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Christiaan Barnard and the beating heart

Sunday, 3 December, 2017 0 Comments

It’s one of those milestones that demands the time traveller must halt before it for a while and ponder the nature of life and death. We’re talking heart transplantation. On this day in 1967, the South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant. Despite the absence of the internet, the news reached the four corners of the world in quick time and McLuhan’s global village was electrified by the implications.

Looking back, the most significant aspect of what Christiaan Barnard did on that 3 December morning in the Groote Schur Hospital in Cape Town was not the insertion of a beating heart in the chest of Louis Washkansky but the removal of a beating heart from the chest of Denise Darvall. She was the donor, he was the recipient and the two were united as never before in human history. The medical innovations and breakthroughs that enabled Barnard to risk the transplant had been done in the United States by cardiac pioneers such as Thomas Starzl, Norman Shumway, Richard Lower and James Hardy, but what these scientists and surgeons had not done was remove a beating heart from the body of a one human being and transplant it into the body of another human being. Christiaan Barnard They were not allowed to do so by the ethics of their profession and the laws of the land.

Christiaan Barnard could do what he did because no one prevented him from doing so. The real revolution that he sparked, however, was not clinical but moral. It set in train a vital debate on the definition of life and, especially, death, which had centred on the notion of the beating heart. And, especially, it gave the concept of organ donation a relevance that continues to resonate. Christiaan Barnard was standing on the shoulders of giants when he conducted the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967, but he was that man who did it and everyone in possession of a beating heart should pause for a moment today and think of his courage.

“For a dying man it is not a difficult decision [to agree to become the world’s first heart transplant] … because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of a river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side. But you would not accept such odds if there were no lion.” — Christiaan Barnard (1922 – 2001)

Silence encourages the tormentor and the bully

Monday, 4 July, 2016 0 Comments

Elie Wiesel, who died on Saturday in New York City, survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and devoted the greater part of his life to writing and speaking about those horrors. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and this part of his acceptance speech is as necessary as when he delivered it in Oslo 30 years ago:

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It is said that silence is golden, and maybe there are times when it is valuable, but silence loses all its lustre when it means accepting bullying, especially the intimidation of the weak, the elderly and the defenceless. We should name and shame the oppressor and the tormentor, loudly and publicly in memory of Elie Wiesel.

Elie Wiesel

Angelus Novus on the Somme

Friday, 1 July, 2016 0 Comments

Thousands have gathered for a ceremony in northern France today to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916. More than a million troops were killed and wounded in the battle, one of World War One’s bloodiest. Despite the progress of the Industrial Revolution in producing ever more deadly weaponry, all sides proceeded to hurl human fodder out of the trenches and at the canons for five months. The storm of war irresistibly propelled them into the future.

Angelus Novus is a 1920 print by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The radical German-Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin bought it in 1921 and in his 1940 essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, he wrote:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The storm continues to rage. The lessons of the Somme must never be forgotten.

Angelus Novus

Word of the Day: amain

Thursday, 30 June, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1666, the English poet Alexander Brome died. A lawyer by profession, he wrote satirical verse in favour of the Royalists and in opposition to the Rump Parliament. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Brome published Songs and other Poems, which contained ballads, epistles, elegies, epitaphs and epigrams.

“Then I’ll fall to loving and drinking amain” is how Brome’s poem The Mad Lover ends. In this context, the archaic word “amain” means with great haste.

The Mad Lover

I have been in love, and in debt, and in drink,
This many and many a year;
And those three are plagues enough, one would think,
For one poor mortal to bear.
‘Twas drink made me fall in love,
And love made me run into debt,
And though I have struggled and struggled and strove,
I cannot get out of them yet.

There’s nothing but money can cure me,
And rid me of all my pain;
‘Twill pay all my debts,
And remove all my lets,
And my mistress, that cannot endure me,
Will love me and love me again, —
Then I’ll fall to loving and drinking amain.

Alexander Brome (1620 – 1666)

The poetic game

Sunday, 23 August, 2015 0 Comments

The Scottish Lowland League football club Selkirk FC has hired a poet in residence. Thomas Clark, 35, will be the team’s wordsmith for the season, with his verse appearing in match day programmes and an end-of-season anthology. His published works include Intae the Snaw, a collection of Chinese poetry rendered into Scots, and a Glaswegian retelling of Alice in Wonderland. This is the business.

Take Shelter

It’s Scottish Cup day in Selkirk
An aw things are richt;
The redness on the leaves like yon,
The shinin on the watter like yon.
Och, it is a perfect day,
A joke for the guyin o the cynic an the pessimist
Wha woke up sure it would be comin doon;
An no a clood in the sky, nor a drap on the breeze,
Hints at the troubles aheid.

Thomas Clark

Facts: The people of Selkirk are known as Souters, which means cobblers (shoe makers and menders). Selkirk is twinned with Plattling, a town in Bavaria that was the home of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. On 1 May 2011, Plattling hosted veterans of the US 65th Infantry Division, who joined local people for the dedication of a memorial to the Division’s role in liberating the Plattling concentration camp in April 1945.

My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

Thursday, 18 June, 2015 0 Comments

On this date in 1815, the Battle of Waterloo was fought in present-day Belgium between a French army under the command of Napoleon and the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. When the smoke had cleared, the fate of the French Empire had been decided and Europe was saved from tyranny for another century.

Fast forward to 1974 and the Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in Brighton. The French entry was La Vie A Vingt-cinq Ans by Dani, but she never got the chance to perform because Georges Pompidou, the President of France, died in the week of the contest and La Grande Nation withdrew. Sweden was represented by the band ABBA and the audience sensed that something special was about to happen when the presenter said: “This is Sven-Olaf Walldoff, who’s really entered into the spirit of it all dressed as Napoleon.” Like the battle of 1815, the rest is history.

The French lose the currency battle of Waterloo

Wednesday, 10 June, 2015 0 Comments

The great question of 19th century Europe was as follows: Would the continent become a union of states ruled by French laws and language, or would it be an association of states existing in a sphere of security guaranteed by the naval and economic power of Britain? The Battle of Waterloo provided the answer and the 19th century became the British Century. Not surprisingly, the French have not forgotten.

In March, France stopped Belgium from issuing a €2 coin to commemorate the battle. “The circulation of these coins carrying a negative symbol for a section of the European population seems detrimental at a time when eurozone governments are trying to build unity and co-operation under the single currency,” the French government stated in a letter that attempted to disguise chauvinism as concern for market stability. The Belgians retreated then, but they’re back and their Royal Mint has outflanked Paris with a €2.50 brass coin that commemorates the bicentenary of Waterloo. The canny Belgians have made 100,000 and plan to flog them for €6 each. Even better is their trove of 10,000 commemorative €10 silver coins, which can be had for €42 each. To entice French collectors, it has a silhouette of Napoleon on one side, and for British and German investors the other side features a key Waterloo moment: Lieutenant Colonel John Freemantle of the Coldstream Guards telling the Duke of Wellington that the Prussians had arrived on the battlefield.

Waterloo pound Talking of Prussians and Brits, the Royal Mint is issuing a commemorative £5 coin featuring the famous post-battle handshake between Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher, the Prussian commander.

Notes the Mint: “Your purchase is supplied with an absorbing booklet that explores the battle, its great leaders, its legacy on the world — and its impact on Britain’s coinage.” This remains the pound, not the euro, as the French, “trying to build unity and co-operation under the single currency,” have noted, to their chagrin.

Because it’s there

Friday, 29 May, 2015 0 Comments

On this day in 1953, New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first confirmed ascent of Mount Everest. They spent 15 minutes on the summit, with Norgay leaving chocolates in the snow and Hillary leaving a cross. Together, they had climbed the world’s greatest mountain.


“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” is the question asked of George Leigh Mallory by a New York Times reporter in March 1923. “Because it’s there,” was his reply. Mallory made his third and final attempts to climb Ever­est in 1924 and was last seen on the way to the summit along with his companion Andrew Irvine. Mallory’s frozen body was found by climbers on the mountain’s north ridge in 1999.

Note: More than 9,000 people were killed and 21,000 injured in the 25 April earthquake that struck Nepal. Among the dead were 22 Mount Everest climbers. One of the many charities active in Nepal is Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, which is sending medical staff and supplies to the Himalayan region.

When old news was news

Friday, 6 March, 2015 0 Comments

Life was hard and diversions were few around Peebles on the Scottish Borders in the early days of the 19th-century. News of the outside world was infrequent and often arrived long after events had taken place. The “headlines” of the time were conveyed by travellers and welcomed by a largely illiterate public. Robert Chambers, the famous publisher, recalled an eccentric character called Tam Fleck who wandered the area carrying a translation of The Jewish War by the Roman historian Josephus, which he read out as if it were the “current” news and which was relished by his audience:

“Weel, Tam, what’s the news the nicht?” someone would ask.
“Bad news, bad news…Titus has begun to besiege Jerusalem; it’s gaun to be a terrible business.”

Keeping an eye on the other side of the hill

Tuesday, 3 March, 2015 0 Comments

The Battle of Waterloo was a momentous event in European history and the Bicentenary is coming up in June. The two greatest soldiers of the age, Napoleon and Wellington, who had never faced each other before, finally met on the plains of Waterloo and the rest is history. Their encounter was a long time brewing.

In 1803, when fears of a French invasion of Britain were at code red levels, a new play, Goody Two Shoes; Or, Harlequin Alabaster, was performed at Sadler’s Wells theatre. In it, a French assault by balloon is foiled at the last minute. The drama was riffing on popular rumours of the day, such as the one where Napoleon’s engineers would construct a pontoon across the English Channel, with the work being supervised by officers in balloons. There was a factual basis for this. The French army had used reconnaissance balloons in the Low Countries in 1794 and Napoleon, aware of the potential of air war, set up a Compagnie d’Aérostiers. The revolutionaries lost interest in their innovation, however, and as Historic Wings notes:

“On Sunday, June 18, 1815, the armies of Emperor Napoleon would face the armies of the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo. The key to Wellington’s initial deployment was that his forces were hidden on the back slope of a ridge, along the top of which ran Ohain Road. If only Napoleon had the services of the Aerostatic Corps, he would have known the full deployment of the enemy from the outset — and thus, history could well have been rewritten that day.”

The Duke of Wellington probably wasn’t talking about balloons or related technologies when he spoke to John Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, post-Waterloo but he did make this observation: “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.'” The Croker Papers

Churchill: The central act was the dead body in a box

Friday, 30 January, 2015 1 Comment
Churchill: The central act was the dead body in a box

“This was the last time that such a thing could happen. This was the last time that London would be the capital of the world. This was an act of mourning for the imperial past. This marked the final act in Britain’s greatness. This was a great gesture of self-pity and after this the coldness of reality and the status of Scandinavia.”

The state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill took place 50 years ago today and Patrick O’Donovan covered the ceremony for the Observer. Rarely has journalistic prose matched an historic occasion so well. This is magnificent:

“But really this was a celebration. And however painful, most funerals are just that. When a man is buried, those who are still alive crave some gesture of respect that cannot help the cadaver. And this gesture is made over and over again by Christians and Communists and humanists and the unconcerned. It is a proud half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole. It is almost a gesture of contempt to the face of death. And once or twice in a generation, a dead monarch or hero is chosen to epitomise a whole nation’s assertion of continuity and dignity. And because the central, the overwhelming fact was the dead body in a box of oak at a certain time and in a special way was, for all public purposes, Britain and more than Britain, this assertion was unbelievably eloquent over this corpse.

It was a triumph. It was a celebration of a great thing that we did in the past. It was an act of gratitude to a man whom we can no longer help or please. The many heads of state there were appropriate but not important. We were not sad. We knew for whom these bells tolled. We knew the man whose body we removed in such unimaginable splendour. And because he was us at our best, we gave him a requiem that rejected death and was almost a rejoicing.”

Winston Churchill by Robert Elliot