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Adventures in Human Being is an entrancing roadmap of the flesh

For Gavin Francis, medicine is “a skeleton key to open doors ordinarily closed”, and his latest book is as illuminating as it is enjoyable.

What do victims of domestic violence and the heroes of Homer’s Iliad have in common? The answer is just one of an avalanche of thought-provoking, sometimes quite startling facts and observations to be found in Gavin Francis’s new book, in which he abandons his usual turf (his two previous books explored the cold regions of the planet and how we and other animals survive in them) for the geography of the human body.

Adventures in Human Being could be described as a road map to the flesh, written by a guide who is scrupulously attentive to the details of how we work and exquisitely aware of the glimpses of the soul behind the machinery. Francis is not only an experienced doctor but also steeped in both the classics and contemporary literature. His breadth is not just impressive but entirely convincing, as he moves easily from a 1977 essay by the military historian P B Adamson (“A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Weapons in the Effectiveness of Producing Battle Casualties”) to a close and illuminating reading of “The Halving”, Robin Robertson’s poem about heart disease.

Adventures in Human Being is a set of essays organised “from head to toe, like certain anatomy texts, though they can be read in any order” – which, at first sight, seems a risky approach. Surely, for most of us, the most interesting parts of the human body (with perhaps one exception) are located in the head and heart areas? It seems all too natural to assume that our abilities to reason, imagine and feel are more engaging than digestion or the processing of toxins. This, however, is to forget how far we have come in understanding the body as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts, and though Francis chooses “head to toe” as the most obvious way to navigate the terrain, his perspective is consistently holistic. So it is that his chapter on feet and toes turns out to be as engaging as anything he has written about the heart, or the senses, or the putative locus of the soul (which Descartes situates in the pineal body, a tiny gland, shaped like a pine cone, that regulates sleep and, so, by extension, our ability to dream).

Beyond the fine detail and the erudition of his medical investigations, what marks Francis out as a perfect guide to our physical selves is his sensitivity to metaphor, simile and analogy, his deftness with language. Here, he discusses a patient, named Claire, whose terrifying medical history has driven her into the operating theatre for dangerous brain surgery: “Her brain was structurally normal but functionally fragile, forever teetering on the edge of seizures. If normal cerebral activity – thought, speech, imagination, sensation – moves through the brain with the rhythms of music, seizures might be likened to a deafening blast of static. Claire had been so injured, frightened and handicapped by these seizures that she was prepared to risk her life with this surgery in order to be free of them.”

Describing a man named Edwards who has just emerged from profound depression after electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), Francis remarks: “After a while his facial expression, having previously been blank, would alter when I or one of the nurses went into his room to speak to him. He seemed startled by life, like a Lazarus unconvinced that he’d been done a favour.” Francis then proceeds seamlessly into a long passage in which the development of ECT and its uses is beautifully set out, in a combination of exact clinical terminology, humane observation and historical insight, from the ancient Greeks’ conception of seizures as a “sacred disease” to a period of “reckless experimentation with the brain” by Italian researchers under Mussolini.

That Adventures in Human Being is an astonishing, moving and enchanting book can be explained in part by Francis’s unique range of experience, his erudition and his enthusiasm; but his principal virtue might be the humility he brings to his task. We often think of medical professionals as arrogant, too remote from the people they treat. Francis gives the lie to that idea. Where we assume that most doctors see their work as something to be survived, emotionally and psychologically, by a calculated detachment, Francis sees his calling as a privilege. “My profession is like a passport or skeleton key to open doors ordinarily closed; to stand witness to private suffering and, where possible, ease it. Often even that modest goal is unreachable – for the most part it’s not about dramatically saving lives, but quietly, methodically, trying to postpone death.”

Gavin Francis will be in conversation with Suzanne O’Sullivan at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis is published by Profile Books (£14.99, 253pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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