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"I had a constant toothache in my back": learning the language of pain

BBC Radio 4's The Language of Pain explores how we talk about pain - and why it helps.

Archive on Four/The Language of Pain
BBC Radio 4

Can language properly express how we feel pain? Stabbing. Burning. Cutting. Are these words even remotely adequate for the physical pains we experience every day? A particularly intense Archive Hour (2 May, 8pm) thought not, looking into how patients can be made to feel better by training doctors in “narrative medicine” – to be more keenly attuned to stories about pain; not to interrupt during the first 12 seconds of a consultation (the average); and to take note of the actual language used. One patient might perceive a headache as a “sewing machine”; another can only say theirs leaves them with a horror of being touched.

“I had a constant toothache in my back,” said one man, memorably. Someone else lamented how much better music was at expressing pain, playing a piece by the Czech composer Smetana about his tinnitus which resolves in a high, deathless E, gloriously destroying all other notes around it. “[The sufferer] is forced to coin words himself,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other . . . so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out . . .”

Rats are biting my toes. Worms eating my stomach. Flashing. Shooting. Sufferers of chronic pain interviewed in the programme used similar language but very different metaphors, and often harnessed the imagery of railways (trains relentless and crashing) and electricity (coursing, convulsing), or of things military (painkillers = magic bullets). Towards the end, a rather scornful mention of endurance athletes, whose devotion to pain, a psychologist suggested, is tantamount to religious, though surely their goal is suffering and not enlightenment.

That little section in particular sounded so wry – the aural equivalent of an unhappy grin, a peevish shake of the head. And then at the end of the hour, back to the subject of taking pain as best we can, deflecting it momentarily by conversation and simple sympathy, and of the agonising anticipation of some sort of relief. As George Eliot wrote, “[W]hen we are suddenly released from an acute absorbing bodily pain, our heart and senses leap out in new freedom; we think even the noise of streets harmonious, and are ready to hug the tradesman who is wrapping up our change.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.