Writing fiction enlarged the scope of my thinking” – Penelope Todd
Penelope Todd is a novelist, editor and publisher. She trained as a nurse, and practised for almost 20 years in hospitals, GP surgeries and a hospice. Her powerful novel, Island, draws inspiration from her nursing experience, and from a real-life quarantine hospital on an island near her home in Dunedin, New Zealand. About making the transition from nurse to novelist, Penelope says:
I went into nursing keen to make some sort of practical difference in the world. I was young, idealistic and somewhat blinkered by my ideals. I’m glad now of the exposure to such a variety of people and to the suffering of others, which doubtless lifted the lid on my insularity. It didn’t occur to me to write (besides in letters and journals, which I’ve done since childhood) until I had three young children, and found myself exhilarated by the act of writing a short story for a competition deadline. This galvanising activity seemed suddenly necessary, and I was to learn in due course just where that vital current could lead someone willing to follow it.”
Boys diseased in body, and sullied in soul, lost forever as builders of our country” – Mrs Harrison Lee Cowie, in Ashburton Guardian, 8 June, 1917
Mrs Cowie, of the ‘Strength of the Nation’ movement, was referring to boys being held at Quarantine Island (Kamau Taurua) in Otago harbour (Dunedin, New Zealand). At least Mrs Cowie ventured to discuss the subject in public. When the New Zealand House of Representatives were to debate the war regulations relating to venereal disease in July 1916, women were asked to leave the public galleries. Such an indelicate subject was not one for their ears. By this time, ninety soldiers were already ‘segregated on a certain quarantine station’. Proclaiming that he was not the ‘Minister of Morals but the Minister of Health’, George Russell sought measures to prevent the spread of the disease be believed to be ‘rampant’, spread ‘in lavatories, privies, and barbers’ shops, by the use of towels, the kissing of children, the smoking of infected pipes, and in other ways’.
Dr Lizhou Liu is a recipient of the 2017 New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation’s Belinda Scott Clinical Fellowship. Her research will look at the effects of incorporating Tai Chi into the active treatment programme for women with breast cancer.
Many people think of Tai Chi as the exercise with the slow, funny movements. In fact, Tai Chi is a weight-bearing mind-body activity that incorporates physical movement, mindful meditation, and controlled breathing. It is a moderate intensity aerobic exercise (equivalent to walking), and uses slow, deliberate movements coordinated with deep, regulated breathing and imagery to strengthen and relax the body and mind.
Emergency Poet is a piece of theatre, a quack doctor show and also at its heart, a vehicle (pun-intended) for sharing and disseminating poetry. I travel to city centres, festivals, libraries, hospitals, conferences, schools – I have even been to a couple of weddings! My last ‘emergency’ call-out was to a conference of psychotherapists and psychiatrists for the UK National Health Service.
Dressed in a doctor’s white coat and stethoscope and accompanied either by Nurse Verse or a Poemedic, I travel in my vintage 1970s ambulance, which is still fitted with its original stretchers and medical equipment. It’s a mix of the serious and the theatrical. There are skulls, jars of eyeballs and other body parts inside the ambulance, and under an attached awning there is a ‘Cold Comfort Pharmacy’ with Nurse Verse dispensing poems-in-pills for various ailments, including internet addiction and anxiety. There’s even some poetry Viagra.
Our cadaver is male. He was old when he died. I don’t remember his face.
There are maybe ten of us in our white coats. We crowd around the table where he lies in an open black body bag, his head resting on a block of wood. We drape a paper towel over his genitals. We have seen human remains before, single limbs unpeeled to varying degrees. He is whole. He is the first one that is ours.
My father-in-law, Eric Leary, was totally blind from the age of eight. During an impromptu children’s game of cricket on waste ground, somewhere in the East End of London, he was struck in the eye by a potato. This was in the 1920s: the bat was a plank of wood, the stumps a cardboard box, and the pitch just the distance from ‘ball’ to ‘bat’. The ball, of course, was the potato that changed his life forever. He was treated at Moorfields Eye Hospital but developed ‘complementary’ blindness in the other eye a few days later and subsequently had both eyes enucleated. Eric’s reaction to total blindness, as a child, was simple acceptance but later, as an adolescent and adult, he came to consider his accident as good fortune and an asset.