Polly Stoker on Threads and Yarns – personal accounts of health and wellbeing

Polly Stoker

Senior citizens and first year textile undergraduates getting together to make material flowers is not something that you would associate with the BMJ. Much more Craft magazine, surely? This was certainly my first thought when told to cover the V&A’s one day, “Threads and Yarns” exhibition. But after looking at the brief, (and being a keen work “experiencer”), off I trotted to South Kensington, where I soon realised that the exhibition was in fact, entirely relevant.

As a happy 75th birthday, the Wellcome Trust funded and supported an “intergenerational conversation around biomedical themes.” The older participants, crafted the aforementioned “flowers,” whilst spinning tales of their personal health and wellbeing from past decades to Central Saint Martins Textile Design students.

Thus I found myself queuing up on a dreary Monday morning outside the V & A to see the culmination, (and celebration), of the “Threads and Yarns” project. The artwork itself was not particularly awe-inspiring. The fabric flowers were pretty, but a little samey. (At this point I was still struggling to find the link between the exhibition and the BMJ). What did prove interesting however, was the fact that they were interactive. At the press of a button, a flower lit up and its maker’s voice could be heard recounting anything from their first “taste” of the NHS in 1948, to the dietary effects of rationing during the Second World War. One man even remembered being one of the first ever British civilians to be treated with penicillin.

After an enlightening half hour spent listening to talking flowers, we were directed to a lecture theatre to listen to talking people; (much less unusual I’m told). What had historical and medical experts concluded from the conversation transcripts they had read?

Rhodri Hayward, history of medicine lecturer at Queen Mary University, gave a humorous and moving analysis of the rise of psychological ideas in medicine. Hayward highlighted the “suffering of silence and separation,” imposed by the “stiff upper lip” mentality of an early to mid-20th century Britain, that marked so many of the recorded accounts. The “massive social experiment of evacuation” for children during the Second World War, as well as their enforced quarantine in hospitals, were two of the most commonly shared experiences amongst the interviewees; experiences that led to a newly defined role for GPs: the “listening posts for communities”; the development of contemporary psychotherapy, and the telling of stories as a means of catharsis.

Vanessa Heggie was next with the evolution of sport and healthy living over the past 75 years, although she paid little attention to the transcripts. She asserted that the increase in medical research in relation to sport during the 30s and 40s had obviously had a tremendous impact on athletes’ ability to perform. Sport, in itself, is now a prescription for good health as much as penicillin and steroids. However, she countered these positives by pointing out that, Usain Bolt and Wayne Rooney aside, Joe Public’s fitness has deteriorated as a result of less walking, more driving; a more sedentary way of life. And so the quest goes on to find a healthy balance that encompasses modern comforts with the demands of our ancestors’ physiology.

Other topics breached by the professionals included “changes in the care of children,” (there was an emphasis on the home as the safest setting for treatment and recovery for children, along with patients of all ages, due to the over-crowding of hospitals throughout the past 75 years). An interesting point made by the paediatrician, Dr. Alasdair Parker, was that the contemporary issue of child obesity is a positive sign, because unlike the interviewees who grew up with rationing, the majority of today’s children are no longer hungry. The evolution of the NHS also, unsurprisingly, cropped up throughout the day. Fears for its “horrific future,” as the seniors described it, were voiced, and regardless of its drawbacks, the general feeling in the lecture theatre was one of “how lucky are we!”

What did I come away with at the end of the day? After all, from what I could gather, the production of the flowers had essentially been a coffee morning with crafts. But woven into those flowers were medical histories that went beyond the individual and touched all of us there. They broke down a reserve that had prevented the telling of so many personal, yet medically relevant and informative experiences. As I left, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was lucky to be born in this time; not reluctant to call the doctor for fear of high costs, not stigmatised by quarantine, nor removed from everything familiar. Coffee and flowers it may have been, but actually a great framework for the telling of Britain’s medical past.