Side Effects


I managed to slip the surly bonds of domesticity last night and settle into the 9:10 screening of Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s new (and apparently last) film about the psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry.  I don’t really know why he’s bowing out of the film industry – maybe he needs some Zoloft to cheer him up…

Anyway, Side Effects is definitely a film of two halves.  The first half is part Michael Moore’s Sicko (American health care system bad) and Girl Interrupted (psychiatry and girls don’t mix).  It combines introducing one of the protagonists, a depressed girl searching for the right pill, with intimating that not only do most Americans take psychoactive drugs, but are willing to talk about their prescriptions to complete strangers, much to the glee of psychiatrists and big pharma.

The film then takes a decidedly dark turn, which reminded me of Black Swan, but kind of in reverse – I won’t explain, since I wouldn’t want to spoil anything – in which Jude Law, the other protagonist, a psychiatrist, rails against the pharmacological machine with gusto.  He’s great, actually, a fine and dandy performance, which is part Dr. Frasier Crane and part Dr. Bob Newhart, which can’t be anything but a good thing.

It’s an entertaining film, and one that I’ll use in teaching the history of psychiatry, but it is nowhere as subtle or moving as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is not only my favourite film of all time (along with It’s a Wonderful Life – don’t know what that says about my own psychology), but a more insightful with respect to both psychiatry and mental illness.  Nevertheless Side Effects will spark some debate about mental illness, drugs and psychiatry and that can’t be anything but a good thing also.  Two thumbs up (and nothing Freudian intended).

Horse d’oeuvres


I like horses.  I like them so much that I don’t fancy riding them, not that I get the opportunity much – the last time was in Cuba, if memory serves, back when Fidel was in charge.  I do understand that that’s kind of what they’re for, but I figure that, given its druthers, the horse would rather not have me on its back.

I definitely like them enough NOT to eat them, although the events of the last few weeks suggest that I probably have had some Secretariat at some point, possibly in the form of a pie at a football match or maybe a burger van burger in a moment of, well, drunkenness.  I know that they enjoy cheval in France and many other places (my dad, jet-lagged and exhausted, mistakenly ordered and ate horse carpaccio in Bogota), but for me, growing up on Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger and Pit Pony (google it – the height of Canadian public broadcasting), it just ain’t right.  And it appears to be just not right for many people in Britain.  Although the furore will likely pass in a few months, just like BSE, the scandal has raised important questions about the provenance of what goes down our gullet, 107 years after Upton Sinclair raked mud all over the Chicago meatpacking industry in The Jungle.

Having said that, horse-gate has occurred at the perfect time for me and my new MSc seminar, Food and Health in the Twentieth Century.  Not that my students need much encouraging, but what a way to break the ice before we launch into the business of the day.  After a moment’s silence for the poor ponies, of course…

Now that was a month


It all started with Christmas, or the lack thereof, I suppose.  I was looking forward to Christmas, largely because Dashiell is starting to understand that it’s a special time of year, but I also knew that I’d be stuck with a helluva lot of work.  First, there was marking – there’s always marking – but there were also two new classes to prepare, two chapters to write, a BBC shoot to script and prepare for, a presentation for the Department for Education to write, a REF impact statement to dream up, and a big interview with the Wellcome Trust to think about as well.  Was that all?  I can’t even remember anymore.  I wrote down ten things at one point, but there might have been more.  What I didn’t prepare for was the worst cold I’ve had since I was a kid.  Coughing, hacking, sneezing, phlegm of mysterious colours and viscosity pouring out of my snout like pints out of a tap at happy hour – it was terrible.  Add the lousy weather and a crabby son on Christmas Day itself, and it added up to a sub-par holiday season.

Then January hit and all the deadlines for all the things I had to get done loomed in front of me like a deer leaping out into the roadway in front of you.  Not good.  I was working on both the weekends and the evenings – something I tend to lump in with cruel and unnatural punishment.  But the stuff had to get done.  I didn’t sacrifice much Dashiell time, and kept up with more of my programmes (The Killing kept me sane, I like to think)  And the deadlines passed, usually with me getting things done just in time.  And, finally, finally, January ended.  There’s more light, the sun is brighter, I’ve seen snow drops and the new shoots of daffodils, and February is looking a lot more manageable.  Now I’m just doing what a normal academic does, which is doable.  Next year, a holiday might be in order.

26 months


On the 21st of December, the world was supposed to end.  It didn’t, as far as I can tell – though it sure has been raining a lot – but it was still an eventful day.  My son, Dashiell, hit 26 months.  Now, I know 26 months really isn’t a milestone, but it seemed to be for some reason.  All of the sudden, when he runs, he goes quickly.  When he jumps, you can see air under his feet.  And then today he pointed out a windmill today and identified it as such.  ‘Windmill.’  I’d never taught him that!  It’s not like we see windmills on a regular basis in Milngavie.  Maybe it’s because it’s the end of term, or Christmas, but Dashiell at 26 months seems bigger all the sudden.  World ending?  Nah, it’s just beginning.

Free Thinking


Last week, on my 39th birthday, I probably gave the best talk I’ve ever given.  It was at the Free Thinking Festival and the wonderful Sage Gateshead, it was in front of about 50 people, including the great poet, Ian McMillan, and possibly the controller for BBC Radio 3, and will be going out on Night Waves on Radio 3 on 16 November 2012 at 2245 GMT (not to be too exact about it).  I suppose this was a good time to hit a talk out of the park (or for 6 if you’re reading this in the UK), but, having had a week to mull it all over, what really struck me was how much the audience itself jazzed me up for the talk.  Ian, who was the host for the event, suggested I did a warm-up before hand, so I gave my talk, shaky hands, voice and all, to him, a BBC producer and a technician at the back of the room.  It was okay, but not great.  In front of an audience, however, the adrenaline kicked in and I could really go for it, pausing for the jokes, using dynamics to good effect (I hope, I haven’t actually heard the thing!) and just giving it some gusto.  We’ll see what it sounds like on the radio, but at least it felt good live.

I also participated in something called: Speed Dating with a Thinker, during which you try to sell a whacky idea to rotating groups of people.  My idea: elections should be replaced with greased hog wrestling contests.  It sounds crazy, but up until Obama won the election, I thought it was a pretty good idea.

Books, Wonderful Books!


As I write this, my wife, Michelle, is painstakingly organising books for our new Ikea bookcase.  I know it’s Saturday night and we should be doing something more exciting – at least watching Strictly or something – but watching these new bookcases take shape is captivating.  Earlier, I climbed up into the attic and passed down bags filled with books that had been imprisoned in packing boxes.  It was wonderful reuniting with so many old friends: the complete Penguin collection of Orwell’s fiction and non-fiction; the Lloyd Alexander Taran Chronicles, an entire shelf of Dickens, life seems much better having these books showcased in the living room, where they belong.

Ah, the archive!


Unlike most historians, I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in The Archive (yes, it is the definitive article and capitals seem appropriate, but don’t ask me why).  My sources have tended to be more various: medical journals and textbooks; newspapers; popular literature; oral history; etc… and since so many sources are now online, there is even less need for me to go to a library, let alone a bonafide archive.

But, let me tell ya, when I get the chance to go to an archive – oh, sorry, The Archive – boy, what a rush!  Today, at the Wellcome Library, I requested a book on allergy that I probably could have ordered through Interlibrary Loans.  The difference was that the copy at the WT was annotated – someone had scribbled little legible comments through it, consisting of corrections, suggestions and criticisms that were often as interesting as the book itself.  One rather expressive comment corrected a quotation made by the author with no small amount of exclamatory indignation.  I probably chuckled audibly half a dozen times (yes, the book was about allergy).

Although it isn’t always the core of my historical research, I can certainly see why so many of my colleagues lust after archival research.  Something about sitting at a quiet table tapping into the unbridled thoughts of someone who died before WWII, it’s a kind of magic.  Maybe I’ll have to squeeze some more archival research into my next project…



The End of an Era


My old high school shut down this week.  Yup, weeks before the new term began, its doors were closed for good, severing a connection that, for me, was almost universally positive – not something everyone says about their old school.  And not something I would have said about any other school.

I started at Concordia after, let’s say, underachieving at my previous high school.  Although I was somewhat apprehensive about attending a small, private, Lutheran high school, I was also looking forward to it.  For one, it was in a beautiful location, perched on the North Saskatchewan River Valley like a stately home in a Merchant and Ivory film.  But, more to the point, it was a fresh start, new friends, new teachers, new girls – not that I was particularly successful on that front.

And, ultimately, it was a terrific couple of years, as good as could be reasonably expected for an unconfident, fairly shy teenaged boy with absolutely no idea about what to do next in his life.  I played sports, made friends – including teachers, who genuinely seemed to enjoy being there – went on trips (including an infamous one with Lakeland College, which could have served for one of those slightly smutty teen comedies from the 80s) and, wonder of wonders, learned something.  Later, I coached basketball and saw myself in many of my players.  Slightly awkward, not particularly good at the game, but willing to give it a go.

It was a hard place to leave.  I even went to the affiliated college for a year before going to university.  Before I left for the UK, one of the last things I did was cycle past, having one last look.  And, I suppose, it was the last look.  To be honest, I haven’t thought much about Concordia in the last few years.  I read the newsletters and kept in touch with a few friends, but that has been about it.   Now, I wish I had done a bit more.  Stayed in closer contact.  Not that it would have mattered much, but it would have been good just the same.  An old friend is gone.

The Girl in Red and White


As I am writing this, Canada’s women’s football/soccer team is about to defeat Great Britain and find itself in an Olympic semi-final against the dreaded USA.  Now, I am rooting for Canada generally in these Olympics for obvious reasons, but also because the UK is doing so well (and it is actually a UK team – including Northern Ireland – not a GB team) and Canada has seen better Summer Olympics, along with worse ones, of course.  When we (Canada) were rollicking through the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, in fact, I felt a little embarrassed at our success, and wished the UK well at every opportunity.

The other reason for me rooting for the Canadians is that my sister played soccer for Canada and didn’t get a chance to go to the Olympics, something I regret probably more than she does.  I would have loved to go down to Atlanta or Sydney or Athens and cheer her on, but, sadly, it wasn’t to be.  I did drive down, with my wife, Michelle, and a couple of friends, to San Jose to watch Liz play in the Women’s World Cup (driving through the night and getting there from Edmonton in about 25 hours), but the Olympics, for women’s football at least, is special, the pinnacle of achievement.  So, when I see a player in red and white streaking down the flank or charging down a striker with the sort of speed most men would envy, I think of her.  If only.

Made in Britain


I remember loving the Olympic’s athletes’ parade when I was a kid, the horrible outfits, smiling faces and effusive spectators.  The first thing I thought after watching Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies was, ‘Thank God, now I can have a comfort break!’  What a ceremony!  Infused with (postmodern) history, including a pronounced nod to the NHS, comedy, great music and a parachuting octogenarian, it was right up my street and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

It also made me think.  As a Canadian living in the UK, I am a part-time anthropologist, learning about a culture(s) that is at times as familiar as an old jumper (sweater) and other times, as foreign as marmite on toast.  So what did the ceremony say about the UK?  Well, it may just be Danny Boyle talking, but if I were an alien viewing the UK for the first time, I’d think the UK was a confident, yet edgy, country.  A place both comfortable with its past, again in a crunchy postmodern way, and unsure about the future.  A country that might not know exactly where its going, but is sure to have an exciting time getting there and telling the rest of the world all about it later.  Let the Games begin!