Play with your ears

PONTING_1911_Dog_Listening_to_Gramophone_Antartica-620x481The 2018 summer organ concerts at St Modwen’s finished last Wednesday. We went out with a bang.

The player was Ben Bloor, a kind-of-local lad, who’d been chorister and organ scholar at Derby Cathedral, then went on to organ scholarships in Oxford where he read music, Westminster Cathedral, St George’s Windsor, and Rochester Cathedral. He is now successor to Ralph Downes and Patrick Russill at Brompton Oratory—at the tender age of 27. He wears his virtuosic gifts with quiet affability, earthed humanity, and wry humour. He is someone who would have provoked in me, when I was his age, naked envy.

The concerts began in 2017 when the new organist, Tony Westerman, arrived. He has many contacts in the local organ scene and I said to him that it would be wonderful to have “a bit of culture”. I pretended that this was for the sake of the church and the town, but in truth my motivation was entirely selfish. It was I who wanted a bit of culture. Thanks to Tony’s organisational skills, I sure got it.

The concerts have been a remarkable and unexpected success. Burton is within 11 miles of two cathedrals with great musical traditions: Derby with its wonderful acoustic to the north-east, and Lichfield to the south-west. Coventry and Birmingham are not that far away either. So if Burtonians want organ music, they haven’t far to go.

I wasn’t expecting great numbers, and told people that I’d be happy if we made double figures. At the first 2017 concert there were, IIRC, over 30, and the most we had in that season was over 60. I’m told we sometimes had more than Lichfield Cathedral.

St Modwen’s has a number of things in its favour. It’s in the Market Square, in the middle of town. The organ is in the west gallery and speaks directly into the church—going full pelt it’s almost painfully loud. The console is at ground level and the organist can be seen, and can hear everything in proportion. But perhaps most significant was our insistence that the pieces played should be foot-tappingly tuneful. No forearm smashes. No tuneless crap. And the players have obliged with good heart. And hearts have been good. We’ve been blessed with organists, including professionals, willing to give their talents free, therefore indirectly for local charities. I’m extraordinarily grateful.

Some players have been stunning, and most excellent. It doesn’t follow that professionals necessarily play better than amateurs. I would rather listen to a performance that’s passionate and in tune with the spirit of the music despite a few mistakes, than one that’s cold, clinical and flawless—and I’ve heard professionals give performances that have been exactly that, and certainly not worth the vast fees they charge.

Only two players were disappointing. It sounded as if they, quite simply, did not listen to the sound they produced. A good player always plays with his or her ears. S/he will listen to what s/he’s doing. In my half-century as a church musician and cleric I’ve heard organists who are transported in ecstasy to an Enid Blyton la-la land where the sun always shines and wrong notes are unknown. Rather than listen to what they’re actually doing, they “listen” to what they think they’re doing. I’ve “fond” memories of a Derbyshire village organist whose hands worked entirely independently of each other, and without any apparent neural connexion to the retinal impulses resulting from the black dots and squiggles of the printed music. I coped with this by singing very loudly so as to drown her out. It was truly w-o-e-f-u-l. She couldn’t be sacked since she was related to half the village and the pastoral consequences would have been seismic.

Back in the 1960s my piano teacher, Miss Julia Thompson, a very proper Penrith lady, constantly exhorted me “Stanley, you must always play with your ears”. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. I carried on with lessons until I went to Cambridge in 1969. A lumbering late teenage boy sat next to a bird-like epitome of propriety, alternately praising and chastising him, must have made a pretty picture. One of my most cherished memories was when Miss Thompson set me a Beethoven sonata (can’t remember which) and after listening to me for a few minutes, stopped me and, knowing that I was a good sight-reader, said “Stanley, have you done any practice this week?”

Project Nokabolokoff

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With a snip snip here and a snip snip there

I heard a sermon yesterday telling us, as is right and proper, how our churches must be places of universal welcome for all, irrespective of appearance, wealth, intelligence, sexuality, and so on.

The speaker contrasted such a welcome with Deuteronomy 23:1 in which men who have had their bollocks and todger chopped off (respectively ‘stones’ and ‘privy member’ in the King James Bible) are forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord. Look it up if you don’t believe me. I’m not for now exploring the issue of whether or not I, who had a vasectomy aeons ago, am therefore fit to celebrate the holy mysteries.

For someone such as me with a long-standing interest in the evolution of reproduction, all things genital, and possessed of a degree of intellectual mischief, this was stimulating. On the way home I hatched a plan for the salvation of at least one of my churches. Here it is.

In the summer months, when the church hall is not being used for the homeless shelter, it could become the centre for something that has a great future in the Church of England—one of the few things that have—namely, an emasculation clinic.

There would be space for operating table(s), appropriate restraints, and anaesthetic equipment, though most procedures could be done under local—even with appropriate soundproofing no anaesthetic at all. There is more than adequate storage for surgical instruments and other paraphernalia. The kitchen area, which we hope to overhaul in the foreseeable future, could with suitable modification serve as a scrub-up area.

The theological and biological bases of this proposal are, in brief:

  • the reversal of the somewhat restrictive anatomical purity requirements of the Pentateuch, e.g. Deuteronomy 23:1.
  • an acknowledgment of the salvific power of the shedding of blood, as may be inferred from one of the verses of Fr Faber’s fine hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, viz ‘There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the head.’ The references to penile anatomy are quite explicit, as you can see.
  • a freeing, for those that request it, of the tyranny of testosterone that corrupts our human nature with horrid masculinity (I’m quite content with this tyranny myself, but I gather others are not).
  • an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no such thing as 100% male or 100% female and that we mammals are all on a spectrum of sexuality—pansexual I suppose. This is particularly so in males for reasons of biology that I’ll expound another time.

This modest proposal would be entirely congruent with the well-established tradition of the Church of England that results in the gradual, decades-long emasculation of any male who crosses the threshold of any of its churches. It would hasten the earnestly to be desired feminization of the church, and provide a public service for a society where boys and men are increasingly not allowed to be boys and men.

A winner all round, I think.

An interesting linguistic snippet. ‘Penis’ is a Latin word meaning little tail. The correct English word for privy member is cock, defined in OED as a short tube for the passage of liquid – as in stopcock, ballcock etc (again, look it up if you don’t believe me). I suppose matrons of ancient Rome were as squeamish as are matrons today: “now, now, Titus, stop playing with your little tail, supper’s nearly ready,”

British Association of Clinical Anatomists: origin and future

srgry02A paper for the meeting of the British Association of Clinical Anatomists at the Burton on Trent meeting, 14 December 2017

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was the Anatomical Society and the Journal of Anatomy. They were in the beginning with God, and without them was not anything done in anatomy that was done. And the Professors of Anatomy saw themselves as the Lord Almighty. They terrorise and pulverise. They march through the breadth of the earth to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful, their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves. And lo, it came to pass that the people rebelled inwardly in their hearts. They cried to the Lord “wilt not thou deliver us from these bitter and hasty foes?” And the Lord raised up prophets, Coupland of Nottingham and Scothorne of Glasgow. And through them the Lord came to the aid of the oppressed. And lo! BACA was born.

It’s fun to see the formation of BACA in these Biblical terms, and it is not inaccurate. But there’s a bigger story to tell, and since this year marks BACA’s fortieth birthday, I shall do so. Of course, I’m not an historian, but I’m one of the few people alive who witnessed BACA’s birth in 1977 just along the corridor from my office in Nottingham. My recollections are thus first-hand and are as reliable as memory ever is.

First, a brief autobiographical sketch. I was at Cambridge for preclinical studies and then King’s College Hospital in London for clinical training and preregistration house jobs, as they were then known. I went to Nottingham as anatomy demonstrator in 1976 then Lecturer in 1977. In 1988 I began as Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in Dublin—a medical school as well as a postgraduate college—and then in 2003 was appointed to Nottingham’s Graduate Entry Medical School at Derby. In 2006 I was ordained into the Church of England, becoming Vicar of Burton in 2014.

The origins of BACA are intertwined with two main medicopolitical trends: first, the decline of anatomy as a discipline in the medical curriculum, and second, the loss of medical graduates from departments where they had been predominant. I know that I am talking today to a mixture of scientists, physios and medics, and I apologize if what follows seems irrelevant to many of you, but it is important in the embryonic development of the society, so bear with me.

The decline of Anatomy

I enjoyed undergraduate anatomy. I was riveted by the first lecture in October 1969 concerning lemurs and lorises and thumbs, part of a series on the evolution of Man. Subsequent anatomy memories centre on Max Bull, the doyen of Cambridge anatomy teachers, who gave us a definition of anatomy that has stayed with me: “the study of the structure and function of the growing and changing living organism, not necessarily human”. It’s not elegant but, like a thong, it covers the essentials, especially, as Max was at pains to emphasize, the growing and changing bit.

I was fortunate in the Cambridge anatomists of that time, who with one exception were affable, approachable and interested in students. So when during clinical years I realised that practising medicine was not for me, I thought that if being an anatomist involved what Max Bull did—welfare and nurturing of students using the vehicle of a subject that interested me—then an anatomist is what I would be.

In the third clinical year I approached several professors of anatomy about a job, and ended up in Nottingham because it was a lovely day when I visited and Rex Coupland, the professor, was charismatic. It was a good decision. I immediately saw the value of the brand new systems-based course that resulted in anatomy being significantly trimmed down, with much less time spent on dissection.

Listening to colleagues who had done time at other places, I realized how fortunate I’d been in Cambridge. I heard that more than a few Professors of Anatomy elsewhere were belligerent and irrational, and bullied their juniors and students. I witnessed it in external examiners

This is relevant to the decline of anatomy. In the 1970s and 80s, all the influential people in medical schools had had to endure hours wasted on dissection, all had been made to learn anatomy in excessive detail, and a fair few had suffered from the bad behaviour of some anatomists. Not surprisingly, they resented anatomy and they resented some anatomists. They were determined to cut anatomy down to size. They were abetted by the new discipline of Medical Education, then on the march, many of whose enthusiasts stated openly that doctors no longer needed to have facts at their fingertips. There was growing opposition to what they, wrongly, called didactic teaching

Things did not get better. The systems-based curriculum developed in many places in a way that may have suited metabolic processes but all but wiped out regional anatomy. The understanding of human biology as a product of evolution and adaptation, as imprinted upon me by Max Bull, sank without trace. I must be one of the last medical students to have enjoyed a term studying serial sections of pig embryos as part of an undergraduate course.

What was to be done?

With their clinical training and their clinical eyes—Coupland had begun to train in neurosurgery—BACA’s founding fathers were certain that only medically qualified staff were capable of teaching clinical anatomy. But there were hardly any left. So the question for them, given the image problem and the brain drain, was: how can we in anatomy recruit and retain medics?

The answer, they thought, was twofold: money and status. Rex told me that he saw BACA as a trade union that would lobby for preclinical medics to be paid more. Furthermore, the founders saw it a means of having medical anatomy recognized as akin to a clinical specialty. The trouble was that Rex and Ray didn’t know how to achieve these aims—indeed, given that they were both adept medical politicians in university life, they displayed surprising naivety.

First, money. Formerly, medics in preclinical departments had been paid more than non-medics doing the same job, but this differential had been abolished some years back. No salary committee in its right mind would reverse that decision for the sake of a miniscule number of peculiar medics. Perhaps the founders were thinking in terms of a salary enhancement, for Rex was the recipient of a hefty NHS merit award for which he attended at most one ward round a week. If he thought that that arrangement would catch on with NHS administrators, he must have seen pigs with wings. As for payment for clinical duties undertaken by anatomy staff, of which I was for over a decade a beneficiary, the resentment created by my not being available for university duties for one session a week was considerable. That wouldn’t have survived in the increasingly regulated NHS.

Second, status. I’m afraid Rex and Ray were living in cloud cuckoo land in imagining that clinicians would support any proposal to give senior anatomists clinical privileges. Unless the definition of clinical was twisted to mean what it patently does not, anatomists could never be clinical. At that time I became a member of the BMA Medical Academic Staff Committee, and believe me I know just how little support there was for such an idea. The clinicians simply laughed. In any case, Rex and Ray were wrong. Neither money nor status would have dealt with the image problem. Medics in anatomy were in many cases rightly considered maimed, unable to cope clinically, or, like me, deranged in turning their backs on clinical practice and salary.

It was all too late. King Canute couldn’t stop the waves, and neither could BACA.

Consequences

In the eyes of junior staff, BACA was compromised from the beginning. It was snobbishly hierarchical. For full membership you had to be a medic, and a senior anatomist to boot. Anything else meant a lesser category. And right at the bottom—sorry about this, all you scientists—were the ‘mere’ PhDs. The Association looked like an exclusive club for Rex’s and Ray’s friends and relations. My non-medic colleagues were outraged. The powers that be eventually relented, and this discrimination was abolished, though not soon enough. It left a bitter taste, and non-medic anatomists shunned BACA in favour of other scientific societies, leaving BACA meetings in the early days with little of great worth other than a good meal.

How did clinicians view BACA? I can only go by what I deduced from meetings. I should say that I was never a great meetings enthusiast. As a teacher I felt an impostor as scientist. As someone who did one ENT clinic a week, I felt an impostor as clinician. I was at home with students, provoking them to explore, to think, to imagine, to learn, and to ask questions, but to be on the receiving end of a comment from an eminent scientist which began “Dr Monkhouse, I listened to your paper and I have a question” was to render me incoherent in the sure and certain knowledge that evisceration was imminent. But to proceed. Many of the presentations at early BACA meetings came from only a handful of research groups—we’re back to the private club. Most surgeons looked elsewhere to flex their academic muscles, and few were enthusiasts for BACA or indeed anatomy. I was astonished to hear a Professor of Surgery tell me, the Professor of Anatomy, that he didn’t care what a structure was, or what it was called, or how it developed: all he cared about was whether or not he could cut it.

For these and other reasons, BACA was viewed by non-medical staff as elitist, and by clinicians as not really kosher. BACA meetings and the journal Clinical Anatomy came to be regarded by some in both camps as second or third best. It was fighting for its life as soon as it was born.

The future

I’ve been off the game for over a decade, so what value my comments have is for you to judge. However, as Max Bull remarked over 45 years ago, I have an analytical brain, added to which the view of the forest is better from the edge than from the middle.

The organization I work for at the moment is run by yesterday’s people making decisions for tomorrow without heeding the concerns of those that will have to bear the consequences. Is this true of BACA? Judging from your website, I think not, indeed I have the impression that you have worked hard to move on from those incestuous and hierarchical early days.

The future of an organization depends upon its capacity to be of service to others. So I suggest that you continue in that direction in the knowledge that you are on the right course. The future of BACA depends not on juniors tugging the forelock to grand old men, but on the extent to which those with experience can be useful to those trying to acquire it.

You rightly offer yourselves as a forum for gaining experience to anyone who wishes to explore clinical anatomy, no matter how tangentially. Find out what trainees need and work with them to provide it. Help them build their portfolios, and gain skills in presentation, writing and editing. Think back to when you were young and ask yourself what made you anxious. Help trainees to master these things.

Your committees will need to include more than a token trainee, so sling off the superannuated. If trainees are hard pressed to find time to serve, then organize things to suit them. I don’t want to get overly theological about this, but didn’t someone once say that the first would be last and the last first?

Many of the scientists among you will know more embryology than the medics. Teach them! It is hugely important in several clinical and scientific areas. How can anyone understand the function and layout of the cranial nerves except in terms of evolution and embryology? How can anyone understand how a weak voice might signal a mediastinal tumour except in terms of evolution and embryology? The medics among you can help nonclinical staff get to grips with some of the more obscure consequences of regional anatomy in terms of diagnosis and treatment. Work with the Anatomical Society—after all they are wealthy while you, I understand, are merely comfortable.

Is there anything to be gained by working with the Royal Colleges in training programmes? I know it’s difficult to work with surgeons, especially those who are big in the Royal Colleges, for as with Yorkshiremen, you can’t tell them anything: they are multitalented and omniscient. But there are other disciplines …

Another flight of fancy. Alternative medicine is on the up. See if you can cooperate with some of its more anatomical branches. I was in terrible trouble early in my Dublin days for having conversations with osteopaths and physical therapists about how we could help with their training. My knuckles were well and truly rapped by protectionist surgeons. I still see nothing wrong with those conversations and remain unrepentant, especially since they had money to pay us. One of the things I learnt from osteopaths was the way in which neglected ideas from the past surface years later. For example, the gut brain, once sneered at, has a new lease of life. It was an osteopath that directed me to a book entitled “The Autonomic Nervous System” by the unfortunately named Albert Kuntz, published in 1929. There are some prescient nuggets in there that might repay imaginative thought.

Now there’s a word: imaginative. Imagine how you could serve. Imagine how things might develop and plan for them. Maybe that’s the best advice anyone could give the Association as it looks towards the next forty years. You’ve done well to come from a precarious postnatal period to the state you’re in now, so keep your eyes open and your antennae alert and let your imaginations flower. You can be proud of yourselves.

Finally

When I saw that BACA was coming to Burton, my first thought was “perhaps they’ll give an honorary member, or whatever I am, a free dinner”. And so you did, last night. It pays to be cheeky: “ask and you shall receive” is a phrase I read somewhere. It’s lovely to meet you, to renew friendships, and a real pleasure to begin to get to know Neil Ashwood. When we first met he asked me if I knew any connexions between Burton and Anatomy to which he could refer in his speech. I said modestly “not really, only me.”

Friends, thank you for your invitation, for feeding me, and for listening to me. May the Lord light up your life ….

…. any scholar of Carry on up the Khyber knows that the correct response to this is: and up yours.

Cathedrals: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum

28A recent report from the C of E tells us that cathedrals are “amazing” places doing awesome things. Leaving aside the inflation of language that I so deplore, it occurs to me to wonder how well ordinary churches would do if they had access to at least half the resources thrown at cathedrals.

One of my churches is about the size of a small cathedral, such as Derby, Birmingham, Carlisle. It is staffed not by several paid clergy, paid musicians, paid administrators, paid finance directors, paid fabric managers etc—none of these—but by one third of a Vicar—that is, girls and boys, me (only a third of me because I have two other churches, one almost as big). That’s it. End of. Its regular congregation is about 30 who give of their time, energy and resources generously and sacrificially.

Of course, I don’t begrudge the cathedrals their worldly success, and I’m not in the least envious. Not at all. Not one iota. It’s important for the C of E to serve, as cathedrals undoubtedly do, the people who already have so much. Ministering to the middle classes is what the C of E is for, after all. (On first typing that last sentence my autocorrect had not middle classes, but idle classes. I should have left it.)

I have a cunning plan.

In order that cathedrals might be even more successful, I propose that without further shilly-shallying at least half the parish churches in the country should be closed—I’m quite happy to make the decisions—so that even more funds can be directed to cathedrals to help them do even better.

Furthermore, the clergy of the churches that will under the Monkhouse plan be closed can be redeployed in Diocesan offices thinking up more initiatives and demands to dump on the fewer and fewer parochial clergy that are left. This will result in an all-round increase in job satisfaction and wellbeing.

My final thought on this matter concerns the press release announcing to the world this great joy, and all similar spin. It’s taken me a long time—dunce that I am—to realise what they call to mind. They are like media reports from Pyongyang. Similarities don’t stop there, of course, for it’s well known amongst North Korean cognoscenti that Kim Jong-il’s birth took place on a mountainside and was heralded by inter alia a bright star appearing in the sky.

I’ll get my coat. And my P45.

The effects of transmitted stress

4167-newtons-cradle-2SWMBO draws my attention to an article in yesterday’s Church Times (13 October 2017) that explores the effects of clergy stress on clergy spouses.

The background to this is a recent survey in which clergy declare themselves on the whole happy and fulfilled in their jobs. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, knowing what I know and hearing what I hear, and it made me wonder if the clergy who responded to the survey were predominantly those with permanent “I’ve found Jesus” smiles on their faces, rose coloured spectacles, and a complete inability to see reality.

The article is illustrated by a picture of Newton’s cradle—the toy with balls suspended from a frame, the only balls that move are those on the edge, those in the middle remaining motionless but transmitting the considerable resulting forces. That’s the clergy spouse. Susan found it particularly telling because that image describes exactly how it was for her during the three years I was a Rector in the Church of Ireland.

The problem was not in Portlaoise—ministry there was varied and stimulating. It arose in neighbouring Ballyfin out of a Diocesan policy to force groups of parishes into unions. In C of E terms it would be the forced merger of separate Parochial Church Councils into one PCC. I shan’t tell the story here—I reserve that for another day when I have time and energy to work through my detailed diary of events and emails. In short, what I came up against in effecting diocesan policy can be boiled down to:

  • the way Diocesan council ignored local feeling;
  • the meddling of members of Diocesan council without my permission—I suspect this to have been in part Masonic intrigue;
  • what appeared to me to be a sense of entitlement in families who, by design or default, filled the gap in rural society resulting from the departure decades earlier of the Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The final straw was when, my having done what was required of me, that Diocesan policy was abandoned.

It was extremely unpleasant for me. But I was only a ball on the edge. On the other edge was Diocesan policy. Poor Susan was all the balls in the middle. Having reflected on that hell, I’ve come seriously to wonder if I’d witnessed a case of possession. Certainly, the word diabolical is not inappropriate, at least in its being an antonym of anabolic. There was splintering caused by behaviour that appeared malicious and malevolent. Read the Prologue to Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

I understand therefore something of the malignant effects of clergy stress on the clergy family. The article tells me how courageous one must be to go public with it. The fear is that by so doing you will mark the card of your spouse who will then be noted unable to cope and/or unfit for preferment—if preferment is your thing (it shouldn’t be, but humans are human).

The combination of Protestant work ethic and a perversion of the suffering servant mindset is insidious and profoundly harmful. The more I think about Jesus and his ministry, the more I think that he came to abolish religion. I’ve heard it said that when Linda Woodhead asks her students to invent a religion, not one of them has ever suggested that clergy are necessary.

A few days in Texas

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2014

Susan, Ed and I had a few days with granddaughter Abby, Hugh’s widow and her extended family. It was lovely to see them. I was with Hugh’s former colleagues, and some friends of his came from Seattle to see us. All very moving, but poignant because of—I’m sure Hugh would relish this metaphorical mess—the absent elephant in the room.

I crumple up very easily. One of his mates, a Seattle fire fighter, has lost too many of his colleagues and friends in the course of jobs and military service. He copes by remembering the good things and the good times, for life moves on. And so it does. But not for me yet: it’s a matter of getting the clocks to start ticking again. Or waiting.

Anyway, enough of this. What I want to comment on in this piece is the contrast between the image of what, according to the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, life must be like under President Trump, and the reality. I tell you, life there is pretty much as it was under Obama. Surprisingly, immigration at Houston was quickest ever. Whataburger is still Whataburger. IHOP* is still IHOP, and I’ve gotten to like waffles and pecan syrup with my eggs and b, though as with the carfee Amurcans don’t know what “hot” means. And the number of fat people on mobility scooters seems much the same as it was two years ago (Burton is catching up).

This last comment puts me in mind of a 1973 episode in surgical outpatients at King’s College Hospital. The consultant was the Professor of Surgery, a lovely, gentle, lowland Scot who lived in modern architect-designed residence in Sydenham, regarded by cognoscenti as important enough to be illustrated in Buildings of England, London volume II (as it was then). He was not in the least like Lancelot Spratt, though he was well known for a fondness for the products of distilleries—say no more. On this particular afternoon he walked into a cubicle where on the couch was an enormously fat man with acres of flab wobbling over both edges. The worthy professor stopped, turned his head towards us, and with a terrifically wide grin on his face said in his gentle burr “hmmmm, a trifle obese, I see”, after which he conducted the rest of the examination with a joyful expression on his face.

But I digress. What of the floods? I hear you ask.

Nothing. We were in north Houston—Northampton, Tomball and Magnolia to be precise. We didn’t venture south to the mosquito-infested swamps on which central Houston is built. But we heard about the heroism and neighbourliness of people who were not affected as they dealt and deal with those who were.

And the wall?

When you live as close to the Mexican border as they do, and when you’re relieved that Mexican drug cartel bosses are being rubbed out, you might well be delighted at the prospect of a wall.

* International House of Pancakes. Don’t laugh. I think there’s a branch in Mexico. Or possibly Canada.

Placentas and pizzas

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Placenta

Mrs Windsor née Middleton is pregnant. It’s in the newspapers so it must be true.

First, I have to get this hobbyhorse off my chest. The correct spelling of fetus is fetus, not foetus, the word being related to felix, femina, etc. The incorrect spelling occurs first in the late writer Isidorus (570-636 AD) who fancied that the word could be derived from foveo (I cherish) instead of feo (I beget). So there.

Now to the hard stuff.

Is it an embryo that is taking root in Mrs Windsor’s genital system? Yes indeed. Is a fetus? Is it a baby? Is it a child? Embryo and fetus are defined by convention: you can look them up if you like. Baby is a meaningless term. Is it a parasite? Well, it steals mama’s nutrients and dumps its rubbish on her. It guzzles into her flesh so that its placenta can plug itself in to mammy’s tissues and get up close and personal with her blood vessels. It consumes the contents of parental wallets for at least two decades. Make up your own mind.

Some people worry about when the fetus becomes human. Not I. It’s human because the spermatozoön and ovum that produced it came from gonads belonging to humans. Reputedly. Anyhoo, however royal this fetus may be, it’s also a chordate, a vertebrate, a mammal, an ape and a primate. This is much more important than royalness.

The royalness will doubtless induce the Church of England to produce a prayer for the royal products of conception—it may already have done so—the usual crass, meretricious, tendentious, wordy drivel that comes from Lambeth. Products of conception include placenta, amnion, chorion, umbilical cord. Are they royal too? Are we to have a prayer for the royal placenta? Will a specially consecrated pair of scissors be used to cut the royal umbilical cord?

Killing the fetus

When do you think it should be permissible to kill the fetus? Or perhaps, when should it no longer be permissible? Well here’s the thing as I see it. Despite what the law may say, there is no single moment during the whole course of pregnancy at which the fetus is significantly different from what it was the moment before. There is no event that takes place that sufficiently differentiates what the fetus was before that event from what it is after the event. Fetal development is a continuum. From this point of view, if it’s permissible to kill a fetus at 18 weeks, then it’s permissible to kill a postnatal child or an adult. For those of us who have a little list of people not one of whom would be missed, this is comforting.

Why are we born when we are born?

The short answer is nobody knows. Brain size must have something to do with it. If we stayed inside any longer, our heads would grow so big that we wouldn’t be able to get through mama’s pelvis. But like I say who knows?

We are born very immature. A newborn horse can canter off pretty soon after birth, but not a newborn human. Unfortunately. Neurologically (spinal cord tract myelination—look it up), some of us mature more quickly than others. If earlier, we shall be better at physical activity and sport at an earlier age. If later (like me, dear reader), we shall have the shit kicked out of us at school for being physically inept.

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Pizza

Placenta

Placenta in Latin means flat cake. It is a most interesting organ, much under-researched. Its evolution is fascinating. Some mammals have lots of little placentas. Some, like mice and humans, have a single placenta. A primate (therefore human) placenta is about the size of a small pizza. Looks like one too. Some twins have separate placentas, some share.

A mouse placenta is similar in size to the head of a small drawing pin. Believe me, I know. I’ve dealt with hundreds of them in my time. When our three products of conception were little, the eldest drew a picture of me at work with the caption “my daddy studies mices kidneys”. Adrenals, actually, and fetal ones at that, but the gist was spot on. She had not mastered the apostrophe by that stage (like an increasing number of adults, but don’t get me going), but had grasped that plurals are normally formed by the addition of a terminal s, and that in conjugating the verb ‘to study’, y sometimes becomes ies. Pretty good, huh?

Please understand, dear reader, that the placenta is fetal. Entirely fetal. The only bit of maternal tissue that comes out with the placenta is that which is torn away from the uterine lining when the placenta detaches itself, hopefully after birth. This is why bleeding may occur.

The placenta, like the infant that it nourishes, is a foreign organism as far as the mother’s immune system is concerned. Why is the placenta, which comes into intimate contact with maternal tissue, not rejected? Well, sometimes it is. And so arise spontaneous abortions and other obstetric headaches.

A bit of history

In the fourth, fifth and sixth Egyptian dynasties the placenta was held to be the seat of the external soul. There existed the ceremonial position of Opener of the King’s Placenta. Some have suggested that in Abigail’s flattery of King David (1 Samuel 25:29) she calls on this image, the ‘bundle of life’ (KJV) being the placenta, though this is not mentioned in recent Biblical commentaries. Some societies suppose the placenta to be ‘the twin brother or sister of the infant whom it follows at a short interval into the world’ — and in a way, it is. In central Africa a belief in reincarnation leads to the afterbirth being buried at the doorway, or under the threshold of a hut, practices connected with the divine doorkeeper and the widespread custom of carrying the bride over the threshold.

The great fry up

And now, children, finally for today’s “Listen with mother”, remember that the placenta is a most nutritious organ. It’s not that different from black pudding: blood, connective tissue and other bits and pieces.

Fried with eggs, mushrooms bacon and tomatoes it would make a right royal breakfast.