Jul 26, 2022
The Australian writer and translator traces her ancestral footsteps across Europe and reflects on how we come to understand the past
In 2020, 34.8% of children born in England and Wales had at least one parent from outside the UK, and this figure is rising. A mixed heritage brings riches. There’s more of everything: recipes, languages, festivals and the handy ability to code-switch. But it also comes with a sense of dislocation that complicates the notion of home. Amaryllis Gacioppo’s remarkable literary debut, Motherlands, follows this yearning to its source. A writer and translator born in Australia to Italian parents, Gacioppo traces her ancestral footsteps through four cities: Turin, Benghazi, Rome and Palermo. Using boxes of sepia-tinted photographs, archival documents, and the oral history she has gathered all her life, she pieces together her family history from her great-grandparents’ generation to the present. Part memoir, part travelogue, Motherlands is ultimately an investigation of how we come to understand the past at all. It is also, perhaps, a love letter to her Italian grandmother Annalisa, the source of her stories, whose death was preceded by a stroke that silenced her.
The book’s five chapters reflect Gacioppo’s own and her ancestors’ journeys. Her great-grandmother Rita moved from Turin to Benghazi, in Libya, where she married Salvatore; her grandmother Annalisa, born in Benghazi, was sent to Turin at the outbreak of the second world war; the family were reunited in Rome and moved to Palermo; Gacioppo’s mother, born in Palermo, moved to Australia, and Nonna Annalisa followed. Continue reading...
Jun 20, 2022
Context is crucial, but does that really mean we can leave free will out of the picture?
The question of whether we are responsible for the harm we cause goes to the heart of who we think we are, and how we believe society should run. Guilt, blame, the existence of evil, and free will itself can complicate this question to the point of near absurdity. And yet, as absurd as it may be, it is unavoidable. Taking a binary approach, whichever path one chooses, can lead to difficulties very quickly. On the one hand, if we are solely responsible for the things we do wrong, some genuinely malevolent parties get off scot-free. On the other, if we locate responsibility entirely outside the individual, we relegate ourselves to sentient flotsam buffeted by currents beyond our control.
In my own medical career, I have seen attitudes shift considerably around the idea that individuals should take personal responsibility for the harm they do to themselves. Self-injurious behaviours such as alcoholism and drug addiction have rightly been reframed as diseases rather than lifestyle choices. In the case of opiate dependence, as the huge numbers of people hooked on prescription painkillers in the United States demonstrates, “bad” behaviour is often caused directly by doctors and pharmaceutical companies. But even with less dramatic examples, there is a growing acknowledgement that personal choice is not the biggest driving factor. Continue reading...
Feb 23, 2022
What flavour is Tottenham Court Road? A riveting study of sensory function and malfunction
Imagine tasting a full English breakfast whenever you heard the words “Tottenham Court Road”. Or the flavour of pineapple chunks at the tinkling of a piano. For James, who is a synaesthete and one of the extraordinary people described in Guy Leschziner’s new book, words, music and life itself are saturated with striking taste sensations. Leschziner, a professor of neurology at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, has brought together a collection of exceptionally unusual and interesting stories in his second book, dedicated to the wonder of our senses.
Among his astonishing tales of what happens when the processing of sensory inputs goes wrong, Leschziner includes crystal-clear explanations of something no less amazing – how our senses operate normally. We meet a cast of people whose lives changed when the senses they took for granted suddenly shifted: Valeria the sommelier who lost her sense of taste; Oliver the film-maker who only discovered in his mid-20s that he was missing a chunk of his visual field; and Mark, a man who can hear his own eyeballs “moving and squelching”. Bill Oddie makes a charming if unexpected appearance at one point, discussing his hearing loss-related auditory hallucinations, which sound like a brass band playing nearby. Continue reading...
Jan 03, 2022
Are eating plans like the paleo diet really healthier - or more ethical - than the way we eat now?
April isn’t the cruellest month – January is. There is no other time of year when we are as prone to navel-gazing, often literally, as this one. In this period of anxiety about the size of our waists and what we consume, simple dietary rules are appealing. “Eat like our ancestors” is a particularly catchy slogan to live by, at least on the surface.
But who exactly are these ancestors we are supposed to emulate? Are they our great-great-grandparents, cooking wholesome things from scratch? Or are they that nebulous group of hairy low-browed brutes we imagine “cavemen” to be? The popular “paleo” diet pins modern health woes on the birth of agriculture, claiming that we should stick to eating meat, nuts and berries. Strict paleo dieters are forbidden from eating beans, as well as potatoes and grains. Continue reading...