Save a thought for Hygeia: Strike diary 8

Today was our final strike day for the week. It feels as if the tide is turning and we might win this industrial dispute. Our union, however, reminded us that we must not abandon the fight until negotiations have been successful. It has announced 14 further days of strike beyond next week (which is already a week of planned strikes) should negotiations be unsatisfactory. This is not what most of us wanted to hear. We wanted to hear: “you will be back in work next week”. Most of us want to return to teaching and doing research. Still, we must go on.

Today was also International Women’s Day. I have written some thoughts on what I would call the ‘inspirational women approach’  to celebrating International Women’s Day for The Recipes Project. While celebrating inspirational women is important, it should not – in my opinion – be the main focus of the day. The main focus should be to remind people that fights for equal rights are still ongoing everywhere in the world.

On this International Women’s Day, I want to return to the building with which I opened this strike diary: the Queen’s building at Cardiff University. As I mentioned, the entrance porch to that building has statues of Asclepius and Hippocrates, as well as busts of several male luminaries in the field of medicine. What I didn’t know until early this week is that there is another interesting entrance to the building at the back.

The Queen’s building, Cardiff University. Back Entrance.

Above that entrance, we see an inscription in Greek: hygeia. Hygeia was the name of one the daughters of Asclepius, the goddess of health. She is named in the Hippocratic Oath:

I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Health and Panacea and by all the gods as well as goddesses, making them judges [witnesses], to bring the following oath and written covenant to fulfilment, in accordance with my power and my judgement. (Translation: Heinrich von Staden).

Unlike Asclepius, Hygeia does not get her own sculpture at the Queen’s building. She is a disembodied name.

On either side of the inscription to Hygeia are reliefs: a group of young men on the right; a group of women and children on the left. The men carry books, and one also has a vial. They appear to be medical students. The women wear aprons and caps that may indicate that they are nurses. However, two of these also seem to be mothers: they both carry babes in their arms, and one also has her skirts pulled by a small child.

Whether these women are nurses or mothers (the two roles were incompatible at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the sculptures were produced), they are caring figures – and they are separated from the studious young men.

How symbolic that women are relegated to the back entrance of this building! How symbolic that women are depicted as caring figures! Of course, things have changed. But they haven’t changed nearly enough. The fight goes on.


Posted in Ancient History, Art, History of medicine, Wales | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Two and two are four: Strike diary 6

Today I went to a teach out session on mental health. I went there with an open mind, and rather low expectations. Put simply, I was expecting a few mindfulness tips, which I have heard many times already, and the efficacy of which I actually doubt (this is not to say I do not believe in the power of mindfulness – I’m only critical of “mindfulness lite”). I was very positively surprised: there was no empty rhetoric about the benefits of deep breathing, but rather some great insights into practice, policy, law, and even history, surrounding mental health.

We also reflected on the nature of modern university teaching and the fact that it is so much geared towards assessment. This puts such unbearable pressure on students; yet when they know they are not assessed on parts of a module, they often disengage. How can this be addressed?

All this made me think of one of Jacques Prévert‘s (1900-1977) poems, which extols the virtue of daydreaming. It is also a poem about metamorphosis, which is becoming a bit of a theme in this strike diary. You will find the original French here (see this post for another of Prévert’s poems). I have chosen to make the bird in the poem a ‘she’ in reference to the mythical Sirens (in French birds are masculine):

Oydsseus and the Sirens. Second century mosaic, Tunisia.

Two and two are four
Four and four are eight
Eight and eight are sixteen…
Repeat! says the teacher
Two and two are four
Four and four are eight
Eight and eight are sixteen.
But here comes the lyre-bird
Who flies in the sky
The child sees her
The child hears her
The child calls to her:
Save me
Play with me
Then the bird flies down
And plays with the child
Two and two are four…
Repeat! says the teacher
And the child plays
The bird plays with him..
Four and four are eight
Eight and eight are sixteen
And sixteen and sixteen what are they?
They are nothing sixteen and sixteen
And certainly not thirty two
And anyway
They go away.
And the child has hidden the bird
In his desk
And all the children
Hear her song
And all the children
Hear the music
And eight and eight in turn go away
And four and four and two and two
In turn scamper off
And one and one do not think twice
And go away too.
And the lyre-bird plays
And the child sings
And the teacher shouts:
When you are done playing the buffoon!
But all the other children
Listen to the music
And the walls of the classroom
crumble quietly.
And the windows return to sand
The ink returns to water
The desks return to trees
The chalk returns to cliffs
The quill returns to bird.

The white cliffs of Dover.


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The fall of Icarus: Strike diary 5

In my last post, I mentioned Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of Icarus (or rather Landscape with the Fall of Icarus). I’d like to return to this painting, as it happens to be one of my favourite.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, 1560s. One of the most beautiful pictorial representations of the story as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.

The painting, which is believed to be an early copy rather than the original Bruegel, is to be found in the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where it is part of the second largest collection of Bruegel works in the world (I guess the largest is in the Prado Museum – I’m not sure). As a child, I often visited the museum and enjoyed the lively details that are characteristic of Bruegel’s style.

Last winter, I had the pleasure of introducing Tween T and Big Boy G to Bruegel’s work. I was happy to see that both boys were particularly attracted by The Fall of Icarus, which in my opinion is the finest pictorial representation of the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus, who attempted to escape Crete and King Minos with wings made of feathers and wax. After a good start, Icarus grew cocky, and flew too close to the sun. The heat caused the wax to melt, and Icarus fell into the Aegean Sea.

In Bruegel’s painting, Icarus’ fall is only a detail, almost unnoticeable at first – a mere splash in the water. Instead we see a ploughman, a shepherd, and a fisherman. They do not appear to notice the momentous events unfolding in front of them.

Bruegel’s inspiration was of course Ovid’s version of the myth of Icarus. There too, we encounter the ploughman, the shepherd and the fisherman. But there, they do notice the flying Daedalus and Icarus:

Some fisherman catching fish with a quivering rod,
Or a shepherd leaning on his staff, or a ploughman on his plough-handle,
Saw them and was struck with amazement, believing them to be gods
Who could tear through the air (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.217-220).

In other representations of the myth, the fisherman, shepherd and ploughman notice Daedalus and Icarus flying. Painting by Joos de Momper, 1564-1635.

The onlookers believe Daedalus and Icarus to be gods, and do not witness the only-too-human fall to earth. The message in Bruegel’s version is much more powerful. Yes, hybristic behaviour will lead to a downfall, but nobody will really care. Everyday life in all its simplicity will go on.

No wonder Bruegel’s painting has inspired some great ekphrastic poems: one by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and one by W.H. Auden (1907-1973). I like the simple musicality of Williams’ free verse:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

All this is ‘unsignificant’.

As you may have guessed, there’s a message here. However, if Icarus falls to earth, if university management has to back down, how (un)significant will that fall be? For criticism of the strike does not fall on deaf ears: pensions are much worse in the private sector than in universities; concerns over pensions are a luxury when so many academics live such a precarious existence (why didn’t we strike over that); aren’t there much more important things going on in the world? I know that I’m personally striking for much more than pensions, as a way to reclaim the fact that we (staff) are the university, but I do find it hard to answer such questions. This striking business ain’t easy!


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Learning is like growing plants: strike diary 4

I have been on the pickets again today. It took me three hours to thaw after the three hours I spent in the sub-zero temperatures. We are now getting two days’ respite, as the strike action is an escalating one (two days in week 1; three days in week 2; four days in week 3; all week in week 4). I doubt there will be resolution by next Monday, but at least the universities and union have now agreed to talk to each other.

Education strikes are nothing new for me. Three of my key school years were affected by long, all out, strikes: my final year of primary school; my first year of secondary school; and my final year of secondary school. By the final year, I was participating in teachers’ marches; their cause had become my cause. A society should value its educators, pay them well, and give them dignity in retirement. That is the bottom line.

I have learnt a great deal about striking from one of my Latin school teachers. Her name was Madame Peiffer, and she was a hard-core unionist. She was also a great story teller. I will never forget reading passages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with her. To this day, I prefer Latin poetry to Greek poetry, even though I would identify as a Hellenist (sorry Homer – nothing personal).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, 1560s. One of the most beautiful pictorial representations of the story as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.

My mother was not the greatest fan of Madame Peiffer, and I guess that was a lesson in itself: as we grow up, we form our own opinions, and these may well differ from those of our parents. As teachers too we should encourage our students to disagree with us, to critique (rather than criticise), and to become independent thinkers.

Recently, I was rereading the Hippocratic text Law, and I came across this beautiful passage, in  which learning is compared to plant growth:

The learning of the medical art is like the culture of plants growing in the earth. For our natural disposition is like the soil. The opinions of our teachers are like the seeds. Instruction in childhood is like the sowing of the seeds into the ground at the right season. The place where learning occurs is like the food provided to plants by the surrounding environment. Diligent study is like working the soil. And it is time that strengthens all things, until they are fully grown. (Law 3)

Learning requires hard work; learning takes time; the opinions of teachers are merely small seeds. I could not agree more.


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On the wings of the ladybird: strike diary 3

Today I’ve been picketing. It was bitterly cold, but at least we didn’t have snow in our corner of Wales. I’m in awe of those who have been picketing in the snow in many parts of the UK.

The aspect of academic life that non-academics (including family members) find most difficult to understand is the need to move where the work is. In our family, this means that P works in Manchester while I work in Cardiff, that is, almost 300 km away from each other. This is logistically and financially burdensome – to say the least.

Before I landed in Wales, I spent time studying and working in Brussels (BA/MA), Turin (Erasmus), Cambridge (MPhil), London (PhD), and Cambridge again (postdoc). I also commuted from Cambridge to Reading (a 5-hour round trip) to do some teaching once a week while rather heavily pregnant with tween T. Now, I love travelling and living in new places, but there is no denying that it can be very difficult to be transplanted from one environment to another and to grow new roots on a regular basis.

I had moved internationally once before adulthood: my family lived in Letchworth Garden City (not far from Cambridge) for two years. I was three when we moved there, and five when we returned to Belgium. That experience undeniably shaped me in many ways. One of my earliest memories is of the bookshop Heffers in Cambridge – I kid you not. I also have vivid memories of the books my mum read to me whilst living in the UK, and in particular of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series and – of course – Ladybird books, upon which I briefly touched yesterday.

Unfortunately, I forgot my English once I returned to Belgium. These things happen: bilingualism is not always an easy thing to maintain. But when I made the decision to relearn English as a teenager, I did turn to Ladybird books again. I recall reading the Ladybird abbreviated version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, for instance.

One of my favourite books in its abridged Ladybird version

Eventually, I did return to Cambridge and settled in the UK, and I acquired a collection of second-hand Ladybird books. Tween T and Big Boy G love reading them, although Tween T is shocked by the casual sexism and racism displayed in some volumes. I  guess some parents would shield their children from such things, but I prefer to explain to them that things change.

Among my favourite Ladybird books are – no surprises here – those about nature and plants. The artwork is so beautiful. And I have a special fondness for Animals, Birds and Plants of the Bible (published 1964), which lists titbits about plants and animals in the Bible, with references in the margins. Here is a passage from the spread on herbs. It’s delectable:

In Bible times, herbs were used in the preparation of food and as medicine. Tithes and taxes were paid on many things in the time of our Lord, including some herbs. He rebuked the Pharisees for being more concerned about the payment of tithes ‘for mint and rue and all manner of herbs’ than about the true worship of God.

Palestine mint was not unlike our garden mint. Anise, or dill, was used as a medicine and for flavouring. The cummin plant was ‘beaten with a rod’ to release the ripe seed, which looked like caraway seeds. Rue was used as a medicine and as a spice.

When I moved to Cardiff, I discovered that I do not like ladybirds, the insect. My office is quite regularly infested with ladybirds. They smell of formic acid, I found out…

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‘The father of Medicine’: Strike diary 2

Anxiety over this striking business settled in over the weekend. What will be the impact of a diminished pension on my family? How will students cope with missed lectures and seminars? How will we deal with 28 days of lost income (14 days of strike are scheduled, and both P and I are lecturers)? Thoughts looping in my head, and keeping me awake at night.

On the other hand, breaking news have strengthened my resolve to strike. While writing this blog, I’m watching a Dispatches documentary on scandalous expenses claimed by those at the top of British universities. Save a thought for the poor professor who spent £1600 of public money to relocate their Maltese dog (a type of dog much loved in antiquity – see this lovely blog), when many postdocs are not even entitled to claim expenses to relocate their children.

Most lecturers, whatever their grade, can only claim very limited expenses. Most of the time, research allocations do not even cover the cost of a typical international conference. This means that most lecturers sponsor their own research, as if it were a hobby. As a scholar working in the humanities, I purchase numerous books because university library budgets do not stretch to buying research books. Even grants do not cover these costs.

A Ladybird Achievements Book: The Story of Medicine, 1972

Fortunately, I have become quite a pro at finding cheap copies of books. One way  to do so in Wales is to travel to the wonderful town of Hay-on-Wye, which has numerous second-hand book shops. We went there a week ago and I struck gold: I found a copy of The Story of Medicine. A Ladybird Achievements Book, first published in 1972. Admittedly, this does not really count as a research book, but what a wonderful example of how a discipline, and the way it presents itself to children, can move in a little over 40 years. The book does include an obligatory spread on Florence Nightingale, but otherwise, you’d be forgiven if you believed that most – if not all – healers in the past were male. The book opens with these eternal words:

It has long been known that Man descended from ape-like ancestors. The process of evolution spanned many hundred of thousands of years. Gradually he came down from the trees, learned to walk on two feet, lost much of his physical strength and, instead, developed a bigger head and brain. (Snarky emphasis my own)

Thankfully, children’s books are not written in this way anymore.

Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’ in the Ladybird The Story of Medicine, 1972

The spread on Hippocrates is pure gold. Of course it tells us that Hippocrates was the Father of Medicine (with capital letters). I won’t be so mean as to point out all the myths it perpetuates, but I must comment on the accompanying illustration, which is amazing. It shows the bald Hippocrates (for Hippocrates was bald, you know) reading the Hippocratic Oath to a group of male students. Now, the illustrator must have done quite a lot of research here. His portrait of Hippocrates is reminiscent of that by Peter Paul Rubens, and his Hippocratic Oath is presented in the shape of a cross, as it was in several medieval manuscripts. Today, with the wonders of the internet, I can find such information within seconds, but that was not the case in the 70s. 


In the Middle Ages, copyists set the Hippocratic Oath in the shape of a cross to give a Christian veneer to a pagan text. However, it is quite absurd to depict Hippocrates himself writing the Oath (which he didn’t write himself anyway) in that shape. I wonder how many children in the 70s and 80s spotted this and asked themselves questions about the symbolism of the cross in the classical Greek world. Perhaps those lovely illustrations, however problematic they might be, spurred on a passion for the history of medicine, which turned into academic research. For one always has to start somewhere.

Posted in History of medicine, Wales | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The art is long: strike diary 1

I am on strike. Employees at a large number of British universities are on strike over broken promises regarding pensions. However, we are striking over much more than pensions: we are striking over the ever-increasing casualisation of the workforce and the commodification of education.

I don’t find striking easy. I don’t find depriving students of education easy. I don’t find withdrawing my labour easy. I’m passionate about my field of research and communicating it to students, and I can’t simply stop being that way. Unfortunately, university management knows this only too well: passionate academics are easy to exploit. As a form of ‘teach out’, I turn to this blog. I will write a short post for everyday I am on strike.

Last week, as part of my work as union caseworker (for I do happen to be a union caseworker in addition to my ‘day job’ as a lecturer), I visited the Cardiff University engineering building, the Queen’s building. For the first time, I paid attention to the doorway of that building, which I had often seen from afar. The British Listed Buildings website describes it as follows:

The ground-floor openings are recessed behind a 3-bay entrance portal composed of elliptical arches with blind ogee gables and carved diamond finials, and 2 freestanding round columns which have capitals with Greek relief inscriptions and carry statues of Hippocrates and Asclepius in canopied niches, while the outer responds are polygonal with foliage capitals. Above the arches are sculpted busts of C19 physicians (Pasteur, Lister, Hunter, Jenner) in the outer bays and heraldic shields to the centre.

The statue of Hippocrates (interestingly depicted as bald – see Helen King’s thoughts on the matter) carries in its hands a scroll with a Greek inscription: bios brachus, techne makre. This is the famous first Hippocratic Aphorism: ‘Life is short; the art is long’. Quite naturally, much ink has been spilt over the interpretation of this aphorism, and the Wikipedia page captures some of this.

The statue of Hippocrates, Queen’s Building, Cardiff University

To me, the aphorism is a warning against the hybristic belief that one can ever fully master one’s art (mine being history rather than medicine), that one can know everything. Our only certainty is that our life is short, and that our art (whatever it might be) is extremely long.

Perhaps strangely, I find the first aphorism reassuring. As a child, I remember wanting to know everything, to read everything, to see everything. I cannot recall when exactly I finally realised this was not possible. Perhaps the realisation came slowly and quite late, when I started studying ancient philosophy in secondary school. I will not lie and say that acceptance came easily. In fact, I still struggle and wish that there were more hours in the day, more energy to get to know everything. I wish I read more languages; I wish I could travel without feeling exhaustion; I wish I could write faster. But I cannot, since my life will always be short, and the art will always be long – and impossible fully to commodify.

Posted in Ancient History, History, History of medicine, Wales | Tagged , , | 2 Comments