Tag Archive: Wellcome


I recently reviewed Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century by Anne Stiles for the British Society for Literature and Science. If you’re interested in the Gothic, vampires, murder-mysteries, Jekyll & Hyde, psychology, and nineteenth-century theories of the mind, I’d recommend it. In fact, it fits quite well with the exhibit I just saw at the Wellcome: Brains: The Mind as Matter.

Me, Richard, & Rebecca listening to 'Bedbugs' along with the Henry's crowd.
Photo courtesy of Rob Falconer.

Last night, the Wellcome ‘Henry’s Club’ held its first after-hours Member’s event, a launch of Rebecca Tremain’s ‘The Gilded Vectors of Disease‘ Episode 3: Bedbugs. It was great fun to be part of recording, and to write and perform a new poem, ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan,’ for the episode. About ten club members joined me, Rebecca, programme producer Rob Falconer, and Dr Richard Barnett (guest interviewer for Episode 3 & Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow) for wine & snacks, and to listen to a preview of Bedbugs, which is on the air next Wednesday at 7:30 pm on Resonance FM. There were quite a few ‘ewws’ ‘ahhs’ and chuckles, and ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan’ garnered a round of applause!

The main theme of my week, however, has been Sick City. This project began as Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, a gorgeous box-set of books and maps written by Richard Barnett, (mentioned above,) & published in 2008 by Strange Attractor Press, in association with the Wellcome Collection. It takes the reader on historical, self-guided walks around London, focusing on such stories as Dr John Snow’s solution to the Cholera epidemic in Soho, the lost Fleet River, and the rise and demise of gin in English culture. In his role as Engagement Fellow, Richard has begun to turn these ‘Sick City’ stories into digital media, starting with a series of cleverly-designed apps for smartphones which will allow listeners to go on his guided walks anytime they like.

Richard is working with former BBC radio producer Joanna Rahim to develop this series, and they began with the wonderfully-titled ‘Blood, Guts, Brains and Babies’, of which there is an enthusiastic review here. (6th paragraph down) and a wonderful interview here. ‘Blood Guts, Brains and Babies’ is available here to download free.

'Henry's' Club members listening to 'Bedbugs' pre-airing (pre-listening?)
Photo courtesy of Rob Falconer.

Working with Richard on The Gilded Vectors episode prompted him to invite me to be an extra voice on the apps, and we’ve spent the past few days working with Joanna on three walks: John Snow & Cholera, the London Gin Craze, and the Lost River Fleet. My role is to read excerpts from literature and poetry which flesh out the stories and help bring in colourful, contemporary primary resources.

I’m being treated to the best possible introduction to radio & audio recording, working first with Rob, Rebecca, and Richard, and now with Richard and Joanna. Everyone is delightful and they have a vast amount of professional experience amongst them. (It’s surreal to be repeatedly told I have a wonderful voice, and that I’m in the right country to have an ‘exotic American accent’ – oh Rhode Island, who knew?!)

Most of all, this is fun, and a brilliant learning experience. The pace is snappy and vibrant, a breath of fresh air compared to the geologic worlds of fiction and poetry publishing. Results are quick; sometimes immediate. We’re doing projects that have trackable results & readerships (as its all digital – in fact, Rob said a number of readers came to the ‘Gilded Vectors’ programme from having read it on this blog, so thank you, readers!).

The Sick City apps will be available soon, for free, and you know I’ll tell you when they’re online…

I have been working hard at playing tourist, as my lovely mother was over for an extended visit. My head spins when I think of all we managed to do & see.

The timing was perfect for me to send the manuscript of my novel to the excellent Debi Alper, who completed a dizzyingly rapid and thorough critique so that now, one day after my mother has gone home, my manuscript sits at my desk ready for me to dig into and revise.  I can’t thank Debi enough for her feedback. She stopped my compass spinning and pointed it North. Time to write.

Book cover

I just finished reading Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook, and this deserves some comment as well. Though I’ve read some of both Hughes and Plath’s poetry, this is the first book I’ve read about them as a couple and it really blew me away. Though of course the personal aspects of their life are tied to the rest of the story, Middlebrook focuses on the creation of the couple as artists — as writers. The passion, power, struggles, determination, despair, and fierce certainty both Plath and Hughes dealt with are so familiar, yet rendered in the most dramatic, tragic consequences. The book is up for critique, of course, and this review by Andrew Motion probably gives the fairest idea of the strengths and weaknesses of Middlebrook’s approach.

And finally, one of my favourite places in London, the Wellcome Collection, is putting on a Symposium tonight and tomorrow, on…skin:

Nudity is an intimate state, perceived differently across times and cultures. For some it is a taboo, for others something to be celebrated. Join us for this special two-part ‘skin-posium’ to explore nakedness in all its guises.

Friday: Literary reading, 19.00-21.00
Bask in words of literary masterminds Milton, Keats, Tennyson and others. The evening includes a drinks reception so you can get to know your fellow guests.

Saturday: Talks and discussions, 10.30-17.00
Experts from the worlds of history of art, evolutionary science and more will explore how bare skin is understood in different cultures, how nudity makes us feel and how our ancestors evolved to reveal their bare skin in the first place.

Our multidisciplinary speakers include ‘Skin’ curator Javier Moscoso, fashion historian Rebecca Arnold, geneticist Walter Bodmer, historian of art Jill Burke, author of ‘A Brief History of Nakedness’, Philip Carr-Gomm, human geographer Glenn Smith and anthropologist and film-maker Michael Yorke. Friday evening is curated by Steven Connor, author of ‘The Book of Skin’.

Because my next project is on anatomical models, and because I’m beginning to incorporate my work as an artist’s model into my writing, this is of particular interest to me and I’m really looking forward to it!

Ideally I don’t mix my different writing projects: I want to sort out my Caroline Herschel novel before I get too much into the anatomical model writing. But you can’t stop the muse. I’ve got over 10 pages of new poems which are going to be the ‘next project’ after the novel. Seeing as I began writing novels towards the end of working on Darwin’s Microscope, I simply believe my brain wants a break from one genre or the other. Not that I’m at the ‘end’ of the novel, but I’ve been with it for about a year and a half, and my brain is leaping back to poetry, so it can breathe again. I am embracing this productivity and trying to do it justice.

Friday 4 June saw a bustling event at the Wellcome including top-hats, trumpets, leeches and liquorice. ‘Quacks and Cures’ proved an entertaining and efficacious evening of enlivening anecdotes and phrenological facts.

Kat Austen has a review up at New Scientist which I highly recommend. Whilst she mentions the panel of doctors who humorously gave medical advice from their ‘respective centuries,’ as well as the panel discussion on medicine today and films of old public health announcements, I must mention the live leeches and information about how they are used even today in — surprise — cosmetic surgery!

The evening began with an excellent talk by Dr. Richard Barnett about the lost spas and healing wells of London. Hope may Spring Eternal, but I was mostly grateful that now is not then, and we are not (at least, we think,) consuming at least a portion of our own waste in the water we drink.

Richard’s talk drew from his book ‘Medical London,’ a recent favourite of mine, and a book meant not only to be read with delight but to be used as a treasure-hunter’s map for those interested in the history of medicine as it pertains to our multi-faceted city. The Medical London website has a smattering of videos describing certain walks discussed in the book: the book is a gorgeous boxed set including essays, a gazetteer, and map-pamphlets of walks so you can guide yourself through the history of our ‘Sick City.’ Medical London could not be a more perfect read for those interested in history, medicine, and/or London.

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