The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York

What a mouthfull! No wonder people refer to this magnificent cathedral as “The Minster”. The Anglo-Saxon word “mynster” means to bring knowledge (of Christianity), and York was a centre for missionary activity in the 7th Century. I spent two hours there yesterday, marvelling at the spectacle.

I walked on the ramparts of the city wall. From here you can see the Minster arising from a higgledy-piggledy, mass of red-tiled roofs. It was built on the site of a Roman encampment, Eboracum, which is now three metres below ground level. But outside the south transept of the Minster you can see a statue of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, who took on his dead father’s purple cloak in York in AD306.

The central tower looks solid enough to support a spire, but the wooden one constructed in 1400 collapsed and when the architects looked into erecting another, they found some worrying cracks in the walls, so they decided to leave well alone. With the largest expanse of medieval stained glass windows in the world, there was no need to have a needle pointing the way to heaven.

Normally, I don’t like joining tours or listening to audio guides. But this time, I joined a group led by an American lady who was one of the 300 volunteers who work at the Minster. It was worth it. Her anecdotes brought some humanity and humour into the sanctity of the place. For example, she explained how the stained glass in the West Window is topped by a heart shape. On St Valentine’s Day, there are droves of couples popping the question beneath the window.

The lowest row of figures in the window are the eight Archbishops of York during the time of the construction of the Minster, from 1215 to 1472. The next layer shows the Apostles, but there are only eight slots available, so they had to double up at the ends of the row, and Judas Iscariot missed the cut.

Below this window, there is a modern sculpture of headless saintly figures doing semaphore. The message is that you don’t need your head to know Christ. Terry Hammill donated the work to the Minster in 2004. The message spells out “Christ is here”. When a new archdeacon named Christopher was appointed, some wag altered the figures so it read “Chris is there”.

The nave’s ceiling is astonishing. There is a central spine with ribs arching to the walls. The ceiling collapsed in the 19th Century but luckily all the decorations could be accurately rebuilt. Apart from the illustration of the Baby Jesus breast feeding – the Victorians substituted a bottle.

I always thought that the stained glass windows served as cartoons for common folk who could not read to see the Bible stories illustrated. This window shows St Peter holding the Minster, but take a look at the lower part of the window. On the right, there is a stag chasing a greyhound, in the middle section there is a fox with a chicken on its back, and on the left there are lots of monkeys, one of whom is examining a flask of urine, just as medieval medics used to do.

The next window is like a gigantic billboard advertising the original bell maker, whom you can see with a bell on his belt and bells adorn the panels around. You can also see a female bell caster in one scene.

After this profusion of colourful stained glass, it was odd to see the “five sisters”, five 16m high windows mainly containing grey glass with no images. Five sisters refers to the five great Cistercian monasteries in Yorkshire. Cistercians were rather austere and did not want to be distracted from their prayers by beautiful windows telling stories. The windows were built at the time of the Crusades, so perhaps the abstract patterns indicate some Islamic influence.

Facing the sisters is the Rose Window, celebrating the end of the Wars of the Roses between Lancaster (red) and York (white) with the Tudor dynasty. This window was destroyed in a fire in 1984. It has been rebuilt along with the ceiling decoration – instead of using the old designs, they asked the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter, to canvass opinion. So there is a “Save the Whales” decoration, one depicting the Tudor ship, Mary Rose, and another showing children being fed.

On the side of the Minster is the octagonal Chapter House, where church business was done. The carvings are fascinating. Two show haughty Queen Isabella, who would not learn English. In one, a devil is sitting on her head and in the other an eagle is pulling up her nose with its beak. Another carving shows a priest with his girlfriend, putting his hand over her mouth to ensure silence.

The guide pointed out where the architects bodged it up. The nave is a metre out of true for example. This isn’t surprising, considering the Minster took 250 years to build. This does not detract at all from the wonder of this medieval marvel. Go and see it if you have the chance.

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Back in Blighty

It is strange being cool again. What did I expect from an English summer? A heatwave was forecast to happen over the next six weeks, but the weather is changeable at present.  I love the bright greens of leaves and grass. The striking colours of flowers in front gardens are so bright that they seem artificial.

The city is still basking in the glow of the Premier League Championship. Banners showing LCFC soccer players flutter from the lamp posts. My friends took me to the New Walk Museum to see an exhibition celebrating not the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Christina Rossetti has some of her works stored away at the museum), nor German Expressionists, but a football team. The exhibition is called #Fearless, after the way the team played 18 months ago, when they were eight points adrift at the bottom of the league. No team had ever avoided relegation from this position.

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Fearless is the name given to centres dealing with sexual violence in India

Outside the tunnel leading the way to the main exhibition, there was a tabletop TV set up, showing how LCFC  gritted their teeth and won game after game through the winter. Not only did they avoid relegation, they rose to 14th by the end of the season. Their performance in the last few months of the season was stellar. The bookies foolishly ignored it and offered to pay out bets of 5,000 to 1 if City won the league in 2015/16. Some brave souls put down £50 and ended up winning £250,000.

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The exhibition was stunning. It was arranged around the walls of the hall, starting with the first day of the season. There was a great selection of photographs of the players and managers, hanging on banners from the ceiling. There were witty tweets and social media comments, discussing games. The underdogs became the top dogs.

I was overcome by emotion. My mouth was dry, my eyes were wet, there was a lump in my throat. I felt proud of the team of rejects and misfits who gelled into a team where the players really work hard for their colleagues. The entire team cost less than one Manchester City player.

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There were some dance steps painted on the wooden floor – how Mahrez skipped around defenders, how Ngolo Kante passed the ball backwards to his other foot before crashing it past the opposing goalkeeper. I tried to follow in his footsteps, but couldn’t do it, never mind keeping control of a ball at the same time.

A small boy sat in front of the successful team photograph so I had to take the shot. Then it was my turn. I paid homage to Ranieri.

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The exhibition was witty, too. A perspex cabinet contained a pack of Jamie Vardy crisps and a bottle of Wes Morgan spiced rum. There were tee shirts with funny slogans. Some of the tweets were hilarious. I was sad to leave, but I had to go to my annual appraisal.

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“Is there a doctor on the flight? Can they please make themselves known to the cabin crew?”

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This announcement usually quickens the pulse of any medic on board. I still remember with horror the air traveller who collapsed with a tension pneumothorax on a transatlantic flight about 15 years ago. A group of British hospital doctors were returning from a medical conference in the USA and saved the patient’s life using tubing from an intravenous giving set, a plastic bottle and wire coat hanger. I am not sure I would attempt this on my own. One thing I have learned from working abroad in remote areas is not to act like a gung-ho cowboy. I ask myself, “If this doesn’t go according to plan, what’s your exit strategy?” That thought focuses the mind perfectly.

The overnight flight from London to South Africa had dimmed the lights after midnight. Most of the passengers were asleep when the tannoy crackled into life. I paused the video I was watching (“Joe” starring Nicholas Cage) and sat up to see if anyone had volunteered. No one moved in my section of the plane so I got up and walked to the curtained off area at the back of the plane. As I did so, a strange man resembling Bilbo Baggins got up and walked down the other aisle. He looked a bit older than me, with curly grey hair, wearing an extravagantly checked lumberjack shirt with purple braces (suspenders).

Behind the curtain, a delirious passenger was being restrained in a four point seatbelt. She was arguing with the cabin crew, wanting to get free, even if this meant she would die. She said she was in pain, clutching her left breast with one hand and her neck with the other. My medical colleague asked her methodically about the pain, but her answers were vague and inconsistent. When she spoke to me, her breath smelled of stale alcohol.
We two doctors looked at each other and put our cards on the table.

“Family doctor?” I asked.

“Yes, you too?” he replied.

“Is it that obvious? Yes. Do you have any other skills which might come in useful, such as psychiatry? I know a bit about mental health,” I said.

“No,” he responded while gently attempting to prod the lady’s abdomen. She reacted angrily and swore and he retreated.

“Looks like I am in the lead role here,” I said.

My rapid initial assessment was that she was disinhibited, under the influence of alcohol. But she could be suffering from another metabolic problem, such as diabetic hypoglycaemic attack, or a head injury, or hypoxia from chronic lung disease. I needed more information. Had she declared any illness before boarding the flight? Was she taking any medication? Could the flight attendants recall how much alcohol she had been served? I drew a blank. The patient became more aggressive and insisted on going back to her seat, saying, “I don’t have a personality disorder!”

The captain left the flight deck to assess the situation in the tail. “Is this a life threatening situation?” he asked. “We are flying over Bangui in Central African Republic. Do you need me to land now?” The passenger wasn’t phased by this; she said she would rather go to a police cell in Bangui than be restrained on board the plane. I discovered that the doctor’s bag on board did not contain any tranquillisers.

The captain told the passenger that if she didn’t co-operate and quieten down, she would be handcuffed and prosecuted. She relented and a crew member undid the seat belt. She then flopped onto the floor and had to be lifted to her seat by her arms and legs. Luckily the seat next to her had been vacated. I sat down next to her and used my experience and skill to defuse the situation. The crew were happy to leave me alone with her.

We talked about her pet, her job and her holiday plans, avoiding confrontational issues. After 20 minutes, she was calm and relaxed. I encouraged her to get some sleep and she agreed.

I walked back to the crew area in the tail of the plane to liaise with the staff. In the same chair I found another passenger who had taken ill. He had passed out twice on the way to the toilet. This problem was easier to solve, probably a mixture of contributing factors – no food for 12 hours, recent antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs on top of his usual cardiac medication and a bit of postural hypotension when he rose from his seat. After a sugary drink, he felt much better and he was able to return to his seat without assistance. So was I.

I made an attempt to get to sleep, but I was wide awake by now. A crew member brought me a couple of forms to complete, so I would be taking responsibility for the decisions and actions I took, rather than the airline. I watched another film, a biopic about James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, which was excellent.

This isn’t the first time I have been called upon to provide medical assistance in the air. We took advantage of Cathay Pacific’s discounted airfares to fly to Queensland via Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic. It didn’t look such a bargain when I was called to see a Chinese lady who was feeling unwell on the flight to Cairns. Luckily for us both, it was just hypotension – low blood pressure after she had taken a double dose of antihypertensive pills because of the time difference. I had an unpleasant conversation over a radio telephone with the insurers about whether the captain should divert to Sandokan airport in Sabah, or did I think the passenger would not die before reaching Cairns.

On an Emirates flight to Bangkok via Dubai, a man collapsed in front of me and the crew allowed me to open the doctor’s bag so I could perform an Electrocardiogram (ECG) and check his blood sugar using a diagnostic stick. But I had to prove to them that I was a “real doctor” by providing evidence – my surgery identity badge – before they would let me loose on a glucostick.

I have heard of “good samaritan” doctors who received an upgrade on the next leg of their journey, or a complimentary bottle of champagne for ministering to the sick on board. But all I have had was thanks and gratitude from the cabin crew. My medical indemnity insurance would not have covered me for decisions I made while flying, so perhaps I should have been more demanding and assertive.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Window

The side window of a UH-1 helicopter gunship in the courtyard of the Museum of War Remnants, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I have always thought it rather dyslexic to call this helicopter a “Huey”, when it would be more logical to call it a “Ooheee”.

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This is an XM214 automatic gun, known as a “minigun”. Another paradox; it doesn’t look very mini to me. It could fire over a thousand rounds a minute. When used in another warplane, the AC-47 “Spooky”, it was prosaically known as “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

And now for something completely different.

I photographed these two young women at a window in Antsirabe, Madagascar in 2008. Reminds me of the Hollies’ hit song from 1965. It was their first hit in USA.

Look through any window yeah,
What do you see?
Smilin’ faces all around

Look through any window
Look through any window