Thursday, 30 November 2017

Brief Lives; children's memorials in London cemeteries

There can't be many situations as difficult to deal with as the death of a child. High rates of child mortality into the early 20th century meant that in the past it was a much more common experience than it is today and one that parents had to go through more than once. Luckily today child deaths are exceptional and tragic events but that perhaps makes them all the harder to deal with. Memorials to these brief lives are often the most poignant to be found in any cemetery.   

This memorial to a four year old boy is in East London Cemetery in Plaistow. In most London cemeteries most memorials come straight out of an undertakers or stonemason's catalogues but in the East End some of the old individuality lingers on and East London Cemetery is one the best places to see these as this memorial shows.  

To the west of the catacombs at Brompton Cemetery lies a patch of ground dedicated to the graves of children. Interments date back to the 1830's but burials are still being carried out.

David Borrow aged 2 years "called away from those who loved him, plucked like a flower in bloom, so young so happy."

Another one in Brompton Cemetery. 
In Loving Memory of Christopher J Cooke
Who fell asleep 4th September 1943
Aged 3 months
Our darling baby we used to kiss
Once we nursed him but now sadly miss

Brompton again - this 1960's angel has probably been bleached of its original colour by sun and rain.
God sent this treasure for a while to charm us with her love
then gently took our darling one to dwell with him above
In ever loving memory of our darling -Susan- who died 22nd Sept 1964 aged 8 months

The lettering on this sandstone gravestone has worn away and become completely  indecipherable - looks to be mid 19th century

May Wheeler, died 1934 aged 12, Manor Park Cemetery.

This is a temporary grave marker at Kensal Green cemetery. Some parents never feel up to providing a permanent grave marker.

A very simple marker at Willesden new cemetery.

This is one of the most heart breaking children's graves that I have seen. When I took this photo in 2013 the 'temporary' grave with a simple black wooden cross, 6 inch high plastic fencing and some rather weathered soft toys looked like it hadn't been touched for a couple of years. But look when Malcolm, who only lived for two days, died. 1954. That means Malcolm's mother (because surely it could only have been his mother) had been returning to and tending her two day old baby son's grave for almost 60 years. She must have been in her 80's and still thinking about and grieving for her child dead for six decades. 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Les Cimetières de Londres - Guy Vaes (Jacques Antoine, Bruxelles, 1978)

I stumbled across the writer Guy Vaes’ 1978 photography book ‘Les cimetières de Londres’ by complete fluke when I was recently researching the Victorian architect Thomas Willson. Vaes mentions Willson in passing in the introductory essay to his book and as luck would have it, that essay was translated and made available on line last year; a few google searches were enough to make the tenuous connection between Willson and Vaes and alert me to the existence of his book. A couple more searches and I had located the one copy of it currently on sale in the UK. Given the current Euro/Pound exchange rate I could have got a slightly cheaper version from Belgium or France but as we all need to start getting used to living without the rest of Europe I paid the Brexit premium and stumped up for the British one. 

My French is non-existent and I am fortunate that 3 of Vaes’ essays, including his London cemeteries piece, have been recently translated by Philip Mosely for Literary Geographies, an open access e-journal.  Although he wrote in French, Vaes was born in 1927 in Antwerp in Flemish speaking Belgium, into a petit bourgeois family. He spent his childhood reading Jules Verne, HG Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson and his adolescence, during exile in France and the Nazi occupation of Belgium, devouring Woolf, Kafka, Melville and Faulkner. After the end of the war he was determined to become a writer but found himself enlisted in the Belgian army. An extended period of sick leave due to blood poisoning gave him the time he needed to start writing his first novel, Octobre long dimanche. This rather slim volume took him ten years to complete and wasn’t published until 1959. His second took him even longer - L'Envers wasn’t published until 1983. In retirement he became relatively prolific, publishing his final four novels in a late burst of creativity between 1993 and 2002. In the long fallow period between novels he earned his living in journalism, first in Antwerp for 'Le Matin' and 'La Métropole', and then for the Brussels weekly 'Spécial' where he became a respected film critic. In 1997 he was elected a member of the Académie royale de Langue et de Littérature françaises de Belgique. He died in 2012 at the age of 85 and despite his love of cemeteries, was cremated. 

Kensal Green
What is most immediately striking about the introduction to ‘Les cimetières de Londres’ is the appalling prose style. Passages like the following are as impenetrable as a schizophrenic's word salad:

At Highgate Hill, the most inspired of all these entrenchments, the osmosis between the tombs and the vegetation is that of the Amazonian tribe and its branchy site. As opposed to the strategist who established his bridgeheads on solid ground, the dead, having become prior to the Creation, find their feet only on the sloping parts of our consciousness. That’s to say, in the flaccid, in the marshy, and in that abyssal which has, however, less thickness than a reflection and whose nerves transmit the shock waves.

And what are we supposed to make of Vaes musings on ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’?; “Thomas Gray breathes some air into the rural literary landscape. He matches his innocent timbre to the sound of a life that the clay drinks up. To the epitaph transformed into runes, he associates a fate as discreet as that of a mole.” Sometimes though the overblown metaphors somehow manage to be genuinely evocative, “similar to the Indians, who breathlessly prepare to race down the hillside to attack the stagecoach, the graves of old St. James prepare the attack on London of the living….”

The Ducrow Mausoleum in Kensal Green looking very overgrown

This so often reads like a foreign language translated into English by a non native speaker with a literature degree and a well thumbed thesaurus that it is tempting to blame the excesses of Vaes style on the translator. But Philip Mosley is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. He has won prizes and decent reviews for his translations of Vaes, Rodenbach and Maeterlinck. He has published numerous articles in learned journals. He is the editor of ‘Anthracite! An Anthology of Pennsylvania Coal Region Drama.’ Surely if anyone should be able to string a coherent, grammatical sentence together it is a professor of English? Which means that if the English of Mosley’s translation is impenetrable it is because so is the French of Vaes’ original. At first I found it difficult to believe that a published novelist could write quite so badly but after a few pages I found Vaes’ overblown style beginning to exert something akin to fascination:
We hardly dare, for fear that the stretched imagination will boil over, to picture London as dreamed up by Jeremy Bentham, that Oxonian whose embalmed body, clothed as an eighteenth-century squire, is preserved in a cabinet at the University of London. His big idea was embalming. Bury the stiffs? What sacrilege! He wished to see Londoners mummified so as to render them as decorative objects. One would thus have kept mother and father in the drawing-room, installed grandfather in the bedroom, seated grandmother on the balcony, and grouped the ancestors beneath the foliage of a square. Bentham elaborated on it in Auto-Icon, or Further Uses of the Dead to the Living. Thanks to him, London would have become the huge appendix of Madame Tussaud. We would have mingled—at the Café Royal or in a box at the Palladium, beneath an awning in Covent Garden or in the corridors of the Underground—with people in moth-eaten ruffles and with extremely creased cheeks. We would have been seated beside them in a first-class train car or on the upper deck of an omnibus; and the equinoctial winds would have dispersed that threatening dust, unless a refuse collector’s shovel ….


There is something infectious about Vaes’ enthusiasm for his subject. His epigraph to the book is “the cemeteries of London …. Those four words have always had the effect on me that Christopher Columbus’s crew must have felt, at the end of an anxious voyage, when the look-out shouted ‘Land!’” He was remarkably well informed about the history of London’s dead. He walks us though, in his own inimitable way, the history of the cemetery movement in the capital, he talks about the key figures involved (indeed he dedicates the book to his wife Lydia and Stephen Geary, dead more than a century even in the 1970’s, the eccentric architect who designed many of the best loved features of Highgate, founder member of the General Cemetery Company and tireless campaigner for burial reform) and knowledgeably discusses the Victorian background. He mentions not only Thomas Willson, the proposer of the Pyramid mausoleum, and Hume’s auto-icon but Enon Chapel, Ducrow, Hawksmoor, Brompton, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets, City of London Cemetery, St Olaves, St Bartholomew-the-Great, George Alfred Walker, The Duke of Portland (albeit he calls him the Duke of Portman) and T.C. Druce, William Haywood and Arthur Machen. All of this makes him seem remarkably up to date. Was anyone else writing about all this in the 1970’s? (Except perhaps James Steven Curl, who was another man ahead of his time).  
Kensal Green - Landers?

Unlike his prose, Vaes photographs are artfully but simply composed. Taken in the mid 1970’s they reveal some surprises like the peacocks that apparently used to live in Highgate Cemetery or the original Limehouse premises of the Wanstead funeral directors Francis & Chris Walters. My favourite picture is the cover shot (thankfully included inside free of lettering) of a one handed Kensal Green Angel with the gas works steaming away in the background. Another shot shows the Ducrow mausoleum overgrown with ivy, something you would like to believe that would not be allowed to happen today. In other ways the monochrome images are timeless – most of the locations are instantly recognisable. In his foreword Vaes discuses other cemeteries where he must have taken pictures but which don't appear as images in his book. Pictures that are probably lost for ever now.
“Even more radical is the negative transformation undergone, since 1969, by Nunhead, Bunning’s masterpiece shining on the south bank of the Thames. Yews, oaks, and tulip trees have been transformed there into cones of ivy. The Dissidents’ Chapel has been destroyed a few steps from the Anglican Chapel, that exquisite Gothic paraphrase by Thomas Little, who designed St. Saviour at Paddington, …….. But nothing equals in beauty the lyricism of a ground which, swelling like a wave, goes forth on its own conquest, falls back, subsides and, reforming its tidal wave of clover and horsetail, raises crosses and statues higher than the adjacent chimney stacks.”

The circle of Lebanon, Highgate Cemetery

“Up to where the Columbarium, anticipated and called for by the presentiment of a focal point, announces itself. With its rounded pillars of gangrened drums, the leprous obelisks that solemnize its gap, the Egyptian gate, at least its image on the retina, has the power of a geyser’s source. It surges forth, tremendous in its peculiarity, stormy in its mass, from that which has reclad the view of a valley and was formerly a bare path. Beyond the grilles, with the freshness of a subterranean river, the Egyptian avenue and its tombs present themselves. Each verdigris door, stuck fast to a frame that has split, is equipped with a metal handle that the arm can no longer succeed in lifting. And, at the end of this funeral opening, a cedar, divinity with fan of arms blackened by blowtorch, besets a triangle of sky above a fresh succession of tombs. Beneath the spreading branches of this tree out of a sculptor’s studio, an alley whispers in the form of a ring, the Circle of Lebanon. There the Egyptian Avenue ends. Metal doors, marked by rust-filled craters, oscillated by an inventive dampness, have confined their occupiers to cells in the thickness of those concentric walls. And everywhere, from top to bottom, on the two flights of steps leading to the next to last terrace, holly, umbellifers, horsetails by the thousand, the pale mauve of the columbine, and a number of other plants whose names escape me.”

“…a stone angel, felled by leather jacketed goliaths of Peckham, lies in the grass like a peasant-girl after an act of love. She imitates the pose and shares the fate of a fascinating statue of a woman, removed from its plinth, in the modern section of Highgate. It happens occasionally—the sound has stayed in my ears—that a huge branch of a tree breaks off with the crack of a hull ramming a reef.”

Francis & Chris Walters Undertakers, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse
“Among these overly unassuming parcels of land one may still choose St. Anne in Limehouse. The church, one of the three largest and most accomplished by Hawksmoor, faces a pyramidal tomb of Portland stone.”

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Vaes discusses one of the great legends of the London Dead, the exhumation of Elizabeth Siddall by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. For anyone not aware of the story, the distraught poet placed  a sheaf of love poems (the only copy) in her coffin when his beloved model, muse and wife Lizzie died of a laudanum overdose and was buried at Highgate. Seven years later, a hopeless drug and alcohol abuser, convinced he was going blind and facing penury Rossetti had Lizzie exhumed in order to retrieve the poems and publish them. The story goes that Lizzie’s hair had continued to grow for the entire seven years following her death and was “an interminable golden banner waved in the evening breeze just beyond an inexpressible face. That hair covered the remains from head to foot” as Vaes puts it. It is a story heard in many countries and cultures - “The stone shattered at the first blow of the pick-axe and a stream of living hair the intense colour of copper spilled out of the crypt. The foreman, with the help of the labourers, attempted to uncover all the hair, and the more of it they brought out, the longer and more abundant it seemed, until at last the final strands appeared still attached to the skull of the girl…” Garcia Marquez ‘Of Love and Other Demons’

Kensal Green

Friday, 17 November 2017

'Exquisite Pain' - Damien Hirst, St. Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield

St Bartholomew is one of the nondescript apostles, one of the 12 who seems to be there simply to make up the numbers. The gospels don’t even agree on his name; in the synoptic gospels he is Bartholomew but to John he was Nathanael. Even Christ barely noticed him; “Behold a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile,” John alleges Jesus said on first seeing him, before promptly forgetting about him again. After the resurrection he wandered Asia casting out demons and baptising converts, from the coast of Anatolia to the shores of India.  The manner of his martyrdom transformed him into an icon of western art, one the few saints still providing inspiration to secular modern artists. On an overcast November morning in the gloomy south transept of the priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, the burnished gold of ‘Exquisite Pain’, Damien Hirst’s gilded statue of the saint, looks unnaturally bright, it seems to be radiating light rather than reflecting it. Despite the superficial magnificence I can’t help feeling the gilding is a mistake and that the statue looked better in its original plain bronze incarnation. The polished gold version reminds me irresistibly of C-3PO. The saint is shown in one of his traditional poses, flayed alive, a scalpel and shears in his hand, and carrying his own skin over his right arm like an unneeded overcoat. The artist said the inspiration for his St Bartholomew came “from woodcuts and etchings I remember seeing when I was younger. As he was a martyr who was skinned alive, he was often used by artists and doctors to show human anatomy." His catholic upbringing exposed him to the golden legends of the saints “they are great stories and it is about... those guys… who all met these terrible ends...,” says Hirst, “everyone is a martyr really in life. So I think you can use that as an example of your own life, just that kind of involvement with the world. Just trying to find out what your life actually amounts to, in the end.” But the statue is not just a homage to St Bartholomew, Hirst had another martyr in mind when creating his sculpture “I added the scissors because I thought Edward Scissorhands was in a similarly tragic yet difficult position," he said, "it has the feel of a rape of the innocents about it.”

The Sotheby’s catalogue note accompanying the sale of a copy of the statue claims that it “challenges the relatively recent demarcation of art and science, evoking the representations of Saint Bartholomew (the patron saint of doctors and surgeons) that were historically used as teaching aids for medical students.” It goes on to say “as in so much of Hirst’s work, the relationship between religion, science and art is playfully dissected. The artist was deeply affected by the often-gruesome religious imagery he was exposed to as a child, growing up in a Catholic household. As a teenager, he made repeated visits to a mortuary, where he produced sketches of the corpses, simultaneously studying the anatomical make-up of the body and attempting to address his fear of death. These early experiences undoubtedly informed the development of Hirst’s visual language and his examination of the complex, frequently blurred areas of intersection between belief, religion and science have produced some of the artist’s most challenging and important work to date.” The catalogue acknowledges the similarities between Hirst’s St Bartholomew and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s l’Écorché (Flayed Man) of 1767 but doesn’t mention that images of the saint showing off his musculature as accurately as an  anatomical model go back to the early 16th century and the influence of the great Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

There are late medieval images of the flaying of Saint Bartholomew which depict in gruesome detail the process of stripping his skin. In an altarpiece dating from 1412 the Catalan Jaume Huguet shows the saint with arms raised and lashed to two poles already flayed to the waist, with two executioners, one wearing an apron to protect his clothes and the other holding a spare knife in his mouth, concentrating on carefully removing the skin in one piece. In the German artist Stefan Lochner’s picture of around 1435 the saint, lashed face down to a surgeon’s table, is nonchalantly resting on one elbow and casually observing, over his shoulder, a man in chainmail with a knife between his teeth using two hands and brute force to strip away the skin from his shoulder and arm whilst another, dressed in a turban and with a scimitar at his waist, makes an exploratory incision in the back of his thigh. Sitting on the floor in front of the table an old man with ripped leggings sharpens more knives on a whetstone. In an Italian depiction of the saint by Matteo di Giovanni from around 1480 he is shown completely flayed except for his head with his skin draped stylishly over the shoulder and held in front where it falls to the waist and hides his genitalia. In these images what is left when the saint’s epidermis is removed is red, raw flesh, probably bloody subcutaneous fat. In more tasteful images, such as Michelangelo’s version of the saint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he holds up his flayed hide (looking almost ghostlike its disembodiment) but has miraculously grown a second one, as if it had been sloughed off as painlessly as a snake sheds its skin, rather than having it ripped from him in an act of grotesque violence.


1543 was a watershed moment for representations of the martyrdom of St Bartholomew. Andries van Wesel, the young Flemish doctor who was Professor of Surgery and Anatomy at Padua University, better known to the world by the Latinised form of his name, Andreas Vesalius, published the ground-breaking anatomical work De humani corporis fabrica. With illustrations by Titian's pupil, Jan Stephen van Calcar, the book showed the dissection of a human body, a corpse undergoing an anatomical striptease, prancing around initially sans skin to show off its muscles, then peeling away layers of flesh to reveal the deeper structures and organs until just an articulated skeleton is left standing, resting a bony elbow on a tomb, bony chin propped thoughtfully on bony fingers, presumably contemplating mortality. The plates of what essentially is a flayed man showing off his musculature, one arm in the air, posing in front of a ruined classical tomb became the model for later depictions of St Bartholomew. In 1556 a Spanish physician, Juan Valverde de Amusco, published Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano in Rome, a work almost entirely plagiarised from Vesalius. What little originality was in Valverde’s book came from the pen of Gaspar Becerra, a Spanish artist who had studied under Michelangelo in Rome. His striking plate of a flayed man holding up his own skin and grasping a knife in the other shows some affinities with Michelangelo’s St Bartholomew, whilst clearly drawing on Vesalius to produce a startling new image of the saint, one grounded as much in science as in religious iconography. 

The Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate would have used Vesalius’ anatomy as well as Valverde’s book when he produced his gruesomely lifelike St Bartholomew Flayed of 1562, which stands in the transept of Milan Cathedral. Brilliantly executed and anatomically correct the flayed saint stands with his own skin draped over his shoulders and round his waist, a bible in one hand and a mysterious tool, perhaps a hand plane somehow used for skinning, in the other. The artists overweening pride in his work is shown in the words he chiselled on the statues base, Non me Praxiteles, sed Marc'finxit Agrat; I was not made by Praxiteles but by Marco d'Agrate. Mark Twain recorded his horrified reaction to the statue in Innocents Abroad (1869) “It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somehow. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting its corded arms on the bed’s head and looking down on me with its dead eyes; I shall dream that it is stretched between the sheets with me and touching me with its exposed muscles and its stringy cold legs. It is hard to forget repulsive things.”

St Bartholomew by Latente on flickr

As the renaissance faded and the baroque developed, depictions of St Bartholomew’s martyrdom became more psychological, focussing on mood, content to merely hint at the violence and consequently dwelling less on the physicality and horror of torture.  Giovanni Battista Paggi straddled the renaissance and baroque and his painting of the flaying is a fascinating amalgam of the distinct styles of the two periods. The hieratic composition and graphic violence are renaissance in character but the naturalistic handling of the two men skinning the saint (they concentrate as dispassionately as they would if they were handling a pig carcase), St Bartholomew’s theatrical pose and the gloomy sky anticipates baroque handling of the subject. A typical example of this is Valentin de Boulogne’s (the ‘French Caravaggio’) picture of the saint of c 1614. The saint is a fuddled old man whose slack hide looks like it will easily peel away from his body. The two torturers are sinewy artisans in labourer’s clothes efficiently going about their job; one tightens the rope lashing St Bartholomew to the crude wooden cross while the other clutches a handful of skin on his outer thigh and readies his knife for slicing into it. The whole scene is dramatically side lit in typical high baroque chiaroscuro. During the enlightenment religious painting became an unimportant subgenre. With rise of interest in science in general and anatomy in particular écorché gained a new lease of life.  Jean-Antoine Houdon’s l’Écorché belongs to this period, a piece that has such close affinities with Hirst’s that it is uncomfortably close to being a copy.

According to the Golden Legend St Bartholomew died in Albanopolis, an ancient city somewhere in Greater Armenia, variously identified as Darbend in Dagestan on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, or Albac on the Turkish/Iranian border, or Baku in Azerbaijan. The city was ruled by the Persians and St Bartholomew took up residence as a beggar in the temple of the demon Astaroth. The temple had been the centre of a cult of healing but the miraculous cures attributed to Astaroth stopped when the saint moved in. The temple gradually filled with the sick and ailing whose sacrifices and prayers were now failing to find a cure. When the priests learned this was due to the presence of a Christian in the holy precincts they searched for Bartholomew for two days and nights amongst the crowds in the temple but failed to find him. It was only when a man possessed by a devil wandered through the sanctuary crying out “Apostle of the Lord, Bartholomew, your prayers are burning me up!” that the saint finally stepped forward and cast out the demon. Bartholomew was seized by the priests but the local king, Polymius, hearing of the exorcism and having a daughter who was likewise possessed by a demon, ordered the saint to be brought to the palace to cure her. The princess was kept in chains because of her unpredictable ferocity; the whole court was terrified of her. Bartholomew ordered her chains be struck off, “Her demon has already left her,” he told the alarmed household servants. When the King saw that his daughter was cured he loaded camels with gold and silver, precious stones, pearls and luxurious garments, sending them to the saint. Bartholomew sent them all back untouched, telling the King that he sought no earthly reward, just the right to preach the gospels and to heal the multitude of sick now crowding the temple of Astaroth.

Polymius was present in person the next time the priests began the sacrifice to Astaroth. As the ceremony began the demon cried out “Refrain, you wretched ones, from sacrificing to me, lest ye suffer worse for my sake; because I am bound in fiery chains, and kept in subjection by an angel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the Jews crucified.” Bartholomew stepped forward and asked the demon who had caused all the people in the temple to fall sick. “The devil, our ruler,” said Astaroth, “he sends us against men, that, having first injured their bodies, we may thus also make an assault upon their souls for then we have complete power over them, when they believe in us and sacrifice to us.” King Polymius ordered his men to topple the statue of the idol but even armed with ropes and levels they were unable to move the idol even a fraction of an inch. Bartholomew stepped forward again and commanded the demon; “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, come out of this idol, and go into a desert place, where neither winged creature utters a cry, nor voice of man has ever been heard.” At this all the idols of the temple crumbled to dust and an angel appeared, leading a subdued Astaroth bound in fiery chains whose ferocious appearance was “like an Ethiopian, black as soot; his face thin-cheeked and sharp as a dog's, hair down to his feet, eyes like fire, sparks pouring out of his mouth and smoke like sulphur out of his nostrils, with wings spined like a porcupine.”
The people of Albanopolis abandoned devil worship from that day forth and began to follow the word of the one true God. But Polymius had an elder brother, also a king, Astreges. The priests of Astaroth went to Astreges and told him “O king, your brother Polymius has become disciple to a certain magician, who has taken down our temples, and broken our gods to pieces.” Astreges sent a thousand armed men with the priests to capture Bartholomew and bring him in chains to the palace. “Are you he who has perverted my brother from the gods?” To which the apostle replied “I have not perverted him, but have converted him to God.” The king then asked “Are you he who caused our gods to be broken in pieces?” The apostle responded “I gave power to the demons who were in them, and they broke in pieces the dumb and senseless idols.” Astreges then threatened the apostle “As you have made my brother deny his gods, and believe in your God, so I also will make you reject your God and believe in my gods.” “You can do nothing to my God,” said Bartholomew, “but I will break all your gods in pieces.” As these words were spoken messengers appeared to tell the King that the all the idols in the temples had fallen from their pedestals and smashed into pieces. In fury Astreges rent the royal purple in which he was dressed and ordered Bartholomew to be crucified head downwards, taken down while still alive, flayed and finally beheaded. The converts to Christianity, 12,000 of them, came from the cities of Armenia to collect Bartholomew’s mortal remains and bury them in a royal tomb. When Astreges heard this he ordered the corpse to be thrown into the sea. On the thirtieth day after Bartholomew’s death demons swarmed from hell to strangle Astreges and the priests of Astroth and to carry their souls back to the devil as punishment for the martyrdom of the apostle. The people of Armenia made Polymius their Bishop, a position he held for 20 years.
After Asteges had ordered Bartholomew’s remains to be cast into the sea they were miraculously washed ashore at Lipari in Sicily where it was venerated as a holy relic by the locals. In 331 the Moors invaded Sicily and destroyed the sepulchre which held the saints bones, throwing them out along with the remains in the church ossuary. Shortly afterwards a monk had a vision of the saint who instructed him to find his bones and take them to Benevento on the Italian mainland for safekeeping. When the perplexed friar asked how he would identify them amongst all the other bones scattered around the ruins of the church the saint told him to “gather them by night, and them that thou shalt find shining thou shalt take up.” The monk followed the saint’s instructions and the relics found their way to the Basilica of San Bartolomeo in Benevento where some of them can still be seen today. Other parts of the saint were transferred or traded to other important religious centres; to Rome, a part of the saint’s skull to Frankfurt and an arm to Canterbury Cathedral. The English had a particular veneration for St Bartholomew when Rahere, a herald to King Henry the First, had a vision of the saint on a pilgrimage to Rome. Rahere founded the priory hospital of St Bartholomew’s as a result of the vision, the King granting him a charter for a fair to fund it. St Bartholomew’s fair ran annually for over seven hundred years, always starting on 24th August and lasting for up to three weeks, from 1133 to 1855, always within the precincts of the abbey. It was London’s great summer fair until the City authorities suppressed it for inciting public debauchery and disorder in 1855.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Way We Die Now - Seamus O'Mahony (£7.99 Head of Zeus)

“This is not a book of consolation: death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.” Seamus O’Mahony
One of my earliest memories is my grandfather dying. Neither I, nor he for that matter, were very old at the time; I wasn’t yet four and he had just reached sixty. Given that I was barely out of infancy I don’t remember much;  he was a big man, a painter and decorator, and in my memories is always dressed in capacious white overalls curiously free of paint stains.  I loved being tormented by him and he would lunge and grab me as I sidled past him, half in fear, half eager to be caught and folded into acres of white cotton drill from where it was impossible to escape. Once I was a prisoner he placed a chin bristling with stubble and abrasive as sandpaper next to my soft and defenceless cheek and rubbed until the side of my face was aflame and I squealed for mercy.  When he became ill he wasn’t, as he would be today, admitted to hospital. Instead he took to his bed where I was only allowed to see him once, after much pestering, ushered in by my grandmother when he was asleep, an elephantine bulk to my three year old eyes, swathed in white linen sheets and frighteningly immobile beneath the bed clothes. I didn’t ask him to see him again. My mother told me, much later, that she had been shocked when he told her that he was tired of living and wanted to die. “When our time comes, let us say our goodbyes and die as creatures,” says Seamus O’Mahoney, “if we choose to turn to the wall, to withdraw from our families and the world, then there is no shame in that. The dying have turned to the wall since the time of Isiah.” That is how I think of my grandfather dying, metaphorically turning to the wall and relinquishing life. He may well not have escaped so easily these days; “the default setting of modern medicine is full intervention,” says O’Mahony, keeping people alive in acute hospitals, intubated and on ventilator if necessary, for as long as medical science makes possible.
The Kansas-based pathologist Dr Ed Friedlander proudly sports a tattoo on his chest saying ‘no CPR’
Seamus O’Mahony, a Gastroenterologist with a literary and philosophical bent, has experience of both the Irish and the British health services. His day job is a Consultant at Cork University Hospital and with whatever spare time he has he contributes to the Dublin Review of Books. His first book challenges the medicalisation of death, expressing a deep frustration with notions like “death is something that medicine should somehow ‘sort out’”. He writes “I was, in part, prompted to write this book because my limited, strictly medical, expertise was inadequate to meet the demands placed on it by society and by my dying patients and their families. I had no answers, no profound insight. It is as difficult to advise someone how to die, as it is to advise them how to live.” He seems a deeply humane and caring man, exasperated with the system and with the expectations of patients and relatives that he should somehow be able to indefinitely defer the inevitable, the dying that comes to us all. It seems that however hopeless the situation most of us prefer to be deceived when a diagnosis or a medical crisis forces us to ask a doctor if our condition is terminal. We want to be told that there is a new treatment in America,  or hear about a doctor who is getting extraordinary results with a new drug or even about people cured by quackery like homeopathy when all the doctors had given up on them. “There is little reward, professionally or emotionally, for doctors who tell patients the truth,” says O’Mahony, “but the Lie is heavily incentivized. Nearly all families, and many patients, prefer the Lie. I try to engage with the dying patient with the intention of being honest, but the path of the Lie often looks so much more inviting. And no one has ever complained to me for taking the path of the Lie. Doctors, like their patients, are human and flawed, and the easy path of the Lie is the road commonly taken.”
Being dead is easy but dying is hard. O’Mahony’s sobering book is about the process of dying, when we have to cope not only with the existential anguish of our imminent demise but with the physical pain and suffering that accompanies it. He is attracted by Philippe Ariès notion of tame death as described in the French historian’s 1975 magnum opus Essais sur l'histoire de la mort en Occident: du Moyen Âge à nos jou (published in English as Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present).  Ariès argued that before the 17th century people were acutely aware and accepting of their own deaths. Death was a public event and people rarely died alone without the comfort of friends, relatives and religion. Excessive expressions of emotion were avoided in the presence of the dying; these only became normal when death became feared and shunned from the 17th century onwards. Today, O’Mahony observes, “death has become fashionable as a topic of public discussion, but, despite all the celebrity memoirs and earnest newspaper articles, it is still largely hidden. In Europe, the process of secularization has advanced so far that we will never see a return to Philippe Ariès's 'tame death'. Could we fashion a secular version of tame death? I doubt it: death is tamed by ritual, and ritual is primarily a religious phenomenon. We will never go back to a pre-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe, and secular rituals will not emerge.”

Seamus O'Mahony, the literary gastroenterologist

O’Mahoney points out that most medical practitioners, who after all should know what they are talking about, are deeply sceptical about the value of excessive and aggressive intervention of dying patients. He cites a 2003 study carried out by John Hopkins University which “examined doctors’ preferences for their own care at the end of life. Most had an advance directive. The overwhelming majority did not want cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, dialysis, major surgery or tube feeding.  They were unanimous in their enthusiasm for analgesic drugs. The uncomfortable conclusion of this study is that doctors routinely subject their patients to treatments they wouldn’t dream of having themselves. The Kansas-based pathologist Dr Ed Friedlander proudly sports a tattoo on his chest saying ‘no CPR’.”  He thinks we “need to have less lofty ambitions for death: such as a death without terror, a death without futile medical intervention, a death that is not hidden from the dying, a dying that takes place with a degree of respect and decorum.”

Seamus O’Mahony’s excellent book makes uncomfortable reading.  Highly recommended.