Archive for April, 2010



[Picture of Barry Marshall discoverer of Helicobacter Pylori]Barry Marshall is a real  hero; he’s the man who utterly changed my life. I would like to thank him here, and not just for me but for my wife and family.

Aged just 14, I fell ill and my GP eventually diagnosed an ulcer and referred me for the standard test. The hospital gave me  stuff to expand my stomach, then I was given barium meal and x-rayed. The stomach ulcer was confirmed.  No big deal; most of my siblings had stomach ulcers.  So we shared “Tagamet” (Cimetidine), Zantac (ranitidine hydrochloride), Asilone, and almost every other over-the-counter antacid, heartburn, dyspepsia and pain relief drug too.

Everyone was told that they would just have to “live with the condition”, and that is exactly what we all did

From the tender pre-pubescent age of 14, I had to watch what I ate and drank, and I took a lot of drugs all the time. I vomited every day at least once — and in fact I could vomit on cue.  I was resigned to this for the rest of my life.

[Picture of Tagamet pill]Living with a severe stomach ulcer from such a young age definitely had a massive effect on my life and choices.  I was quick to anger and when I snapped I was outrageously aggressive, insulting and violent.  Knowing this, I had to avoid lots of “normal” work and social situations, and I had to learn workarounds for stressful events. I was the only pupil at my High School who was actually allowed to do what he wanted; I was allowed to miss classes and even leave the school grounds!

I couldn’t touch alcohol or so-called recreational drugs, and my stomach pains would wake me, so I slept little.  I lived in fear of choking on my own vomit, so I took to sleeping without a pillow, and then flat on the floor.  Everyone is different, so I had to discover what worked for me by trial and error.  I found that cigarettes and coffee did not make me feel worse, but they helped me stay alert through long hours at night when I was awake.  I could not eat spicy food at all, and many simple foods gave me indigestion, heartburn or made me physically sick. I was living on very plain breads and cake, chocolate, some pasta and eggs.  I only ever drank coffee.

[Picture of Zantac pill]Over ten years — ten years of puberty, exams, dating, leaving home, and more — not just ten years, but the most formative and important ten years in human life, I suffered. Until one day I happened to watch a show in the TV series called “Heretics”.  The show was about ulcers, so I was hooked and watched it with great interest.  It described the consensus about ulcers, their cause and treatment. Then it introduced a young Australian physician called Dr Barry Marshall and his heretical theory.

[Picture of Helicobacter Pylori under microscope]Marshall had dared to question the dominant ideology, the dogma, the accepted truth about ulcers.  He asked the question, “what if gastrointestinal ulcers are caused by a bug, instead of bad lifestyles and stress?” .  I was interested, so I sat up and took notes.  Marshall found that a bug did cause our stomach ulcers, and it was called Helicobacter Pylori.   The TV show said that it could be ingested from “bad water” during the war and passed on to the offspring, so I told everyone I knew about this.

[Picture of wonder drug amoxillin]Articles began appearing in magazines throughout the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, but my GP was not convinced; he was old and fuddly duddy.   He simply would not look at the video cassette tape or magazines I brought along. Meanwhile my entire family went to their GPs, got a quick diagnostic test and put onto a weak dose of Amoxillin along with Losec (and sometimes other things to help with the side effects of Amoxillin), the treatment times varied from a fortnight to a month.

Unfortunately, this was not my experience.  Not with my old GP. I think the difference was that I was the only one of my family in the Glasgow area, the rest were in Renfrewshire. As Glasgow was something of a centre for the breath test diagnostic tool for this bug, I was referred to a team of specialists.  I had endoscopies and filled in loads of forms, and I think they were more concerned with my cigarette smoking habit than anything else.  One day I snapped,  I just scraped back my chair, told them where to shove it all, and quit the program!

Co-incidentally at this time my old GP retired and the replacement was a lady GP cum television personality — I rarely saw her as she was always too busy being on the telly, but the upside was that I got to see a young, fresh team of locums!  I was given a simple finger-prick blood test to confirm the presence of Helicobacter Pylori, and given a week long course of  strong dose Amoxillin/ Losec and Metronidazole.

This was the mid-nineties, and I was seriously affected by these drugs — what a week that was!  I would forget where I was working, I would also forget how to get home!  I had the runs a bit at the start, and I am sure I messed up the dosages.  How on earth I kept on working (how they let me) is amazing yet.

After the week, I was re-tested, and the bug  was gone.  I was feeling well and free from side effects — despite being told that I would most likely remain impotent and possibly even develop a fine pair of breasts! After three days, I ate my very first pain-free Indian curry, and I drank my first lager — with no problem. It dawned on me that my life had dramatically changed.

[Picture fo dental inspection]My teeth were considerably worn from grinding and the effects of stomach acid from vomiting daily for twenty years, I would never get them back. I would never get my teens back either , but I had a great time in my late 30s and early 40s — I was fit, healthy, single, earning a fortune and in with a damn good bunch of very sound mates.

[Picture of me smoking]Over the next ten years, I stopped shaking my leg whenever I sat down, I quit smoking cigarettes, I put on weight, grew up, and settled down as myself — and it is all down to Barry Marshall.

Having a stomach ulcer and getting it cured is something I found in common with my wife, and it formed a real bond between us, the recognition of the condition and how it made us what we have become was pretty important I think; we “get each other”.  Some people have the bug, but do not suffer as the ulcer is not near the most sensitive nerves.  My wife and I suffered, let me tell you that much!

Part of my growing up phase at this time was to realise that the NHS had failed me, and to realise that the drug companies had been instrumental in stopping Marshall’s work getting recognised.  The drugs market for  Zantac and Tagamet was worth billions each year to the pharmaceuticals industry.  As stomach ulcer drugs, Zantac and Tagamet were only available with prescription, but when their licence expired, there were suddenly re-branded as mere “antacids” — and freely available over-the-counter!  And Marshall’s work was finally recognised! This was a rude awakening to me; I was a schmuck, a patsy for these guys to make money on my suffering and dependency on their products.  Over the years I must have spent thousands. I reserve the right to be cynical.

[Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde -- the potion]However, Barry Marshall is the corrective element to restore my equilibrium.  Yeah, sure, Barry asked the question, found that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, and was hounded as a heretic — but what he did that amazed me the most was that this young physician deliberately infected himself with Helicobacter Pylori, and then cured himself with antibiotics.  This is going the extra mile in my humble opinion.  He did that for me and for everyone out there with stomach ulcers, and I salute him for that.

The Australian group ultimately demonstrated that eradication of H. pylori (then known as Campylobacter pylori) by a bismuth-containing regimen was associated with ulcer healing and a low rate of relapse, and results were further improved by the addition of an antibiotic.
[Lancet. 1988;2:1437-1442].

“So, there you have it: Antibiotics cure peptic ulcer. But we weren’t allowed to say that in print,” said Dr Marshall, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Western Australia in Perth.
It was several years before editors would let you mention cure when talking about ulcers
[Lancet. 1990;335:1233-1235].”

Barry J. Marshall got the Nobel Prize in 2005 along with his colleague Robin Warren.  Rightly so too for at least half the world’s population are infected by the bacterium, making it the most widespread infection in the world. It is easily passed via dental plaque and faeces, as well as being hereditary. I am just so thankful that my wife and I am not in the infected half any more, and that the chances or recurrence are slight. We just have to keep an eye on the kids.  I am eternally grateful to Warren and Marshall — but especially Marshall for going that extra mile.


Lancet. 1984 Jun 16;1(8390):1311-5.

Unidentified curved bacilli in the stomach of patients with gastritis and peptic ulceration.

Marshall BJ, Warren JR.



[Picture of aerial view of Piazza Del Campo, Siena, Tuscany]I remember studying (many years ago now) Tuscan towns. I loved visiting San Gimignano, Pisa, Siena, Florence and the rest.

I am especially glad to have visited Siena with the girl I since married. I will never forget the heat of the day as Ruth and I stood with the crowds on the Piazza del Campo, right outside the Palazzo Comunale’s tower as [Picture of the New York style towers of ancient San Gimignano,  Tuscany]the cars for the Mille Miglia came and went.  We didn’t go up the tower as I had been up years before.

San Gimignano is probably the most famous place for towers — there are loads, but not for us on this trip. We didn’t go up the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa either.

That’s the way it is with us; we hate standing in queues and deplore being shepherded around with crowds of tourists.

[Picture iof The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France]It struck me that people (or should I say, tourists) love towers.  It seems to me that they will travel across the world to climb up the Eiffel Tower or The Empire State Building.

I wonder why that is. I can fully understand why we have towers and lighthouses, it is so that we can see enemies approaching. The higher the tower, the further you can see.

I can just about recall the formula too.  It starts off with a right-angled triangle, Pythagoras’s Theorem, and some facts — such as Planet Earth’s radius being 6378 km.

  • The formula is simply the square root of double the product of the Earth’s Radius and the tower height (m) divided by a thousand to get the answer in kilometres. ([2.6378] . h /1000)0.5

You wind up with a very simple formula for your tower/horizon relationship.

[Picture of Horizon at sea]The distance (km) to the vanishing point on the horizon is the square root of thirteen times the height (m) of your tower.

  • Let’s say you are standing on the beach looking at the horizon of the sea against the sky. Your height will be 1.8m or thereabouts, which means that the horizon is (13 . 1.8)0.5 away — which is — (23.4)0.5 which is 4.837 km.

You can immediately see the advantage of putting your castle up on a hill, building towers, and understanding lighthouses.  Naturally, you can work out how far a tower is (as long as you know it’s height) — you just wait until the tower’s top appears on the horizon!

Check out the height of statues here. Easterners seem to be obsessed with extremely tall structures and statues; a 128m tall Chinese Buddha simply dwarfs the 46m Statue of Liberty.

The Empire State Building is 443.2m high, The Eiffel Tower is 324m, these are cultural icons that are not religious, and as such are nearer the Tuscan towers’ in meaning and intent — mainly showing off, but also for broadening horizons.

The commerce and the wealth behind the towers of Tuscany and the skyscrapers of New York show that you are financially successful if you can see far ahead, see things coming, know when change is imminent, being able to see your enemies approach.  This elevated, lofty position — like the gods on Mount Olympus — shows a physical rise above peers to rival the career path rise.

I often wonder why these days governments stay so low to the ground.  It cannot be about the Twin Towers.  The White House is far from being a tower.  Number Ten Downing Street, Buckingham Palace and many others are not even up on hills.

Towers and tall structures these days are for tourists, capitalists and a  few others who like to expand their horizons.




[Picture fo Japanese Rock Guitarist, Miyavi]Some amazing things are happening in music around the world. As a family, we have enjoyed South Korean girl rap-pop from the Wonder Girls, and (at the other end of the spectrum), I am a huge fan of Cornelius.

From the bluesy origins of Ali Farka Touré and Ba Cissoko to the Russian whizzkid, Temur Kvitelashvili, I love that the focus is shifting from the UK and USA elsewhere for a change.

My latest find is Miyavi — he’s an amazing Japanese force of nature.

[Embedded video from You Tube  – Selfish Love]

Yes, he is a man (in fact “Mayavi” means “Male”), although he’s pretty feminine looking — and he’s also straight; his real name is Ishihara Takamasa and he’s married to pop singer “Melody“. Together they have a daughter called Lovelie Miyavi Ishihara.

Here’s a picture of Melody his lovely wife:

[Picture of Melody Japanese Singer]

There must be many quarrels in their house over hair products and lipstick!

Anyway, Miyavi has loads of CD albums, singles, DVDs and is apparently never off magazines over in Japan.  Both he and Melody are big stars. Miyavi certainly has the talent. The style, acoustically, is slappy, clappy, percussive and funky and if you like Andy McKee, Don Ross, Erik Mongrain, or even Tommy Emmanuel, he could be worth checking out.  I guess what sets Miyavi apart, is his fashion and his age (he was born late in 1981) when compared with these guys. Anyway, I like him; he’s not really taking himself very seriously, he is entertaining, he is fun, but behind that, he’s got a serious talent.

[Embedded clip from youtube:]





[Picture of Malcolm McLaren]I just read on the Internet that impresario Malcolm McLaren died aged just 64. It was cancer. I am now genuinely very sad; I always admired him.

He has been massively important in helping to form the world we all inhabit.  I always kept my radar out for what he was up to next, so I’ll miss that.

I grew up with eccentrics like Ken Russell, Magnus Pike, Patrick Moore, David Bellamy, Viv Stanshall  and loads more. McLaren and Westwood were eccentric — our generation’s eccentrics.  There’s nothing wrong with being crazy if you have the talent behind it — and Malcom did.

I met him once in London a zillion years ago.  When I say that, I mean that I was near him, nearby.  We didn’t chat or anything, but I was close enough for quite a while to see him talk and gesture and think aloud and direct — and I could see what it was about the man. It was like meeting Oscar Wilde or something! Very Theatrical, Very fabulous and Very very!

I think what shocked me tonight more than anything is that he struck me as full of zest and vim, brim full of ideas and grand schemes. He had opinions and expressed them in a certain way — and that is to be admired in itself for we live in a world of political correctness and spin, and so rarely see anything quite so eccentric as personal truth, ridicule (in the classic French sense), and sheer wit.

Everyone will be reading of the Sex Pistols, The New York Dolls, Vivienne Westwood, Bow Wow Wow, Adam and the Ants, Double Dutch, Vogue, Buffalo Gals, blah, blah, blah. But McLaren was smart, he was talented, image-wise, market-savvy and had a special sixth sense of where the envelope and boundaries were (and where they ought to be moved to).

I would say that with the whole punk thing, McLaren was as Ché and you can get.  The man changed the world in a few months. Clothes, politics, attitude, music.  He allowed the poor, the working class, the unemployed, the lower orders  some expression, a real voice — not fantasy, not drugs, not hippy love opt outs, not buy-in to the establishment that was failing us all.

I’m serious about this. McLaren really did change the entire world.  I didn’t mind punk and the Sex Pistols, I was OK about techno and vogue stuff, I rather liked Waltz Darling (starting with Flaming June on the cover) and Paris (the Jazz of it all – and I do love Paris), but really, most of all I saw the sheer impact he made, I appreciated what he was doing, what he did, how he did it — how he had to do it, and I really do hope that someday he is recognised (along with Westwood).

What he did, he did in a different era — he did the impossible, and that is something difficult to appreciate with the comfiness of the here and now and hindsight.

I admit that I personally know a lot of people who have not liked him, but secretly, that is a big plus for the man in my view; love him or hate him, he did more than most with his life.  I would say he kicked the eggs out of the status quo, the normal, the establishment.  There is before-McLaren and after-McLaren. Simple as that!

RIP Malcolm McLaren.




For some unknown reason, The Portinari Altarpiece keeps popping into my head.  Quite why this should be so is beyond me; I really can’t explain it. I studied this work years ago, and probably the last time I even thought of it was over a decade ago.

[Picture of The Portinari]

My my, how the mind works.

I remember that Tom Portinari worked as a banker for the Medici family in Bruges for many years before commissioning this work from Hugo Van der Goes for a church in Florence. Maybe the Bruges connection is the clue; we saw the movie “In Bruges” not long ago, and Ruth and I have visited the place a couple of times. Would that be enough?

In any case, this work is pretty important to me.  It was the first time for a lot of things — my first tryptich, the first work that I encountered where I had to determine characters depicted by their “attributes”, the first artwork that I had studied that showed events using a weird 3D language (events in the past were depicted smaller and in the distance), the first time I had come across sponsors in the work and loads more firsts (these are the main ones I can recall).

It was finished in the late 1470s, and is about the “Adoration of The Shepherds“.  Mary has just given birth to the baby Jesus — she did so standing up and leaning against a pillar.  This is something altogether forgotten about today.

The scene is supposed to be based on a vivid dream of St Bridget, who saw the baby lying bare on the ground (as opposed to being in a manger).

It was usual for sponsors to be included in paintings — even though they were never at the events shown. As main sponsor, the Portinari family males were painted on the left-hand panel (father and two sons), and the right-hand side (the lesser side), is the mother and her daughter.

The patron saints are there with their attributes — the spear gives away St Thomas, the book and dragon has to be St Margaret, the bell is St Anthony, and as ever, Mary Magdalene, has her wee jar of ointment or oils.

  • I went to the Uffizi a few years back with Mike, Franco and Jenny (before I was married) — but I was hurried through the Palazzo Vecchio and the big square room mainly filled with Botticellis (including The Birth of Venus) and so did not get as long as I would have liked to meet and greet this great work of art.

I always intended visiting it again, but time has gone by and I have not as yet done so — to my deep regret.  Oh, how could I have been rushed? But then, it would have taken at least a full morning after all, it’s about 6 metres long by about two and a half metres high — it’s a full wall for heaven’s sakes!  A great painting in all respects.

One of the most charming things about this work is that it was always intended to be an altarpiece (the church of Sant’Egidio), and so in the foreground is painted flowers in vases that would have seemed like real flowers on the actual altar!  I remember that the orange lilies are supposed represent “The Passion”, while the wonderfully painted white irises represent Mary’s “Purity”.

It is choc-full of such symbols, hidden codes and meanings, representations, and Christian religious art language, and yet it is painted in a Dutch, Flemish, style for Italians.

Anyone interested in art history, religious effects on culture, semiotics, language and more, would have to study this immense work of art.

If you can get to see it, take it.  I know I will!