Monday, 5 May 2014

...inequalities, abuse, virtual love affairs and more

...a week of heightened moments of the here and now* with added miserablist awareness of inequalities, all punctuated by a 21st Century love affair! Good grief...let’s start with the miserable eh.

As the BBC’s Panorama yet again exposed neglect and abuse in care services for elderly people and we all scrabble around looking for someone to blame, sack or make a scape-goat of, I can’t help wondering why we don’t just stop and ask why people abuse their power like this? Perhaps the answer is borne of the simple fact, that the people who are doling out the abuse, seem to have no power, or rather the only power they do have, is direct power over those worse off than themselves - the elderly, infirm and least able. Time and again it appears that the people with the least/fewest resources (emotional, educational and economic) take on the work that no one else wants to do, the poorly paid, the under stimulated and the ‘services’ we routinely hide-away. Spoon-feeding, shaving and mopping up all manner of bodily fluids. 

For those of us who traipse into care homes with our cultural interventions and who evangelise about the arts from our comfortable transient roles ‘transforming’ peoples lives as we go, it’s easy to forget the over-worked care assistant, who dosen’t want to take part in our cultural activity. The grim reality of care is that no one cares about the carers (or perhaps we do when it’s our own relative, but not when its one of a million anonymous others).

I’ve had a couple of stints as a nursing assistant in an old fashioned hospital for people with learning difficulties and in a smaller care home where, I toileted and brushed the teeth of adults. In the hospital, it was like a production line of ‘care’ and in the smaller home, at least the ratio of care was appropriate. But in both cases, I witnessed what I would describe as institutionalised behaviour and appalling attitudes to fellow humans, (I knew people who cared deeply too).

But bloody hell, the job is so demanding - exhausting - and emotionally draining and in both cases for me, I saw the job as a necessity, in between jobs - it certainly wasn’t my vocation. Yet again this reminds me of our unequal society and how, from positions of comfort and relative power, we can point at the ‘underclasses’ who we throw a few pennies to and ask to look after our feeble and aged relatives and then kick up a stink when it all goes wrong.

Surely we should understand inequalities by now. We’ve had Marmot illustrating them these last few years and we had Sir Douglas Black telling us a similar story in the early 1980’s. Come to think of it those early public health pioneers did something similar over 100 years ago and Dickens did a reasonable job of painting a picture of unequal societies, so by now, we should have a pretty good idea how economic, domestic and educational circumstances perpetuate inequalities.

As Kate Picket and Danny Dorling so eloquently suggest in Against the organisation of misery? The Marmot Review of health inequalities, we know all this, but we don’t have the political will to act.

“No reviews or policies ‘boldly go’ where all public health researchers know they need to go. And yet our evidence base for the social determinants of health proceeds apace; we learn more and more about the futility of trying to change individual behaviour, and more and more about the importance of influences in the womb and early years of childhood. Indeed, the Marmot Review could have gone much further, if it had only placed greater reliance on Sir Michael Marmot’s own research and that of his colleagues studying life-course effects on health in the British birth cohorts. In contrast to 1980 when the Black Report was published, we now, thanks especially to his work, know much more about the importance of psychosocial influences on population health. We also know much more about the biology of chronic stress (Sapolsky, 2005), about how rank and status harm health (Marmot, 2004). We know that children get the best start in life by being brought up in more equitable societies, rather than in rich ones (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2007). Why did the Marmot Review not make hard-hitting recommendations to reduce the harm created by great differences in rank and status? 

Whilst our ‘for profit’ care homes continue to be driven by the market value of each of its fragile ‘commodoties’, it will take a significant political shift to start valuing not only the oldest and most vulnerable people, but those who care for them too. With the average wage for care assistants being just over £7 per hour and only basic training on offer, care homes are competing with supermarkets for staff.

We are unequal at both ends of our life course - topped and tailed - so to speak. Only this week the report Why Children Die using data from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation reveals that children under five in the UK are more likely to die than in any other western European country except Malta. The report in The Lancet exposes one specific factor: deaths rise with socio-economic deprivation. We should be appalled.

Again, Picket and Dorling stress that much of the focus on inequalities is wrapped up in the language of “...economics, not social epidemiology or progressive public health. It is a language that has seeped into our everyday vocabulary and thinking…”

Of course I’m a great advocate for making all care-environments more creative, stimulating and culturally vibrant spaces - but let’s get real - we are skimming the surface of the water, and as Picket and Dorling conclude: 

“What is missing is the political courage to deal with the root causes of those social determinants. Why people smoke, rather than trying to get them to stop, why people eat too much, commit violence, trust each other less, invest more money in their children’s education, rather than trying to understand the social inequalities that stand in their way.”

Hilary Moss and Desmond O’Neill contribute an excellent paper to The Lancet called, Aesthetic deprivation in clinical settings. Here’s a paragraph to whet your appetite, and click on the bottle of Buxton Water above for the full article.

“...many clinicians, including those favourably disposed to a greater presence of arts in health care, remain uncomfortable with the often fulsome language and somewhat uncritical stance of evangelists of the arts and health movement. Phrases such as the “healing arts” seem to overstate potential benefits and contain uneasy echoes of obscurantism and mysticism. Indeed, many of us may associate the golden age of art in hospitals with the worst forms of speculative and unscientific treatment—the four humours, purging, and blood-letting.”

HA...and so to a 21st Century love affair. French newspaper Le Monde has startled its readers by serialising a graphic novel about an online love affair on its website. The novel illustrates virtual love in an Internet age where two people become friends through the internet communications site, Skype. They start to have remote sex without meeting. La Technique du perinea is by Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot and coloured by Isabelle Merlet. Click on the image above to go to the story. Fancy yourself as a graphic short story writer? Read on...

Graphic Short Story Prize
Want to apply for the Cape/Observer/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize 2014? Click on the audience below for more details...

New Science & Society Community Challenge Grant Scheme 
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has announced a new £500,000 grants scheme to support to create and run pilot projects that take science to diverse audiences. There will be 3 levels of project funding: up to £10,000, up to £20,000 and up to £40,000, depending on the size and difficulty of the project. The scheme is open to a wide range of people, including:
  • Scientists and researchers
  • Science centre or museum staff
  • Educators, schools, colleges and universities
  • Film makers
  • Theatre producers
  • Games developers
It is expecting to fund between 20 and 25 projects in the 2014/15 financial year. The deadline for applications is 16th May 2014. Read more at

The Peter Cruddas Foundation 
The Peter Cruddas Foundation is a grant making Foundation that aims to support charitable works that benefit disadvantaged and disengaged young people in the UK by ensuring that their funding reaches those most in need. Priorities for funding are:
Pathways/support for young disadvantaged or disengaged people in the age range 14 to 30 into education, training or employment
Work experience/skills projects for young people aged 16 to 30
Youth work in London particularly evening work for disadvantaged young people aged 16 to 30.
To be eligible for funding an organisation must be a registered charity or an organisation / individual supported by a UK charity. There are no minimum or maximum grants and projects can be funded for more than one year. The closing date for application is the 1st September 2014.  Read more at:

Fancy working in Stockholm as an artist in residence? Click on the ice-cream eating nuns to find out more.

*Working from home, and seeing the sun come out, I had the opportunity to have my lunch in a graveyard - so took it (broad beans in the pod, lump of cheese and bread, an apple and a drink). A small church by the estuary as the tide was pouring in. The sun, shining through broken clouds after a week of rain. The sky full of flying things - mayfly, newly liberated from their nymph stage for a couple of days at the most, in search of insect intimacy - and midges by the tens of thousands. Sitting on a bench, dedicated to two long-dead lovers. In the newly mown grass, lay a freshly dead thrush, quite relaxed and oblivious to the fussing of the flies. Behind me, on a rise, a tiny old church, its ornately carved Norman doorway honey coloured in the sunlight. Daffodils who had lost their heads, but roses who were expectant with something altogether pinker and more secret. Two beautiful butterflies* dancing on unseen thermals laced with perfume-like pheromones. A thousand daisies crowded-out by a million bluebells and wild garlic that filled the air with something heady. The buzzing of the flies, the songs of unknown birds and an awareness of myself in the lattice-work of fields, imbued a deep sense of the here and now. Something quite delicious took over me. An intoxicating gravity. A gentle breeze as we turn through space, my feet heavy on the earth. A certain death below, before and after me. All these transient things. Having never meditated, I guessed that this was something like that, only instead of emptying my mind, it was focused down to this overwhelming nowness and some relaxed acceptance of things beyond myself. It’ll be alright, you are ok, everything will be fine.

*Female butterflies release perfume-like pheromones into the air. The male butterflies of many species can detect the pheromones from as far away as 2 kilometres. Some species of moths are sensitive to the presence of the females' pheromones up to five kilometres away.

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