Wandering Thoughts

February 28, 2009

Liverpool Undressed

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 10:43 am
Tags: ,

On the brink, at the top of the stairs, I stopped.

“You comin’?” Jamie was looking back up. Standing, grinning in the green light seeping round the edges of the big black doors. His rolly polly North Hampton accent was made for invitations. He might as well have been asking me in for tea.

The rest of the guys were already inside. If I didn’t follow, I’d be on my own in the falling nighttime cold. If I went in…

I’d never been to a strip club before. I’d never even thought about it. The more I did – in those dwindling moments left to me to make up my mind – the more unsure I was.

It would be dishonest if I claimed too much of the moral high ground for myself back then. But, even so, in a vague not fully formed way, paying to watch people undress seemed both silly and wrong. On the other hand, if I didn’t go in, the alternative was hours on my own on the streets of Liverpool. And explaining myself to the rest of the guys.

“Come on. We’ll ‘ave a laugh. Then we’ll head into town.” Jamie was like a mother hen; albeit the sort that goes to strip clubs.

“Sure,” I started down.
“It’s ten quid to get in but you get a ticket for a free lap dance when you pay”.

Inside, the roaming half-light revealed a beguilingly normal bar. Padded bench seats and slick aluminum tables surrounded a dance floor of clean, varnished wood. The seats were filled with men. Rowdy talk and laughter rode the ebb and thump of rap music.

In the middle, four or five bikini clad women were dancing; curving like equations, swaying like wind charms.

“There’s the lads!” Jamie was less distracted than me.

Our workmates had a table in the corner. We picked a path around the edge of the dance floor to where they sat.

“Owrrr…look at that. ‘as anyone ordered a dance yet?”
“Rory’s just getting one.”

Rory was our boss. Like all the company’s managers he was well-heeled. Mid thirties, boyish but groomed, thick floppy hair and a voice plummy and polished by an expensive public school somewhere. Out on the dance floor he gave one of the women his voucher and she followed him back to the table. He sat and she began to dance in front of him.

Not sure where to look, I ended up watching the other men in the club instead. They clustered in groups, hunched closer than they needed to, herding. Each bunch was different – suits, rugby lads, thin and twitchy men in thick black jerseys – but their faces shared expressions: dopey, inflated with audacity, like misbehaving school boys.

Jamie was next to get a dance. This time I watched. He sat. She moved in close. He looked at the rest of us, grinning. She removed her bikini top and started to twist with the music. With her hands she lifted and lowered her breasts, leaning in so that they were inches away from his face. Jamie’s cheeks puffed out like he was holding his breath. The effort of having to focus on something so close was making him cross-eyed.

It must have lasted three minutes. She had a pretty face, auburn hair, and flow and curves – and yet the dance was as seductive as algebra. There was nothing tangible that made it that way; her twists and turns were technically correct, and her part-open mouth and intent stare had all the dimensions of lust. But it was acting. Of course. And I’m not sure how you’re meant to be attracted to an act.

When the time was up, she stopped in an instant and snapped her bikini back on. Her eyes radiated a bruised kind of anger. Jamie said thanks, I think, but by then she was already striding back to the dance floor.

“You like that?”


“If you buy me a beer I’ll give you my dance ticket.”

“Alright. ‘ere’s ten quid. Get me one too.”

I stood at the bar for a bit and looked around, bubbles tumbling over my tongue. Jamie was starting his second dance, the rugby lads were cheering, the nervous guys in the black jerseys were starting to relax. Around it all, a remix of one of the summer’s R & B hits was playing. A rap track that bounced over, of all things, a sample from Bach. I was walking back towards the dance floor when it happened. For just a moment the base and vocals stopped and the only music left was the sample, played on a flute.

I don’t think anyone else actually noticed. The women kept dancing and the men kept watching. But, for a second or two, context stolen by the three hundred year old ode to a prince that filled the club, it all seemed almost beautiful. Not the dancers, and certainly not the patrons but everything together – the mess we make of things.

And then, luckily, before the universe collapsed, the bass kicked in again and the moment was swallowed.


Oh – and the name of the Bach tune that was being sampled: Air on the G String. Seriously.


Hmmmmm…..well I’m going to publish this, just to get it of my drafts list. Despite the fact that it didn’t really work. And despite my worry that it will seem like empty moralising or a justification of strip bars. Just to be clear: I don’t think women who undress for money are bad, I don’t think men who go to strip clubs are bad. But I do think the whole phenomenon is kindof sad. And I think a world without strip clubs would be a better one.

[Update:the Guardian has a grim report on the English Lap Dancing industry.]

Good Stuff

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:27 am
Tags: , ,


February 24, 2009


Filed under: Surfing — terence @ 6:58 pm

The surf’s bunk. But the three guys out are all good surfers. So I’m standing there watching the waves limp in out of the grey-green sea. The onshore’s strong enough to be tearing the occasional whitecap from the water, and cold enough for me to be hunched, trying to stay warm. Next to me, sitting on a bench are a family. The old man has a winter white beard and a tatoo on his leg. Mum is worn out, middle-aged. They’re watching the surf cause the kids want to. The elder child’s maybe eleven and pretty excited by it all, but the younger kid, seven perhaps, with a tom-boy’s hair, is jubilant – laughing and screaming at every ride. And I’m thinking, remembering myself a long long time ago, and hoping that she gets to grow up to be a surfer.

February 21, 2009

Arabia – a very short review

Filed under: Books — terence @ 8:03 am
Tags: ,

I love Jonathan Raban’s essays. And Coasting was pleasant, following Raban as he sailed the slow way through the British Isles. Like a morning breeze, Passage to Juneau carried me along for a while too, but eventually momentum gave out and I got bored – becalmed between pages. It joined my uncompleted books list.

Something similar is occurring with Arabia. Raban is insightful and his writing as elegant as always, but nothing much happens. This ought to be ok: I don’t need my travel books to be packed with adventure but, like an empty desert view, Arabia contains just a bit too much nothing much.

I realised this a week or so ago when I found myself seeking diversion, picking up an public policy textbook and starting to read up on the economic history of Sweden.

February 18, 2009

One of these things is not like the other one

Filed under: Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 4:39 pm


Funnily enough, my left knee is every bit as painful as my right.

February 14, 2009

Words of Advice about Words

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:47 pm
Tags: , ,

[T]he worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

So says George Orwell in Politics and the English Language.


(Actually, the sentence is: “In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” But I like the other possible interpretations that arrive on the removal of the beginning of the sentence.)

February 10, 2009


Filed under: Aortic Valves,Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 6:50 pm
Tags: , , ,

Jeremy at Scoop Review of Books has very kindly published my review of Havi Carel’s book Illness on the SRB website. It’s also below.

As an alternative to the review you could read this article by Carel in the Independent.

Illness – Havi Carel

“Empty,” the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote, “is the argument…by which no human suffering is healed; for just as there is no benefit in medicine that does not drive out bodily diseases, so there is no benefit in philosophy if it does not drive out the suffering of the soul”.

Havi Carel understands this better than most. A philosophy lecturer at the University of the West of England she was diagnosed in 2006 with lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare, degenerative, terminal illness present most acutely in the lungs. A transplant might extend the span of her years, but donors are scarce, and even then it only buys time. In the end, either way, short of a miracle she can expect the steady loss of lung capacity and, eventually, death. Lymphangioleiomyomatosis is an illness for which medical science has no cure.

Illness is Carel’s attempt, in the face of this, to muster the tools of her own trade in search of a cure of sorts. Philosophy may not be able to arrest the cell over-growth and cysts in her airways, but the story of an illness is never a purely physical tale. How we think about illness and, equally importantly, how society around us thinks about it, matters. And it is to this that Carel directs her attention.

Philosophically speaking, medical science has been anchored in a form of naturalism that describes and deciphers diseases as physical processes. To this way of thinking arthritis, for example, is an illness of the joints (and depending on the type possibly other body parts). It can be described in terms of physical symptoms (pain, swelling…), causes (in the case of the arthritis I suffer from complex microbiological interactions between a trigger organism and my immune system) and treatments (anything from Ibuprofen to immunosuppressants and steroids). In a naturalistic, sense it is an illness of physical cause and effect which begins and ends with the body.

There is much to be said for such an approach to thinking about ill-health. Built upon it is an understanding of disease that has rid the world of smallpox and nearly rid it of polio, and which has transformed the Black Death from a civilisation shattering plague to something that can be treated with antibiotics. Medical science based on naturalistic thinking has lengthened life and improved lives. Yet, as Carel explains, it remains insufficient.

Insufficient because, for the sufferer, illness is much more than its physical symptoms alone. In a series of examples from her own life that are both moving and illuminating Carel illustrates this. Illness has reshaped the geography of the world she lives within: hills she used to cycle up become insurmountable as her lung capacity diminishes. Stairs are now climbed as hills once were. Illness has reshaped her sociology: unsure how to react, friends avoid her; strangers in the street laugh cruelly at her oxygen tubes; the staff at medical facilities have a huge impact on how she feels through acts as simple as offering a warm, caring greeting (or not). Most of all, illness has reshaped her self: it has driven a wedge between her mind and body. Actions once automatic and taken for granted have become difficult or impossible. Her mind struggles to keep up with the changes; at night she dreams of running but will never run again.

Using these examples Carel contends that we can better tackle illness by augmenting naturalism with phenomenology. Phenomenology is an approach to philosophy which seeks to understand life as it is experienced by those living it. In the case of illness, phenomenology emphases the importance of understanding illness as it is experienced by those who are ill. The physical processes of disease will, of course, play an important role in such experiences (and it’s important to note that Carel isn’t suggesting that we discard naturalistic understandings of health, but rather that we augment them) but so will factors stemming from outside one’s body.

Influenced phenomenology, medical professionals and society more generally would seek to treat the sick not just through medicine but also through the way we treat them; how we interact with them in our day-to-day lives, how we shape the world to ensure that their physical limitations do not lead to their exclusion, how we provide them with space to adapt to their newly acquired circumstances. It is easy to sympathise with someone who is sick; it’s a lot harder, unless you’ve been there yourself, to empathise, but if we’re willing to try and at least understand how being ill makes people feel, and how our interactions with those who are ill make them feel, we will do a much better job of helping them feel better.

Of course, these arguments aren’t entirely novel. They have been advanced by disability and illness advocates for some time and to varying degrees have already impacted on the medical profession and society at large. But, as Carel’s own experiences show, there is still much to be done. And Illness’s strength is to place these arguments into a coherent whole which draws a line all the way from the philosopher to the patient.

In the book’s later chapters Carel shifts her gaze away from society and inwards in an attempt to see if phenomenology has answers to two personal questions that loom large for the seriously or terminally ill: how to face one’s fear of death. and how to approach the rest of one’s life.

On the issue of death Carel makes use of two guides – Epicurus and Heidegger – who at first glance appear to have beliefs about mortality so profoundly at odds with each other as to be irreconcilable. On one hand, Epicurus’ advice for those who fear death is simple: don’t. Get over it. Rationally, he argued, there is nothing to fear in death as being dead is not something we’ll ever experience. We’re right to fear suffering, Epicurus believes, but in death we won’t suffer for the simple reason that we won’t be there. Heidegger, on the other hand, argues that all human existence is “being towards death” and as such there is no escaping the presence of death in our lives. Indeed, life can only properly be lived once we understand it as finite.

Epicurus advises us not to worry about death, Heidegger would have us constantly reminded of it – Carel tries to negotiate between the two. With Epicurus she agrees that there is little to be gained by worrying about death itself. But, at the same time, she also agrees with Heidegger that we do have to understand the presence and inevitability of death in our lives, as it inescapably shapes them. What is needed is not to come to terms with death itself but rather the fact that our lives are finite and then to learn to live them in light of this.

Following from this, Carel has two pieces of advice for the seriously ill wondering how to live the rest of their lives. First, adapt to the constraints of your illness and do so in a manner that enables you to best do those things you are still able and want to do. (Carel has a motorised bike, which takes her along the routes she used to cycle; she no longer goes to the gym but still attends yoga). Second, learn to live in the present – don’t let the quality of the life you have now be dampened by fears of the future nor yearning for those things which you are no longer able to do.

Once again, this advice won’t necessarily be news to some readers. Similar suggestions can be found in any number of books written in the ‘self help based loosely on Eastern philosophy’ genre. But what is interesting in Illness is to see Carel teasing such conclusions out of Western philosophy. Illness also benefits from a no bullshit approach to its arguments: they’re all the more convincing for being constructed succinctly and logically, and without wide-eyed appeals to things that can’t be true or can’t be known.

One potential criticism of Carel’s advice on how to deal with the personal challenges of life and death when ill is that it’s all much easier said than done. Of course, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, and Carel’s own life as detailed in the book shows how much can be achieved. But if you can find such a work, Illness would be well complimented by a similarly intellectually rigorous book that discussed techniques for coming to terms with death and ill health in greater detail.

I’m not a philosopher so ultimately I can’t vouch for the strength of Carel’s arguments on philosophical grounds (although I can attest to the accessibility of her writing to those who aren’t philosophically trained). I do, however, have some experience with illness. I read Carel’s book during a year in which I underwent open heart surgery to replace a damaged aortic valve and part of my ascending aorta. I also had to deal with a severe relapse of the reactive arthritis that I suffer from (and which caused my heart problems in the first place). While neither of these events are of the magnitude of a diagnosis of LAM, they certainly left me with plenty of reasons to dwell on death and being unwell. It was only a relatively minor risk, but the chance of dying during surgery was something I couldn’t dodge in the lead up to the operation. And, courtesy of the arthritis, I know all about the way illness changes one’s geography and the relationship with one’s body – there are days when my toes seem like a long way away, let alone the hill my wife and used to walk up regularly for our evening exercise. So for me Illness had a particular personal resonance. But it’s also a book I would recommend for anyone – healthy and non-philosophically inclined included – because inevitably, directly or indirectly, sooner or later, the way you yourself and society around you thinks about illness will have a major impact on your life. Think about it.

Wandering CRP Levels

Filed under: Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 6:35 pm

To be honest I’ve become nervous about posting good health news on this blog. It seems as soon as I do, I end up having to recant.

So, oh fickle health gods, I’m aware that things may well get bad again and I’m aware this is just encouraging news, not the happy ending I’d like. I’m also aware how sick I still am. But:

The following graph charts my C-Reactive Protein Levels for the last few months. C-Reactive Protein (CRP) is a marker in your blood which reflects to some degree how inflamed your body is. Normal range is, if I recall correctly, 0-7.


I am most definitely not yet better. I still hurt like heck and surfing and hiking seem like impossible dreams. But it is good to have some confirmation of my sense that I’m on the mend.

Fingers crossed.

[Update: Oh, and Ironically enough, I’ve been in more pain than usual the last two days…]

February 9, 2009

Save the Words!

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 4:42 pm

Thank you Schroedinger’s Tabby for the pointer to Save the Words. Visit, and learn all about the little bits of our language sliding towards extinction.

My favourite thus far (for obvious reasons):


instrument for measuring pain

February 6, 2009


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:04 pm


Momentum carried us over the coconut tree bridges.

It began to build a week before, with the flight to Kuala Lumpur. It stalled while we waited for boards lost in transit and returned on the night train to Penang. It carried us over the straits of Malacca in a ferry full of puking backpackers. And it bore us past Lake Toba, down to the sweaty sea at Sibolga. It got us past the larcenous ticket touts and onto the boat to Gunungsitoli. And it got us through the night listening to the half-veiled woman who told us they practiced witchcraft at our destination.

It got us to the village at the end of the road.

We couldn’t stop then, so we paid twice the going rate to convince a captain to take us out into a rising storm. A bonus for the hammering of the waves, and for ending our journey, damp but there, on an Island of a thousand palms, a million mosquitoes, a handful of puffed up surfers and one very good surf spot.


February 4, 2009

Decisions, decisions…

Filed under: Aortic Valves,Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 6:38 pm
Tags: ,

It’s been almost three months since the relapse. And question of the moment is, “am I getting better?”

I have to be getting better. I can’t afford for the arthritis to last too long. I can’t risk more damage round my heart.

And so, if my current treatment regime of diet and antibiotics isn’t working I need to try an alternative approach. This will mean a heftier set of side-effects, which I’d rather avoid. I’d rather avoid an even further broken heart too, though.

Am I getting better?

I am definitely better than when the relapse first hit. Mostly I can get by without crutches. Which counts as an improvement as I’m no longer taking Prednisone, Ibuprofen or Panamax.

But am I still improving? Because I’m not well enough – I’m still severely arthritic.

Am I still improving?

I don’t know.

It’s the questions you can’t answer that keep coming back – of course.

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