Author Archives: Jenna Richards

IS destroy the shrine that unified a town

Last month, ISIS destroyed the 1,500-year-old Mar Elian Monastery in Al-Qaryatayn, Syria. Professor Emma Loosley, expert in Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, has lived in the area and has studied the sacred site. Here, in an article adapted from one first published in The Catholic Herald, she outlined the sense of loss to local people.

The Mar Elian Monastry

The Mar Elian Monastery has been destroyed by IS.

When I first moved to Dayr Mar Elian in the summer of 2001 I was slightly disconcerted when the Qurwani, as the people of Qaryatayn are known, kept asking me if I had met Mar Elian yet.

Since he is believed to have died over 1,500 years ago I thought that they meant had I seen the sarcophagus, which of course I had. When I said this I was somewhat perplexed to realise that I had misunderstood the question (complicated of course by my faltering Arabic and their thick regional dialect).

What the Qurwani meant was: ‘had I spoken to the saint personally?’ One man told me of walking in the vicinity when a stranger accompanied and blessed him, and he later realised that the man had been Mar Elian (St Julian) and the site guardian told me that late at night in the chapel a voice had repeated: “God give you health,” three times – which he took to be Mar Elian praying for him as he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

I recount these stories to try and impress on the reader how central the Monastery of Mar Elian was to the local populace. The saint was a much-loved figure in the town and treated more as a venerable uncle in most homes than a distant exemplar of the faith.

What is more, in the case of that first man who had seen Mar Elian, I don’t know whether he was Christian or Muslim. The Sunni townspeople named him Sheikh Ahmed Khoury (Sheikh Ahmed the Priest) and the Christians of the town allowed their Muslim neighbours to place the green satin shroud of a Muslim holy man over the Byzantine sarcophagus in the monastery church. There, on a Muslim satin shroud, rosaries and saints’ cards lay with votive candles lit by those of both faiths.

Much has been written in the last few weeks on the physical impact of the loss of the monastery but little consideration has been given to the psychological trauma that currently affects those of us who knew and loved the shrine.

Mar Elian or Sheikh Ahmed was a very real presence in the lives of all who knew the monastery and I know at least one family who credit the intercession of the saint for leading them to the doctor who was able to cure their young son and enable him to walk. IS has ripped the heart out of a poor desert community who were united in their pride in Mar Elian.

Qaryatayn is one of the remotest, poorest settlements in Syria. Located in the midst of the Syrian desert between Homs and Palmyra it only exists because the site has a modest oasis that has permitted limited agriculture. It was the centre of a kingdom in the Middle Bronze Age and, under the name Hazar-enan, appears in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 47:17, 48:1; Numbers 34:9-10). The monastery (Dayr) of Mar Elian almost certainly dates back to around the fifth century and is considered the last resting place of Mar Elian esh-Sheikh.

Dayr Mar Elian appears to have been inhabited from Late Antiquity until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, when it was abandoned at the time when many local Christians left the Syrian Orthodox Church to join with Rome as members of the Syrian Catholic Church.

In 2001 the Syrian Catholic Metropolitan of Homs, Msgr Georges Kassab appointed Fr Jacques (Yaqub) Mourad from the Community of Al-Khalil as parish priest. Fr Jacques was one of two founder members of the Community of Al-Khalil with his superior, Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ and the two of them believed in a vocation of Abrahamic hospitality and Christian-Islamic Dialogue. Both have now been kidnapped by IS – Paolo in July 2013 and Jacques in May 2015.

Until Jacques’ abduction Dayr Mar Elian had remained the heart of the town, comforting the local population and becoming home to hundreds of, mainly Muslim, internal refugees. It was a beacon of Inter-Faith co-operation with Jacques and the local Sheikh standing side by side to prevent the town splintering along sectarian lines.

Last week IS broke the heart of a whole town and only time will tell if it can ever be mended. A friend from Qaryatayn who has managed to escape to Europe sent me a text that says it all: “My heart keeps crying Mar Elian.”

Since the destruction of the monastery we have learned that IS have broken more hearts by destroying the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin and a series of tomb towers at Palmyra, and brutally murdering the man who had looked after them for more than 50 years, Khaled al-Asad.

This destruction has been dismissed as some as being irrelevant compared to the human suffering the Syrians are enduring, but if we think back to the emotional suffering of the people of Britain not only in London, but in Coventry, Exeter and many other places during the Second World War, we should understand that this destruction is robbing many Syrians of any hope that their lives will ever be the same again.

The beard has defied all predictions of its demise (again!)

Dr Alun Withey is medical historian, interested in facial hair as part of the history of health and hygiene. Here he takes a look at why the beard continues to be a popular accessory…

Head of a bearded man seen in profile,

Head of a bearded man seen in profile, with proportions mark.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

2015 has proved to be another year when the beard has stubbornly defied all predictions of its demise.

Facial grooming choices continue to provoke strong opinions. At the one end are advocates, from both sexes, who say that beards are the ultimate symbol of masculinity. At the other are those who can’t seem to bear either the look or feel of an abundant crop of facial hair.

Some trend spotters in the USA some say the beard’s fashion dominance is over, a victim of the rise of the so-called ‘Yuccie’ – (Young Urban Creative for the uninitiated), who sport a streamlined, clean shaven look, rather than a bushy statement beard.

Nevertheless, the beard remains a lively topic for debate…even science has become interested in the beard! A 2013 study explored the question of attractiveness, concluding that the optimum state of facial hair, the one at which women found men most attractive, was one of heavy stubble, rather than a five o’clock shadow or a full beard. Another article by social scientists has charted the effects of facial hair in voters’ estimation of politicians. Could we trust a bearded politician less than a clean-shaven one?!

Another effect has been a whole new market for beard grooming products. Where products to shave off stubble are ubiquitous, new ones have appeared to preserve and even beautify the beard. Everything from oils to pastes, lotions and even a beard moisturiser are finding their way into the ads pages of men’s magazines.

I’m a medical historian, interested in facial hair as part of the history of health and hygiene. Studying facial hair, however, can be challenging. Aside from the relative lack of existing historical research, it is difficult to get past the topic’s innate quirkiness. When I tell people I’m about to embark on a major three-year project of the history of facial hair in Britain, reactions range from genuine interest to the pig snort of suppressed laughter.

And yet it is an entirely serious subject. As unlikely as it might seem, facial hair, beardlessness and shaving, relate to many extremely important historical issues including masculinity, health and hygiene, medicine, and changing notions of the body. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and looks at everything from barber-surgeons’ roles in shaving to razor technologies, and how they influenced decisions to shave. It also explores styles in facial hair and their relationship to masculinity.

A man trying to shave himself with a blunt razor.

A man trying to shave himself with a blunt razor.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Charting the changing understandings of facial hair reveals much about body history. Tudor and Stuart people viewed the body as consisting of four humours. These existed in a delicate balance which, when upset, caused illness. Under this model, facial hair was sometimes seen as a type of waste product but also, more commonly, as an outward symbol of a man’s sexual potency. Heat arising from the ‘reins’ (the area around the lower abdomen and genitals) rose up through the body and manifested itself on the chin. A man’s virility was literally writ large across his face.

Before c.1750 too, shaving was effectively a medical matter, undertaken by medical practitioners – barber-surgeons. From large towns to small villages, men visited barbers for a shave. Only around the late 18th century did they begin to shave themselves using new, sharper razors made of fashionable cast steel.

Henry Bott, died 1928 age 91.

Henry Bott, died 1928 age 91.
Image from wikimedia

The changing styles of facial hair over long periods can be revealing, and often linked to specific male stereotypes. In the late 1700s, the ideal male was clean-shaven, with bushy sideburns later making an appearance. This was the age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on revealing nature’s mysteries and throwing all things open to view. Shaving literally opened up the face. After 1850, though, a huge, bushy beard was de rigeur, regarded as the God-given symbol of man’s authority. Was it simply coincidence that Victorian men covered their faces at the same time that bodies were covered up to avoid displaying too much flesh?

Why else have men grown beards? Emulation is important, and men have often looked to heroes for inspiration in appearance. Military regiments have long provided a ready source of rugged masculinity, with which men have wished to identify. Victorian explorers (and even politicians!) once inspired men to cultivate their whiskers. But in the 1960s, beards and long hair were potent symbols of dropping out of society. Here, the new heroes were often musicians. Many other factors have influenced beard-wearing, not least of which is the importance of religious belief.

Over the past thirty years or so, however, the pace of change has quickened noticeably. Once beard trends lasted for decades; now they can appear and disappear in months. That’s why this current period is so interesting. How it started is unclear; certainly it was already on the rise by the time George Clooney and Brad Pitt sported beards at the Baftas a few years ago, and is now in its third year.

Sometimes beard styles become synonymous with particular points in time; this seems to be happening at the moment. This is the age of the ‘lifestyle beard’! The style has been referred to as the ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard, and its wearer a new kind of male stereotype…the ‘urban beardsman’! In many ways deliberately altering facial appearance for fashion is nothing new. 17th and 18thc ladies, for example, wore black, silk ‘beauty patches’ to highlight the contrast with their white skin. But is the beard now simply an accessory, as ephemeral and transient as makeup or false eyelashes?

So the remaining question is how long will the beard trend last? History suggests that there will be a flight from the beard at some stage. But there is little to suggest that men are ready to ditch their beards just yet. Indeed, the popularity of events like local and even international beard championships, and their continued appearance in popular culture, suggests they may be around for some time yet.

To see the world in a grain of sand

What does air pollution have to do with building sand sculptures? At the Green Man festival 2015 a bunch of scientists from the Met Office, Royal Meteorological Society and University of Exeter collaborated with professional sand sculptors to show that playing with sand is not only for children but also for scientists. The unique project created a sand landscape to communicate the effect of air pollution to the environment. Felix Leung, a PhD student, tells us about the exprience…

Green Man festival took place at Glanusk Estate in Brecon Beacons National Park on 20-23rd August. It is an annual music, arts and science festival and is renowned for its ethical approach, support for the Welsh local economy and showcasing new talent.

At the festival there is an area called Einstein’s Garden, with interactive science stalls run by universities, academics, and a centre stage with science gig, comedies, debates, talks and even a ceilidh.

The theme for Einstein’s Garden this year was ‘future’. Thre were stalls demonstrating why insects should be the future food source or what human-body advancement in the future would look like. The stall I was involved with demonstrated how urbanisation affects the temperature in the city and the effect of air pollution on plants and human health.

Met Office scientists preparing the sand pitch for the workshop.

Met Office scientists preparing the sand pitch for the workshop.

Sandscape is a collaboration outreach project between Met Office, University of Exeter and the sand sculptors from Sand In Your Eye, it is developed as part of a Wellcome Trust funded grant awarded to Einstein’s Garden. The sand pit is a rectangular area of 10metres by 4metres. The sandscape had a mountain range in one side and it formed a valley with a ‘river’ flowing towards the city where one side of the river is the rural countryside and the other side is the downtown with tall skyscrapers and the industrial zone.

Children carving out the detail of the skyscrapers .

Children carving out the detail of the skyscrapers.

The sandscape. The Sandscape workshop had four one hour session per day. During each session around 15 children and their parents were taught that the principle of making a sand structure is using wet sand, wet sand allow the sand particles to bind together once it dry up and creating a firm and stable structure. Once you master the skill of building sand block, you can use wet sand to create skyscrapers using a long tube as a mould and build arches and bridges.

The children really enjoyed building sand houses and sand factories and they created an incredible landscape with features such as a church yard in the countryside, airport with highway full of traffic, cottage in the forest on the hillside and even a viaduct. The children showed unlimited creativity and enthusiasm, I am sure they are going to be great urban planners in the future.

The workshops ended with the Met Office scientists explaining the science behind the Sandscape project. We put a red flag at the metropolitan area, explaining urban heat island effect occur in the city centre where tall skyscrapers block the flow of air and the concrete release heat during night.

A green flag in the forest symbolised the production of pollens which causes hay fever. A grey flag on the highway and factories symbolise the air pollution such as ground level ozone which could cause asthma in people. We also used a bubble gun to demonstrate the difference of factories chimney height to the pollutant concentration in the surrounding area, if there is a low chimney all the bubbles (pollutants) land in the city centre but if we have a higher chimney the pollutants spread out.

The finale of the session involved of some dramatic smoke effects produced by dry ice placed on the top of the valley, it simulated how fresh cold air flow down to the city. The fresh air was first blocked by the dam on the upper course of the river but once the dam is removed the cold fresh air gradually flowed into the countryside and the city providing everyone’s fresh air.

Met Office scientists explaining the urban heat island effect to the parents and children.

Met Office scientists explaining the urban heat island effect to the parents and children.

Fresh air blocked by the dam in the valley.

Fresh air blocked by the dam in the valley.

Fresh air flow along the valley and into the city and countryside.

Fresh air flow along the valley and into the city and countryside.

This is one of the most unusual science-communication events I have ever done. I learnt a lot about how to communicate my research to the general public and how to engage with audiences from different age groups.

It was a really fun experience but also a lot of hard work, you have to bend down all the time, stand in an uncomfortable position to avoid trampling other structure, carry heavy buckets of water and deal with the Welsh weather. It was exhausting at the end of the day but worth every drop of sweat when you saw the Sandscape evolve over time and the kids learn some climate science. It will never be the same when I go to the beach again.

Defeating Depression, What Hope?

 An event organised by Dr Ali Haggett, and Professor Mark Jackson of the Centre for Medical History. Dr Haggett recounts the event….

The #DefeatingDepression event, broadly explored two questions: ‘What progress has been made in treating depression in the last twenty years?’ and ‘How should mental health conditions be addressed in the future?

We were delighted that Sue Baker, Director of the organisation Time to Change came to chair the debate. She was joined by five panellists with a combination of professional expertise and lived experience who were invited to join us to speak from their own perspective for a few minutes on the topic,

The panellists were:

The contributions from the panellists, and the audience participation that followed, reflected a range of current anxieties about mental health care in the UK. Most prominent among these was the importance of preventing depression by promoting resilience and combatting a host of social and economic problems that are known to cause vulnerability to the most common mental disorders.

Niall Macleod and Gavin Thistlethwaite identified a range of social problems such as isolation and poverty that impact negatively on mental and physical health. Tackling these issues, they argued, requires a new model of healthcare in which we must firstly look to our own communities to foster and renew social relationships and promote social cohesion.

Secondly, they noted, ‘patients’ will increasingly dictate the direction of service provision with personalised care and personal budgets. ‘Men in suits’, argued Gavin, ‘may collect the data’; however, ‘service-users are now beginning to dictate the interventions they want’.

Central to these developments nonetheless, must be government support that is genuinely committed to parity of esteem in terms of funding between physical and mental health. Action, not words, argued Keven Jones, is what is required.

Particular groups were identified as being especially vulnerable, with recent cuts to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) being viewed as of particular concern.

Louise Howard proposed that equitable distribution of funding was essential and should be ring-fenced. However, to separate physical health from mental health in the first place was in fact entirely illogical, she noted. This was a point reflected strongly in Julie Harvey’s honest (and at times moving) account of her own experience, in which she reminded the audience that the way in which she presented with depression was often with physical symptoms that led her initially to A and E. Similarly, many physical illnesses and chronic disorders may lead to symptoms of depression.

Despite such palpable concerns and anxieties, the most important message of the evening was nonetheless one of optimism. In terms of service provision, Gavin Thistlethwaite reminded us that the concept of user-engagement and personalised commissioning now underpins the framework of the Care and Quality Commission and provision of services.

Perhaps most strikingly, the personal accounts of depression from the panellists and the audience also served to remind us all that people with mental illness make significant and positive contributions to society. On a personal level, Kevan Jones pointed out that depression had, in many ways made him a better person – it was, he noted, ‘part of him’.

The evening was enhanced by the hospitality of the staff at the RAMM and a collection of stands showcasing the University’s research on mental health from the Medical School, the Centre for Medical History and the Mood Disorders Centre.

Meg Smith, a local artist, displayed a selection of her striking photographs depicting depression.

Double Elephant, known and respected locally for their work in mental health, also displayed a range of artwork.

The organisers would like to thank everyone who contributed to or was involved with the evening and we look forward to fostering further links with local organisations and individuals working in the field of mental health.

The public event organised by the University’s Centre for Medical History, in conjunction with the Humanities and Social Science research strategy, took place at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum on 24th June

Exeter pub serves up a Pint of Science

Dr Thomas Constant, Associate Research Fellow in Physics and Astronomy spoke at this week’s Pint of Science festival. He recalls his experience…

It was my immense pleasure to participate in this year’s Pint of Science festival that took place over three nights in Exeter, and concurrently in another forty-nine cities around the world.

The premise was for university researchers to give public talks in pubs, with an emphasis on casual and engaging talks in a far-less stuffy environment than the traditional lecture halls. As an additional incentive, for both attendees and speakers, plenty of beer was available throughout.

I presented at the Ship Inn, near Exeter Cathedral. A very traditional 16th century alehouse which Exeter legend would have you believe was a favorite of Sir Francis Drake. The conditions were intimate to say the least!

Due to the space requirements my colleague, Professor Roy Sambles, and I stood amongst the audience, as we extolled the benefits and the quirky physics that lies behind things as simple as colour, liquid crystals or fluorescent light bulbs.

Such a format was a wonderful catalyst for discussions and questions, and also an enjoyable challenge when demonstrating potentially dangerous experiments using things like lasers, tesla coils and the surprisingly useful and often overlooked scientific apparatus: a pint of G&T.

About thirty people came to listen, quiz and challenge the research I conduct at Exeter, which focuses on the science of light. The United Nations has declared 2015 the international year of light, chiefly to raise awareness of how research into light profoundly affects our everyday lives.

My primary research at Exeter is all about trapping light at the surface of materials. Since 1902, when a rather eccentric scientist named Robert Wood was playing with some scratched gold, we have known that if we shine light on a metal mirror that has some tiny grooves in its surface, sometimes the light doesn’t reflect but ‘hangs around’ on the surface, trapped their as a new type of quantized quasi-particle we call a ‘surface plasmon’.

The advances this discovery are leading towards are not yet fully realised, but we know enough so far to be confident that trapping light in this way will lead to some significant advances we will be seeing very soon in everyday life.

The best sensors in the world already use this effect, and we have now reached the point where just a single molecule of material on a metal surface can be detected. My favorite use of this is in Mexico, where they use sensors like this to detect bootleg tequila. Light hanging around a surface also improves solar cells, a technology at a tipping point of truly becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuels, if only we could push their efficiency a tiny bit further.

There are countless more applications that are just starting to bear the fruit of the global research in these areas, from stealth technologies, anti-counterfeiting products, light generation, quantum computing, and even in one case possible cancer treatments using just light and harmless gold particles.

Whatever the final products that result from our research, our goal is a simpler one: to understand the subtleties of how light behaves. It is a passion our research group shares with many others around the world and now, with a little bit of luck, an additional thirty or so Exeter pub-goers.

The politics of Thomas Hardy

Professor Angelique Richardson, an Associate Professor of English and member of the Centre for Victorian Studies and the Centre for Medical History, takes a look at Thomas Hardy’s politics, the release of the film version of the novel Far From the Madding Crowd and a new online resource examining the role clothing played in Hardy’s fiction…

Committed to social justice, Thomas Hardy tired of London political talk, ‘of when the next election would be – of the probable Prime Minister’ (Hardy, Life and Work). He thought politicians were by and large ineffective and unconcerned about real welfare of the people, too prone to rushing through ill-considered and uninformed legislation – ‘The offhand decision of some commonplace mind high in office at a critical moment influences the course of events for a hundred years’ (Life and Work) and he believed novels were capable of bringing about deeper social changes.

His own radical politics and acute class-sensitiveness are to be found in his fiction, from his treatment of the rural poor to his far-reaching interventions in the gender debates of his day.

Hardy’s first novel, ‘The Poor Man and the Lady; By the Poor Man’, which he described as ‘socialistic, not to say revolutionary’, was turned down as too radical to publish, and when a version of it appeared as ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’ it contained an epigram from Thackeray’s Book of Snobs (1848) ‘Come forward, some great marshal, and organise equality in society’, from the passage in which Thackeray denounced ‘hereditary-great-man worship’ as a humbug and affront to the Free Press.

It was crucial to Hardy’s politics to bring the regions to the centre, to give a strong and distinctive identity to the counties of Wessex, the ‘partly real, partly dream-country’ stretching from Land’s End as far north as Oxford, that he first named in 1874 in Far From the Madding Crowd.

Costumes worn by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, in the wedding scenes of the recent film, Far from the Madding Crowd, on display at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, until 8th June 2015. in the film. There is the smart dress and hat of the runaway wedding day, the gold striped silk dress and embroidered silk jacket of her homeward journey, and a dress worn at the wedding party. Jonathan North / Dorset County Museum © 2015

Costumes worn by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, in the wedding scenes in the recent film, Far from the Madding Crowd, on display at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, until 8th June 2015. There is the smart dress and hat of the runaway wedding day, the gold striped silk dress and embroidered silk jacket of her homeward journey, and a dress worn at the wedding party.
Jonathan North / Dorset County Museum © 2015

Thomas Vinterberg’s new film version of the novel, out this month to critical acclaim, will transmit to new and enthusiastic audiences the fascinations of Wessex, from the minute and loving detail with which Hardy painted the landscape, to the unusual independence of his woman-farmer, Bathsheba Everdene, who remarks: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Through Wessex, Hardy would bring the plight of the agricultural poor to the attention of his London-centric middle- and upper-class readers, opening their eyes to the fascinations of a world outside their knowledge and experience, and challenging what he would call, in a piece he wrote for the popular London Longman’s Magazine in 1883 on ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’, the view from the ‘Olympian heights of society’.

Wessex also gave Hardy scope to expand on what lay at the heart of his politics – the individual differences that flourished away from what he saw as the homogenising tendencies of London and which for him were leading to such regrettable changes as the rural working class exchanging their colourful clothes for drab London fashions: ‘Like the men, the women are, pictorially, less interesting than they used to be. Instead of the wing bonnet like the tilt of a waggon, cotton gown, bright-hued neckerchief, and strong flat boots and shoes, they (the younger ones at least) wear shabby millinery bonnets and hats with beads and feathers’ (‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’).

Like the philosopher and Liberal MP John Stuart Mill, for whom Hardy had the greatest admiration, considering his 1859 treatise On Liberty, particularly his chapter on ‘Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being’, to be one of ‘his cures for despair’ (Life and Work), Hardy believed that the well-being of the country could be gauged by the number of people who were able to defy convention and think for themselves. Indeed, one of the reasons Hardy gave for returning to the South West was precisely that he thought his writing was becoming, as he put it, ‘mechanical and ordinary’ in the metropolis (Life and Work).

Hardy was a self-declared Liberal.  Siding with the marginal and oppressed, and lending public support to Liberal attempts to enfranchise the rural poor in the 1880s, one can speculate that, in today’s climate, he may have voted Green, given his commitment to the importance of place and environment and his life-long championing of animal welfare – ‘What are my books but one plea against “man’s inhumanity to man” – to woman – and to the lower animals?’ (William Archer, Real Conversations).

At Exeter this week we are launching the Thomas Hardy and Clothing prototype online resource, which my PhD student Jonathan Godshaw Memel and I are working on in collaboration with Dorset County Museum, supported by current and recent Exeter students, including PhD graduate and Honorary University Fellow Dr Demelza Hookway  (the database has been funded by the Annual fund). Clothing is crucial in Hardy’s fiction for indicating a character’s profession, social and economic status or role, for bringing colour to local scenes, for indicating moods and character, and for expressing but often subverting custom and transgressing gender norms.

Bathsheba flouts Victorian convention, not least dress code, by not riding side-saddle in the opening scenes of Far From the Madding Crowd, when she also allows her hat to fly off, in disregard for propriety: ”It went over the hedge, I think,” she remarks. She is often associated with the colour red, which signals her feistiness – she wears ‘a rather dashing velvet dress’; on another occasion Hardy points out ‘the red feather of her hat’.

The database will show for the first time what such attire looked like and by whom it was worn, providing a further insight into the politics and social complexities of Hardy’s Wessex that continue resonant in the twenty-first century.

When Far from the Madding Crowd was released earlier this month Professor Richardson appeared on the Today programme speaking about Hardy and the West Country. She also has a letter in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Hardy’s politics.

Professor Richardson is giving a public lecture on Hardy at Dorset County Museum on 28 May 2015 and a research paper on Hardy and the scientific imagination for the University College London Science and Literature Seminar Series on 2 June 2015 .

Waking up to Sleep: A GP’s view

GP Dr Bill Vennells of Devon Doctors went along to the Waking up to Sleep conference, hosted by the University of Exeter Medical School, to gain a bit of understating and add to his professional knowledge.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Here am I in semi-retirement back in Medical School. The last time I was in a lecture theatre was the late 1970s. Numerous courses over many years, a variety of training and conference centres, but this course means serious business.

I learned that Rapid Eye Movement sleep helps process short term memory and counters dementia. Presentations started from first principles so we understood clinical practice. The phases of sleep were elucidated and daily Circadian rhythm patterns were clearly demonstrated.

The twists and turns in presentation kept our attention. Professor Zeman interviewed his patient about her sleep problems; Dr Whitehead lay down with a pillow on the floor for a masterly performance of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.

I was gratified to find that my Epworth score, a measure of sleepiness, was four. Quite alert then.

The treatments for sleep disorders all work in some patients. Xyrem, a more recently available stand-alone chemical compound is, however, more effective than others.

A frustrating fact of life in General Practice is the non-availability of proven effective treatments. We discovered that this is true of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia, recommended by NICE. The human mind is awkward and paradoxical and will resist the will to sleep. A gentle effort to stay awake is apparently the best approach to insomnia.

Other relevant facts:

  • 12 seconds of apnoea is normal under two months of age.
  • SIDS is associated with carbon dioxide build up around the nose and mouth and a reduced gasp reflex. Sadness was tangible amongst the audience.
  • Baby sleeping with Mum is risky, beware of unplanned drowsing, and alcohol – I recalled a particular tragic case.
  • “Those who say they have slept like a baby have never had one.” A good aphorism from Rachel Howells before lunch.

Over lunch I interacted with a colleague from Devon Doctors, a semi- retired Psychiatrist, a GP who did more sessional work in the winter to have more free time in the summer, and a Dutch GP who told me that in Holland GPs work in Nursing Homes. I talked to a narcolepsy sufferer whose father knew Sigmund Freud.

After lunch I learned that Sleep Apnoea was associated with depression and reduced libido. Sleepiness has a greater effect on driving error than alcohol and the great majority of accidents involve young men.

The interactive case studies after lunch were another helpful twist, linking learning to experience.

The effectiveness of antidepressants is related to their effect on REM sleep and this can predict their effectiveness. Nightmares are associated with a fivefold increase in suicides.

The day kept my attention, and enabled a lot of material from multi-disciplinary sources to be presented. The timetable available to us beforehand clearly signposted the areas to be covered, the presentations had clear summaries including take-home messages. I went home rather tired but I had added to my pool of useful information and understanding.

Waking up to Sleep 2015

Professor Adam Zeman and Dr Tim Malone organised the recent Waking up to Sleep Conference at the University of Exeter Medical School. The event considered the science and medicine of sleep and its disorders, from sleep mechanisms to narcolepsy, insomnia and sleepwalking. Here Professor Zeman looks back over the conference…

Professor Zeman speaking at the Waking up to Sleep conference.

Professor Zeman speaking at the Waking up to Sleep conference.

‘Half our days we passe in the shadow of the earth and the brother of death exacteth one third part of our lives,’ wrote Sir Thomas Browne, On Dreams.

Yet despite the importance of sleep in our lives, the intrinsic interest of sleep disorders and the scope for effective treatments, sleep medicine remains an underdeveloped area in British Medicine. Medical students are seldom taught about sleep in any depth, sleep clinics are a rarity and patients often find themselves researching their sleep disorders outside the medical system.

Over the past couple of years we (Tim Malone and Adam Zeman) have organised a day of sleep education in Exeter as a joint initiative between the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation Trust and the University of Exeter Medical School. The day has had two main aims – to provide a brief but reasonably comprehensive introduction to the biology of sleep and its disorders, and to bring together people providing sleep services or involved in sleep research in the peninsula.
Sleep disorders can be classified into three main groups, those involving:

  1. Too much sleep – excessive daytime sleepiness,
  2. Too little – insomnia, and;
  3. Odd behaviour during sleep – the ‘parasomnias’.

The meeting surveyed all three.

Tom Whitehead, a respiratory physician, gave a highly informative and entertaining talk on obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), the most common – and wonderfully treatable cause – of pathological sleepiness in adults. Tom’s video demonstration turned out to consist of a very audible enactment of OSA on the lecture theatre floor.

Adam Zeman, a neurologist, spoke on the neurological causes of sleepiness, aided by a patient with narcolepsy who generously agreed to tell her story to the audience: narcolepsy is one of the most distinctive disorders in medicine with its excessive sleepiness, prolific dreaming and ‘cataplexy’, loss of muscle tone on emotional arousal, and especially during laughter. Like OSA it can usually be treated very effectively.

Zenobia Zaiwalla, a sleep physician in Oxford, spoke on the parasomnias, which range from the ‘slow wave sleep arousal disorders’, such as sleepwalking and night terrors to the dream enactment seen in REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder. These must be distinguished from behaviours due to nocturnal epilepsy. Zenobia showed some memorable illustrative videos, this time on screen. Exeter is fortunate to have a trained specialist in cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia, Stephanie Romiszewski – CBTi is the evidence-based and NICE-recommended therapy for chronic insomnia: Stephanie has recently completed a successful pilot study of CBTi at the RD&E: we are hoping that this will become a regular service.

The structure of sleep changes radically through the lifetime, and so do its disorders. Rachel Howells, a paediatrician, outline the developing features of sleep during the first year of life, the pros and cons of rival strategies for dealing with a sleepless baby and current understanding of the tragedy of sudden infant death syndrome. At the other extreme of life, Joe Butchart, an old age physician and memory clinic consultant, discussed the importance of sleep in memory and the complex interactions between sleep and dementia: sleep disturbance is both exhausting to carers and detrimental to the precarious cognition of patients with dementia.

Finally, three talks addressed fascinating but sometimes forgotten aspects of sleep.

  • Russ O’Brien, an acute physician and clinical pharmacologist, reviewed the effects, both intended and unintended, of a range of drugs on sleep.
  • Hugh Selsick, a UCH-based psychiatrist with a special interest in sleep, spoke on the interactions between sleep and mood, highlighting the predictive value of REM sleep suppression in antidepressant treatment and the antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation per se.
  • Jim Horne, the doyen of British sleep research, from Loughborough and Leicester, gave our keynote talk on sleep and safety. He teased apart the various consequences of sleep deprivation – from sleepiness, which can be partially treated by caffeine, to less easily quantified and remedied but important effects on cognition, for example on decision-making. He emphasised that we generally know when we’re sleepy – and we owe it to ourselves and to others to take it seriously. The sleepy driver should pull in, drink a strong cup of coffee and nap for 20 minutes, by when the alerting effect of the coffee should combine with the refreshing effect of the nap to allow safe onward progress.

Our varied audience – including patients, nurses, OTs, speech therapists, psychologists, GPs, junior doctors and hospital consultants – appeared engaged and the talks, as well as a case presentation session, provoked good discussion.

We must now decide whether this meeting should be an annual or just an occasional event. Either way, we think Sir Thomas Browne would probably approve.

Check back tomorrow for a GPs view of the conference from Dr Bill Vennells of Devon Doctors.


Sex object, germ killer, battleground – the wonderful history of the beard

By Alun Withey

Beard styles often reveal a moment in time. In 2015 the hipster beard is, despite repeated and insistent claims that the trend is over, still popular. This current trend has already outlasted many of its pogonophilic predecessors over the past 20 years or so. But perhaps the fact that an exhibition at Somerset House in London has just opened featuring 80 portraits by Brock Elbank of hirsute men indicates that the hipster beard will soon, finally, be ditched.

Looking back through history, beard styles often follow particular eras. In fact, you can roughly identify a historical period by its facial hair. The Tudors had the “spade” beard, recognisable in many a Holbein portrait.

A highly virile Hans Holbein sitter.

By the time of the Stuarts, big beards were out, supplanted by the “Van Dyke” moustache and pointy chin beard. Georgian men were clean-shaven, while the Victorians embraced the beard again, the bigger the better. There were variations on styles from goatees to “Dundreary Whiskers” – or “Piccadilly Weepers” – which were huge side-whiskers and a moustache, but without the beard.

All have something to tell us about the story of masculinity. But they also cut across a wide range of other themes in history.

Hirsute health

Beards have always been closely linked to health. The Tudors and Stuarts believed that facial hair was the result of male sexual heat, bubbling away in the “reins” (the area around the lower abdomen). A hirsute man was therefore regarded as highly virile, and wore his beard as a mark of pride. To pull a man’s beard in Tudor England was a huge insult.

By the 19th century, doctors encouraged men to grow beards to act as a filter against germs. A big beard was believed to stop harmful substances from getting into the mouth and throat, and attacking the teeth. This relationship between hair and health still exists today (although perhaps in an inverted form). Shaving is part of daily routines, which are part of health and, especially, hygiene.

In high health. © Brock Elbank

The ability to grow a beard has also been viewed as an index of health. A report into the working environment of employees in a 19th century Derbyshire mill noted that the poor working conditions meant that many men were left with scanty facial hair. Across time, thin or scraggly beards (or worse still the inability to grow one at all) have been seen as a symptom of bodily weakness.

But by the end of the 1800s, some also began to see beards as germ magnets, which trapped bacteria in an unhygienic nest all around the mouth and nose. This is perhaps one time period where you could feel quite good about not being able to sport facial hair.

A close shave

Technology is another factor. Today, we live in a world where men’s personal grooming is commonplace. It’s easy to see the metrosexual man as a modern phenomenon. But, in fact, the Georgians got there first.

It was 18th century razor makers who first began to target men who shaved themselves, rather than visit a barber. In the 1780s, Georgian perfumers marketed all manner of new products for men, from lavender and rose aftershaves, to pastes and lotions to soothe smarting skin.

Moustache trainer? © Brock Elbank 

The invention of the true safety razor in the 19th century, followed later by electric and disposable models, certainly made shaving easier and more efficient. But it’s not actually clear though whether the availability of new technology was that big an incentive to shave. The penchant for beards was at its height around 1850.

To help men unable to grow their own beard, various sorts of false beards, moustaches and products have been patented to help them. In 1865 one Henry Rushton patented “a certain kind of goat’s hair” for the manufacture of false whiskers and moustaches.

Other products were inspired by the problems sometimes associated with beards. Victorian patents included moustache “trainers” to grow them to a desired shape, and “protectors” to stop errant whiskers from dipping into the soup.

Victorians would have admired this example. © Brock Elbank

The mark of a man?

Facial hair has particularly been an issue when masculinity was also a concern. In the 1750s, Georgian man was a more elegant and refined creature than his stubbly predecessors, his face smooth and clean-shaven.

At a time of fears about “effeminacy” and especially the effects of Frenchified fashions upon British men, to wield a razor indicated control and self-mastery, despite the fact that the shaved face was actually more feminine in appearance. Shaving also opened up the face, in turn symbolising a mind that was open to new ideas. Here, the lack of facial hair was the ideal.

Tennyson sporting his God-given superiority.

A century later there was another change – literally a volte-face. Victorian men viewed their beards as the God-given signs of man’s authority over nature, and indeed over women. They were, as John Arbuthnot put it, “an ornament by providence”. Only men, they supposed, had evolved to grow a beard, and this mighty edifice simply reinforced the fact that men were superior.

Conveniently, this occurred at a time when masculinity was being challenged, both by the new challenges of rapid industrialisation and also by increasing work by women for more rights. The beard became a battleground; an outward symbol by which men attempted to assert their authority.

What the underlying cause of this current beard trend may be is hard to judge. Perhaps men feel somehow challenged by the erosion of traditional masculine roles, and the continuing blurring of gender boundaries in modern life. Whatever the reason, beards and moustaches always have been, and probably always will be, linked to the ways that men see themselves, but also want to present themselves to others. Far from a quirky side note to history, they are an important part of the changing nature of masculinity through time.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
 Read the original article.

Paris attack: Has history repeated a generational spiral into ultra-violence?

Bill Tupman is an honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, who has 40 years’ experience in researching terrorism. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings he asks what we could learn from the past…?

As with so much in modern life, it was mobile phones that captured the brutal murder of 12 people, including two police officers and a maintenance worker, but mostly cartoonists and journalists, in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The horrific visual images left an impression of anonymous ‘cold-blooded’, disciplined, merciless killers, who hid behind balaclavas and wore black.

It was an imitation of the forces of Islamic State, the murderous terrorists of Iraq and Syria. However, the images did not tell the whole truth. In reality, the attackers went to the wrong building first, had to force someone to let them into the offices, escaped but with no safe house established and were without a plan as to what to do next.

Nevertheless, we must ask, is this a homegrown attack or the first of the long-anticipated attacks by returning jihadis?

Attacks from those trained in warfare in Syria and Iraq were expected to be more militarised, disciplined, cold-blooded and violent, because the conflict in that area has become more and more vicious since the emergence of Islamic State from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, which had offended many Iraqi Sunnis, leading to its defeat during the early years of the Obama presidency. Instead, the connection appears to be to the Yemen, perhaps less surprisingly when you consider that it is al Qaeda in the Yemen that has made threats against Europe, while Syrian groups have prioritised the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.

Al Qaeda was established to provide support to a network of more than 20 organisations operating in the Islamic world, united by common experience in the war against the USSR in Afghanistan and by a desire to return to a more fundamental version of Islam. At present it consists of a number of affiliated regional groups and indirectly affiliated organisations.

The key components are; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which attacked in Mali and against which French troops were deployed; al Qaeda in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which the Paris attackers claimed to be representing; al Qaeda in Syria, which is a different organisation to Islamic state; and al Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent.

Generational change

This downward spiral into ultra-violence has been seen before and is not inherent in Islamic extremism.

During the 1970s, the Economist published an article introducing the idea of generational change in what began as an urban guerrilla movement and turned into full-blown terrorism.

The first generation was led by relatively experienced individuals, with a long background in political activity. They began by using violence against symbolic targets and differentiated between the ‘enemy’ and the public as a whole. Mostly, symbolic buildings were targeted.

The second generation saw violence against politicians, policemen and soldiers as acceptable. The third hoisted high the banner of ‘if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem’ , a slogan which justified civilian casualties.

Finally a fourth generation emerged which concentrated on attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets.

At the time this was considered a logical progression. As the older leadership was arrested or killed, leadership passed to individuals with fewer scruples and no real interest in building up public support. Ministers of the interior, prison warders, police officers and soldiers became targets because of the existence of comrades in prison and because other activists had been killed in action.

Provocation of overreaction by the authorities became a strategy. As potential targets were hardened and made more risky to attack, militants turned to softer targets, especially since public support decreased rather than increased. A further variable was the existence of training programmes in the refugee camps in Palestine and in other post-colonial countries.

Re-examining revolutionary groups

We may be able to learn more from a re-examination of what happened to revolutionary groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There was a bewildering array of ideologies around, just as there are varieties of Islam. Just as today we have Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahabi and other varieties, so we had anarchism, Maoism, several kinds of Trotskyism and orthodox communism on the revolutionary Left. We had different strategies and tactics and organisational splits because of them. We had broader campaigns within which all of these groups operated in different ways. Is it possible to learn anything by comparing the two periods? Is it possible to encourage splits and ultimately disintegration of contemporary movements?

Islamic State has been very successful at forcing groups with different ideologies together, but history tells us they will splinter just as quickly if its military successes are turned into retreat. Below the leadership is a much looser set of associations, following individual local charismatic leaders, who will go their own way when it suits them. The ‘foreign jihadis’, as well as providing shock troops, are also useful for intimidating elements of this loose coalition into submission. But the whole network is more fragile than it looks, and unforeseen events could rapidly produce internal conflicts over personalities, the tactic of indiscriminate violence, or even the teachings of Islam, leading to disillusion on the part of existing and potential recruits from Europe.