First public conference: Terror and Joy combined

What? Understanding Human Flourishing, Postgraduate Conference

Where? Holgate Centre, Grey College, Durham University

When? 16/17 May 2013

Who? A wonderful mixture of people from a variety of different disciplines

Why? Learning, presenting, networking, eating, exploring

How? With curiosity, trepidation and excitement!

It didn’t start well. When I gave the taxi driver my destination, he said “Oh, I’m a Sunderland driver, I don’t know the place.” Luckily he was game and after a little “help” from maps, sat nav and a hopeful attitude, he took me to the right place. Oh, and on the way he outlined a TV series on taxi drivers that he wanted me to write. Noted.

Inside the conference room I grabbed a coffee and a huge cookie and found a seat beside a woman sitting on her own. Good choice. Jenny Cochrane was presenting on “Sex and the Surgeon: Emotional Distance and Intimacy in Modern Medicine and the Medical Drama”. An academic who enjoys Grey’s Anatomy! Sadly Jenny’s presentation clashed with another I attended.

The first session I went to included material on Violet Jacob and James Kelman, given by Arianna Introna. I was interested to hear that her subject was not popular with the department because it had nothing to do with Scottish identity. Hmm, perhaps Scottish Literature departments could rethink that “limitation”. Views, anyone?

My panel was entitled: “Creative Writing and the Representation of Illness”. Naomi Kruger from Lancaster University gave a fascinating presentation on “The Terrifying Question Mark: Fictional Dementia Narratives and the Possibilities of Representation.” Her novella tells the story of a person with dementia, told from her point of view and from the point of view of some of her relatives. Naomi was articulate on how hard it is to get the balance between portraying a person with dementia accurately without annexing them through methods of typography and layout. It’s something I have struggled with: the balance between showing confusion and confusing the reader beyond their interest. Naomi also demonstrated interesting ways of critiquing fiction about people with dementia.

In my own session “Writing Dementia: The Importance for Carers of Biographical Information About People With Dementia” I spoke about Pick’s Disease and one of its symptoms: confabulation. I also mentioned the factor of “malignant positioning” which is such a threat to the agency and autonomy of someone diagnosed with dementia. I read an extract from my novel Temporal Sentence, describing the diagnosis process and the protagonist’s reaction to it.

The questions from the audience were interesting. Kate Allan wondered why there are no stories about people with dementia living a flourishing life. Kate Allan has come across many of these in her own practice and research. I wondered why these stories never reach the media–not dramatic enough? Kate Latham reminded us that there are moments of humour in the life of someone with dementia. I do know about these and about how laughter can be very helpful but this an aspect that is difficult to portray without risking trivialising the experience or offending readers, or indeed risking readers laughing at rather than with the character. A doctor in the audience said that one of the scenes in my novel had made him question an aspect of his own practice. Claire McKechnie kindly said my reading was brilliant.

It was a relief to have delivered my presentation but unfortunately my euphoria made me deaf to the instructions for getting to the conference dinner that evening. I phoned for a taxi, only to find on the first occasion I couldn’t hear what the receptionist said, and on the second occasion the receptionist pointed out they were a Sunderland firm. I gave up on them, asked the conference organiser for another taxi number and was directed towards another building where a porter would furnish this. I failed to find same building and stood disconsolately at the end of the college drive. Oh, joy, there was a taxi (with a passenger) coming down the drive. I flagged him down and asked him to get another taxi to pick me up. He agreed and told me to stand near the main road. I did for several minutes. Time was passing. I had a heavy suitcase (why is paper so heavy?) I panicked and set off for Durham town centre. It was a very long walk. And then, oh, hooray, I spotted Jenny (sex and doctors on TV) also making for the dinner venue. Despite maps and directions (Jenny had listened to them) we went round in a complete circle past the prison. up the hill looking out for “a red brick building”–there were many to choose from. We asked a student who sent us down the other half circumference of the circle urging us to look for a bridge. No bridge. Then I spotted a parked taxi. We leapt into it and joy of joys the driver knew where the dinner venue was. He also agreed that there were lots of bridges in Durham. Strange that we didn’t see one single one on our perambulation.

Once at Hild and Bede college we were greeted by professional staff in uniforms–why is this so reassuring–and settled at tables with white linen and silverware in a beautiful barrel roofed and stained glass windowed dining hall. You want to know what we ate, don’t you?

Soup, goats cheese fritters, rump of lamb, poached pear and chocolate fondant. I forgot to swipe a menu so you are getting the version without flourishes. It was all delicious, although there was a racket of silver on china as diners attacked the al dente pears. One of the diners at my table sensibly picked his pear up in his hands and ate it.

You probably think you’ve heard all there is to hear about taxis on this trip? Oh, no. I rang to book one to take me to my hotel. The Travelodge. There are two in Durham. Who knew? One of them was across the road from where I was. Emboldened by wine, food and company, I decided to walk. Amazingly the booking I had made was in the hotel across the road!

After a peaceful night, I eschewed the offer of a Travelodge breakfast box and went out to my waiting taxi. The driver took one look at me and my heart sank. He looked disappointed. As he put my case in the boot, he muttered, “I’m going to kill the night duty man.” Really? What had he said about my booking. Guess what? Oh go on, try. Yup, he thought he was picking up Ann Summers. He did get me back to the conference but he didn’t help me with ideas for a TV series. Or did he?

Three of us were early arrivals. We were all devastated that coffee was not scheduled until mid morning so we skulked off to the dining hall in search of a machine. The catering lady said we had had our coffee allocated and she would have to charge us. Never was 70p better spent.

The morning sessions were wonderful. In her presentation “Thinking About Dementia” Kate Latham took us on a speed read through twelve novels about dementia and mourned how acceptance of an ill member of the family has been replaced by the negative picture of dementia with its “burden” of caring that pervades the public debate. Kate pointed out that we have had knowledge about the increase in numbers of people with dementia since 1982 so the actions being taken now are rather late in the day.

Rebecca Bitenc in her “Dementia in Contemporary Autobiographies and Life Writing Projects” raised a question from the audience about how much do we know about the construction of the texts by people with dementia as they are often edited by their family or friends.

Next Kate Allan in “Forgetting yourself: Flow and Persons With Dementia” put forward the idea that flourishing for people with dementia may come from meaningful activities where they lose track of time and involve themselves completely. Kate has seen instances of this flow when it creates a space where people who have not found it easy to communicate find that ease after the activity. Kate also suggested that we may be able to learn from people with dementia about how to live in a more rewarding way ourselves. This was a passionate and revolutionary presentation.

After lunch  there were two excellent presentations given by Peter Swan and Anni Raw  on the value of arts in community as healthful interventions and the difficulty of measuring their effects.

The last postgraduate presentation was by Abigail McNiven (also representing Lindsay Ann Coyle). Entitled “Exploring Embodied Engagements with the Art of Frida Kahlo in Social Research Processes” it transformed my future experience of art exhibitions. I had no idea how manipulated by others my leisurely visits to art galleries have been. Now all is clear. Abigail noted how an exhibition full of bodily fluids including birth and breastfeeding had no toilets. Other factors affecting our responses to art are journeys, weather, the path we are allowed to take through the exhibition and where we may stand to listen to tape recorded notes.

The Plenary Panel Discussion on the future of Medical Humanities threw up graphic descriptions of a virtual department–an umbrella beneath which to shelter (and I would add with different spokes pointing in different directions) and as a node. The latter description is too full of other associations as so many of my acquaintance are having their lymph nodes removed but I like the umbrella version.

A controversial point was raised by Professor Brian Hurwitz who insisted that we must not think that the humanities can teach doctors how to be good. Jenny bravely challenged this and I’m glad she did as I also am keen to provide medical students with some form of humanities education. While this would be to encourage empathy (which I am told is partially destroyed by the way doctors are educated with the emphasis on data), I have never thought that creative writing, history or literary criticism could have a moral effect. If only. The world would be a very different place if it could. I do believe that a study of novels helps people to put themselves in other people’s shoes. The partnership between author and reader could perhaps be compared to that between a patient and doctor. Both have to create a whole from something incomplete.

My thanks to all involved in this valuable and entertaining conference.


5 thoughts on “First public conference: Terror and Joy combined

  1. >>The partnership between author and reader could perhaps be compared to that between a patient and doctor<<

    Very interesting (and yay for your paper!).

    I believe that yes, the humanities can teach doctors how to be good. But I also understand the conundrum of seeing one patient after another after another…doctors are human too, and in part their abstraction from the patient as individual is necessitated by the need of preserving their own balance.
    One thing shouldn't absolutely exclude the other. I think perhaps in part nowadays everything is clock-timed and fast, fast, fast. Doctors should have more time with their patients, and consequently more time for them and for themselves in between patients.

    And, there are not enough narratives about dementia!

  2. What I keep hearing time after time from doctors is that medical students start their training fired up to care for patients and it is their training that gradually separates them from the art of medicine. Yes, it is partly down to professional detachment and rules on how long doctors can spend with patients but much must be laid at the feet of the GMC who are reluctant to vary the curriculum. There are no easy answers. At Edinburgh University medical students are given the option of a year spent studying the humanities. In the USA humanities modules are mandatory as part of medical training. Another doctor said to me that doctors are expected to manage teams but get no training in that either. Contrast that with the endless training in team management in business. The most wonderful thing I heard at the conference was that in one Canadian medical school first year medical students, before they are allowed to practise on the wards have to spend a week as patient, bedbound, dependent.

    I think everyone in medicine should have to do that.

  3. Hey Alison, This made me smile, seems like a ‘Carry On Conference’ film with all the taxi shenanigans (this will make no sense to those who did not grow up in 70s)! But, to be serious, it sounds like an interesting, stimulating event. I was struck particularly by the comment about the lack of narratives on people with dementia leading flourishing lives. I wonder if this is because the nature of dementia is progressive and diminishing – whatever quality of life the person with dementia hangs on to, is sure to lessen as the brain succumbs to the disease. But, of course, people who have a diagnosis of dementia can still lead ‘flourishing lives’ at least in the early/moderate stages. Also, your point about humour and dementia resonated with me. As you know, I have experience of dementia (in my family) and I also volunteered for Alzheimer Scotland (ASAD) in 1990s, so I have certainly come across moments of humour. I think it is fine to laugh, it helps us all cope, carers and sufferers. With regards to writing about the illness in a fictional context, I can identify with your fears of being seen to ‘trivialise’, but I am certain that when you respect your central character, warts and all, regardless of the illness, that laughing *with* the character will never be misconstrued as laughing at. Good luck with it all! ps.I love the Canadian model of med school where medics have to be bedbound for a week.

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