Arts Week 2019: Telling Stories about Syphilis

Christine Slobogin, PhD candidate in the History of Art discusses an Arts Week event about the history of Syphilis.

Image: Syphilis, Richard Tennant Cooper, 1912

Dr Anne Hanley began her talk this Monday with: ‘Welcome everyone, to this afternoon of syphilis,’ going on to give a trigger warning that if any audience member did not want to see ‘ulcerated genitalia,’ then perhaps this paper may not be for them. This arresting introduction set the tone for the entire presentation, rife with images of the ulcers that Hanley had promised but also full of thoughtful discussion on narratives of disease, widespread cultural fear, bleak Victorian literature, and propagandistic film.

The main purpose of Hanley’s paper was to trace the shift in the way that syphilis was depicted in Britain’s public imagination between the Victorian and interwar periods. Because syphilis was such a stigmatised venereal disease (VD), men and women who were infected, as well as their relatives were more likely to suppress their stories about their experiences rather than write them down or describe them in another way. Therefore, historians are often thwarted as they search for patient’s perspectives on what it was really like to experience the pustules, the deteriorating nasal cartilage, and even the sink into insanity associated with neurosyphilis.

A large factor in the stigmatising nature of the disease was that it led either to the grave or to the asylum. And this was the narrative that was espoused by Victorian authors when writing about syphilis. Hanley described how novelists used the illness as a plot point to show the medical and moral consequences of transgressing sexual mores and expectations of the time. These stories told about syphilis often followed a similar trajectory, in which a woman and her children are ruined by the moral wrongdoings of the husband. The woman, expected to be innocent and therefore ignorant of sexual matters, can become an easy victim of a morally-suspect spouse and a rampant venereal disease.

This lack of knowledge was compounded at the doctor’s office once the woman sought treatment for her worrying and mysterious illness. Hanley described various medical men who used dangerous paternalism to justify keeping syphilitic women in the dark about their health. After all, the truth could result in a broken home and the damaged reputation of her husband. Often the treatment of these ill women would carry on under the pretence of a different disease, without the patient knowing the full extent of her condition. But sometimes the husbands prevented treatment from happening or from finishing for fear of the monstrous syphilitic truth coming out.

Women could stay ignorant of the risks and symptoms of venereal diseases in the Victorian era because public health information was scarce. The only stories that were told about syphilis were those in the plots of the novels previously described. But this double standard of men having all of the knowledge and therefore power when it came to syphilitic infection began to shift in Britain in the interwar years. The British Social Hygiene Council was established and with it came advertisements for VD clinics through posters and word of mouth but, most importantly, films.

These cinematic visualisations of syphilis contained narratives distinct from the bleak and fatalistic ones of the Victorian-era novels. These films were often light and entertaining moral tales crafted so that viewers could identify with the characters. In one, Any Evening After Work (1930), a man contracts a venereal disease and considers forgoing treatment until his daughter is afflicted with the illness. While the film does use scare tactics to get people to have themselves checked at VD clinics, the overall narrative is that the little girl will get better, and everything will turn out alright—as long as the proper precautions are taken and help is sought.

This shift from pessimistic written narratives to more uplifting and informational films caused an increase of British people going to VD clinics (with both diagnosable diseases and with false alarms). Both ways of telling stories about syphilis fostered an atmosphere of syphilophobia, but the films fulfilled their propagandistic purpose of improving Britain’s sexual health. Hanley argued that to tell stories about syphilis, we need both the fictional and the medical to understand the full cultural narrative of the disease.

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Arts Week 2018: The Corners

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, discusses an Arts Week event looking at architecture and pedestrians with photographer Chris Dorley Brown. 

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Chris Dorley-Brown visited Birkbeck Arts Week at The School of Arts on Friday 18 May to discuss his 30-year career as a freelancer. The talk coincided with the release of his new publication entitled The Corners by Hoxton Mini Press, which examines his photography between 2009-2017 across East London street corners, industrial buildings, landscapes and architecture.

Initially trained as a silkscreen printer and print finisher, Chris branched out as a freelancer in 1984. Living and working in the East End for over 20 years, Chris began his media career working as a camera assistant for Red Saunders studio. His comprehensive slide show of his street photography at Birkbeck discussed his initial work building a photographic archive with the London Borough of Hackney.

Chris quickly started to develop his own digital techniques to create narratives; working with multiple exposures taken over an hour, Chris’s images have used around 100 shots taken at different times. These shots have been constructed to resemble one definitive image creating a surreal, dreamlike narrative of the urban landscape. The stillness, composition and colour of all his images adopt the look and feel of an oil painting. Notable shots include a police evacuation where the police sealed off the streets after the discovery of a bomb from World War 2. A boy is seen in disbelief holding an apple near the sealed off area, whilst a faceless young lady, oblivious to potential danger, cannot help but investigate, walking towards the tape. Other images perfectly capture the cynicism of city life, from the street voyeur, a homeless man, who emerges from the hidden corner of a local high street, facing off at an unseen Chris behind the lens. Old pedestrians ‘collide’ with the younger generation of cyclists across the traffic junction emphasising at the inevitable ‘changing face’ of the landscape. Chris also revisited his photography capturing ‘Drivers in the 1980s’. The slideshow perfectly expressed the conflicting emotions of Londoners, from a spaced-out businessman alone in his thoughts inside a red double-decker bus, to the visibly frustrated faces of motorists, caught between shots and the intermittent traffic lights during rush hour.

The talk provided a nostalgic look at London life and Dorley-Brown’s work is a great testimony to a skilled media professional who perfectly captures the history and architecture of the East End.

Further material from Chris’s career can be obtained through the public collections of The Museum of London and The George Eastman Museums.

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Arts Week 2018: Wrestling with Words

Louisa Ackermann, Communications Officer at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Wrestling with Words, a conversation between Toby Litt and Wes Brown which explored writing, fighting and being a man. 

What do we mean when we talk about masculinity? Is it an authentic sense of self, an identity, or is it a performance, carefully crafted and skillfully executed? On Friday 18 May, Toby Litt and Wes Brown joined in conversation to discuss their lives as writers and wrestlers, and how they have questioned what it is to be a man through these dual occupations.

Both have a family background of wrestling: Wes’s father was a pro-wrestler, meaning the scripted type performed in WWE, where characters are outlandish and outcomes are predetermined; while Toby’s great-great-grandfather was William Litt, a Cumberland wrestler who reigned undefeated and took home over 200 prize belts during his nineteenth-century career.

Toby, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and author of Wrestliana opened the event with a reading from his book, which he was inspired to write in an effort to find out more about his ancestor and the fascinating life he led. William had written his own book, also called Wrestliana, which Toby used during his research process while learning to wrestle himself in a sports hall in Carlisle.

He recounted his thought process and his growing anxieties as he geared up for his first fight:

“All the way up, on the train, I read and reread the practical bits of Wrestliana and thought about how – in five hours, then four hours, then three – I could be riding in an ambulance.

“I knew fairly certainly which injuries I feared most. I’d constructed a sliding scale.

“At the very top, there was quadriplegia – a broken neck and me in a wheelchair, unable to hug my children, scanning websites for advances in robot exoskeletons. Then there was the fractured lower vertebra, keeping me away from my desk, perhaps forever. There was the ruptured knee ligament. In the days before, I had started to notice how many of the men I saw were limping as they walked. I started to walk with an imaginary limp myself, because I thought a knee injury the likeliest. I flashed forward to the serious painkiller addiction that would follow. Next, there was the broken collarbone and the dislocated shoulder. By the time I got this far down the list, I was staring to bargain. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I’d settle for that.’ Badly strained wrist, yes, that would be fine – as long as it was the non-writing hand. Can we make it the left wrist?”

But much to his surprise, he not only emerged without injury but won the match, and was free to continue on his research journey asking questions about competition, success and modern-day masculinity. Indeed, it was clear that for both speakers wrestling had become something which both informed and was informed by their perceptions of their own masculinity. Wes described a struggle to feel sufficiently manly while growing up as a sensitive boy in a working-class community, where many of the men worked in manual jobs, and found that wrestling was a way to assert a type of manhood on his own terms.

Wes followed in his father’s footsteps by going into pro-wrestling, which he describes as a form of drag. “It’s men pretending to be men,” he said, “it’s a performance of masculinity. ‘Being a man’ can be cartoonish and amusing, but it can also be dangerous. There’s a macho hierarchy in wrestling, but it’s all made up…. it’s a way to be macho and be a man, without having to actually be macho and be a man.”

Asked whether his parallel careers of wrestling and writing had informed each other, he said that “both are a form of storytelling, but I don’t think wrestling has taught me anything about writing whatsoever. What it has done is give me something to write about.”

Wrestliana by Toby Litt is available from Galley Beggar Press.

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Arts Week 2018: Gigantic Children of the Sun – Kew’s Palm House

Keith Alcorn reports on the talk by Kate Teltscher, Gigantic Children of the Sun: Kew’s Palm House.

The re-opened Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has been much in the news recently, but as Kate Teltscher, Reader in English Literature at University of Roehampton, told her Birkbeck Arts Week audience last Thursday: “For my money, the Palm House is the greatest!”

She was introducing her research on the Palm House and the meaning of palms in the Victorian era, the theme of her forthcoming book The Palace of Palms, at her talk `Gigantic Children of the Sun: Kew’s Palm House`.

The Palm House opened at Kew in 1848, three years before the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. It was a wonder of the age, `an erection unmatched in the world` according to The Florist’s Miscellany. Its vast curving structure, using the latest construction methods in iron and glass, asserted Kew’s new role as a national botanic garden, open to all and free of charge. Visitor numbers doubled in the year after it opened: over 130,000 people made the journey to Kew Gardens in 1849 to admire the enormous palms, luxuriate in the tropical heat and perhaps to imagine themselves looking down on a jungle from the viewing gallery.

Commentators at the time welcomed `this wonderful age when the gigantic children of the sun can live amongst us`.

The Palm House `evoked the wide reach of British imperial power and technological triumph over distance and climate`, as well as ostentatious Victorian wealth, Kate Teltscher argued. But why were palms given pride of place at Kew? What did they mean to the Victorians?

Palms had religious, scientific and economic significance for Victorian audiences, she said. Palms in the Bible represented triumph and abundance and were associated with the landscapes of the Holy Land. They also stood for numerous other geographical locations in the tropics.

As plants, palms were considered `the very perfection of organisation`, representing a union of beauty and utility that distinguished them from other trees. They were viewed as the summit of the plant world due to their beauty and utility, just as humans were considered the most evolved of the animals.

Palms were also considered an economic boon, for they had so many uses. Date palms and coconut palms provided food, the enormous leaves provided material for weaving and shelter, and the enormous trunks provided building material.

Palm oil was used as a lubricant on the railways, in soap and in candles. Price’s brought out a coconut oil candle for the royal wedding of 1840 – at the time it was customary to have a candle burning in the front window at the time of a wedding.

Palm oil, seen today as a problematic product because of the impact of its production on deforestation, was seen by the Victorians as an ethical product. The trade in palm oil was seen as an effective way of combatting the slave trade, by providing an economic alternative to the trade in West Africa. (Suppressing the slave trade was a central objective of British foreign policy after the abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1833).

Kate Teltscher’s analysis illustrates the wide range of meanings and social processes embedded in gardens and plants, especially their relationship to Britain’s empire during the nineteenth century. Palms were objects of scientific and commercial fascination, located within global networks of exploration and trade. `Gigantic Children of the Sun` was a tremendous overview of a rich topic.

Keith Alcorn is a PhD student in the departments of History and Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research investigates the relationships between Britain’s empire and the transformation of British gardens through the introduction of exotic plants in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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