Spoke 339 – Effects of volcanic action on the pandemic

I didn’t need to work off a mood this week. In fact, I didn’t have a mood at all so listened to Will Self’s Umbrella for a good part of my march to Finchley. It is quite spooky (spoky) how it fit like old skin. Zack Busner, the protagonist, even lives in a flat on Fortess Road. I love the name which conjures up images of a pulp detective, which in a way he is: a psychiatrist, a detective of the mind.

Busner is based partly on the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks and borrows from his time spent working with encephalitic patients, an experience documented in his book, Awakenings. The story is migrated from New York to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum (Friern Hospital). This has a pleasing symmetry as Sacks, a North Londoner, had made the journey the other way in the sixties. The plot is mashed up with much else besides from the home front in the First World War to the near present. Umbrella is above all a London novel. Its form seemingly random and multi-storied perfectly fits its subject. It speaks to me as an attention-disordered autist anyway. I imagine it would have therapeutic value to any Londoner in Covid times, banged up behind the bars of the North Orbital Road.

I was tempted to peel off towards Colney Hatch but stuck with my 12-step program: 339° (338.60° adjusted for magnetic declination) from Camden. Which took me to West Finchley via East Finchley, where a memorial to John Parkin MD in Holy Trinity Churchyard caught my attention.

Dr John Parkin M.D., F.R.C.S., Formerly Her Majesty’s Medical Inspector for Cholera in the West Indies and of 18, Dover Street, Piccadilly, Born May 10th 1801, died at Brighton, March 18th 1886

Strange how walking a random route can throw up connections at every point. When I looked up Dr Parkin the following day, it turned out he had begun his medical career specialising in ‘lunacy’. He would certify patients at his practice in Piccadilly and pack them off to his private asylums in Chelsea and Battersea. I sensed a conflict of interest in the arrangement. Perhaps he did too, or perhaps he just got bored with it. Either way, when cholera broke out in the West Indies he sold up and moved to the colonies to throw himself into the fight against the pandemic. He wrote a pamphlet about his work in Jamaica but reading it, I thought that he argued a little too strongly for the efficacy of his own treatments over other doctors’. To be fair, I’ve never bought into the hero and villain version of medicine. As a career path, it has more potential than most for neurotic self-inflation, and whatever else he was, treating cholera patients was unarguably risky. A dozen or so doctors died in the outbreak in Jamaica including his colleague, Dr James Macfadyen, who had combined his medical work with botanical studies and was the first person to describe a grapefruit scientifically.

Dr Parkin was not alone in his ignorance of the cause of cholera in the 1850s. The cholera bacillus wasn’t discovered until 1884 by Robert Koch. Reading Dr Parkin’s pamphlet and his reflections on other outbreaks it is frustrating to see how close he was: noting that brewery workers and bottle beer drinkers never seemed to catch it and how it seemed to avoid spa towns where the water came directly from underground springs.

But he couldn’t rid himself of the idea that cholera was caused by bad air. He developed a pretty random theory (even by the standards of the time) that cholera was caused by volcanic gases. Epidemics were due ‘to the silent and invisible evolution of gaseous matter from organic foci, by natural, not artificial openings.’

Again, he wasn’t a million miles away. Natural disasters and cholera were linked, just not in the way he imagined. But I didn’t know any of that when I reached the end of my spoke, where West Finchley morphs into Woodside Park. I thought about continuing to Mill Hill but decided against it. I followed the water south and then east to Henlys Corner where I peeled off home across a darkening Hampstead Heath.

The Mighty Dollis vs The Great North Road

Zack Busner, I feel, doing the evening rounds of Colney Hatch Asylum, would have saved patient Parkin ’till last. Claiming to be a government medical inspector would have made a nice change from Napoleon or Rothschild’s heir. I imagine them sharing a bottle of chalybeate water from the Hampstead springs, chatting about the latest pandemic whilst the sun sinks into the apple-strewn sewage works behind Tesco.

‘Tell me more about these volcanic gases …’


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