined by the zigzag lines on the cliffs in the distance, representing the relentless tourist paths beaten around Éntretat by the steps of the tourists and holiday-makers that have worked these walking trails on the landscape.

The painting is a magnificent portrayal of a moment in time and space, an acknowledgment of the majesty of nature, an impression of the interaction of human beings interacting with their environment. The scale of comparison that Monet makes underscores man’s puny stature when compared to the gigantic scale of natural forces at play in his environment. A deeply satisfying and beautiful work!

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