Thursday 31st March. Everyone is familiar with the grandiose in New Zealand’s landscapes – they deservedly enjoy the biggest starring role in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. But just as striking are New Zealand’s miniatures, particularly the soft margins in which the South Island’s east-coast settlements have emerged – the rolling round-topped hills, the shallow creeks and inlets, the neat little spinneys and copses, the token wooden fences, the tin-roofed little houses and bungalows (each individually-designed and built, even in the towns and cities: there are no uniform housing estates anywhere I’ve been in New Zealand, and even apartment blocks are generally small and discreet), the comfortably provincial town centres with their sensibly-scaled civic architecture: the whole effect is, in the nicest and most affectionate sense, as though settled South Island NZ had been drawn by children. It’s a Toyland landscape, almost literally so in the case of the absurdly-sculpted Norfolk pines with their storeyed upturned branches, and it’s framed by Middle-Earth’s formidable Misty Mountains safely reduced to no more than a deliciously-menacing purple hint, beyond the horizon.
Toyland is further recalled in a more immediately-engaging way by one of Dunedin’s most endearing quirks. The peninsula bus route links a number of small, distinct, self-conscious communities with the city itself; each of these communities has its bus stop, and each of these bus stops is adorned with its own dedicated mural: individualised poster-art conceived in relation to each community and lovingly executed by local artist John Noakes. This is graffiti with a difference – a Banksie original around every bend in the coast road. The little hamlets delight in ‘their’ pieces of bespoke bus-stop portraiture, mischievously identifiable with characteristics locally associated with each community, from astral plane symbols to ferry-port jetties to birdlife to an amateur lunar observatory. For Macandrew Bay, the school-endowed village where I’ve stayed more or less annually for the past twelve years (living here with my then-young family for three months in 1999), the mural is an amalgam of every favourite cartoon character you can think of plus a few more besides – Toyland writ large, and in full colour. This splendid mural (picture to follow, I hope) was here already in 1999, and it’s faded slightly now but is otherwise intact, twelve years on, undefiled by superimposed graffiti of the unauthorised kind. The residents love their communities and they love their buses, their bus drivers and their bus shelters.
Today’s lunch was with Professor of Bioethics and former Centre Director Donald Evans (no relation – save in that ambiguous South Walian sense in which few can trace ancestry back more than a handful of generations, and of whom it was said that a despairing English judge, faced by unpronounceable Welsh names, re-branded them all pragmatically: “‘Then call,’ quoth he in languid tones / ’Call all the other buggers Jones.’
Don supervised my doctoral thesis in the 1980s and he and I have walked fairly intertwined paths ever since, so it was grand to catch up and to compare modestly Wittgensteinian views on why new applications (or denotations) of existing ethical concepts are never likely to morph into new concepts as such. Would a willingness on the part of humanity to stand aside in favour of the planet’s biodiversity constitute a new kind of moral imperative – a new moral concept – or just a widening of application for the established notion of altruism? The latter, I think, but answers on a blog-response, please…
Mid afternoon coffee was with one of the doctoral students closest to completing his thesis. Simon Walker’s work, very much at the philosophical end of the bioethics spectrum, considers the relation between cultural forms and conceptions of suffering – particularly in palliative care. In an interesting reflection of the Spinozan resurgence so often encountered at the moment in the UK, he brings Spinoza’s view of the self to challenge the ‘personal disintegration’ account of suffering that has become the uncritically-received orthodoxy in much of bioethics since Eric Cassells’s seminal work on the goals of medicine. I hope we might bring Simon to the Durham CMH for a spell at some stage.
As for my own writing, I’m slowly getting to grips with Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life, being inclined to forgive her uncompromisingly self-indulgent style on the grounds of the genuinely important questions (where is there room for wonder within a material world so tyrannically captured by secular scientism?) that she assaults with the benefit of entire armoured divisions of scholarly erudition. And I’d better jolly well hurry up. Next week requires of me at least three and possibly more public outings in defence of my interests in wonder, embodiment and medicine, for which I need to have grappled with more even than the redoubtable Bennett – all the while keeping at bay the social and sporting opportunities in which Dunedin rejoices. I’ve a faint notion of where I’m heading, but anchoring it firmly in the medical humanities is proving to be a ticklish problem (as is my reluctant recognition that I’m allergic to the two resident ginger cats here, Perry and Simba). Meanwhile, can anyone tell me what Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is really about?