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Chapter 51: Facts Alone, Mr Gradgrind
The Fens Part I
June at last on the Witchford Road. Loose-petaled poppies with wiry stems and hedges trimmed like walls. Two cyclists rolled by faces to the sun, “What a day!” said one to the other. What a day, I thought back.
A car heaved onto the verge. Hazards flashed and I leapt in. Bob was a homoeopath with a dusty car. He had frizzy grey hair and a pair of black sunglasses. He was on his way to Nottingham to see his son. Half the week was spent there, half with his partner in Ely. Ely’s great cathedral stood on the hill behind us like an oak tree.
“What actually is homoeopathy?” I inquired as we cut through the morning onto the Fens. I was familiar with the term but not the details.
“Well, it’s a kind of alternative form of medicine,” Bob began, “It involves a lot of discussion with the patient so I’ll spend a long time talking to them to find out what the underlying psychological issues are that set these problems off. Then I’ll prescribe a remedy from a particular plant or animal to offset that. You see the body, the mind, these ailments, they are all interlinked.”
Wow, that’s interesting I thought. I grew up well within the Western traditional cannon, seeing science as this conquering force that shone bright light and truth on ‘alternative’ things like this. I’d never had a chance to look into them in their own right.
Bob told me about a lady he’d treated recently for rheumatism. “This lady was spending two or three thousand pounds on pharmaceutical medicines. I sorted it out for £65! We had a few sessions talking and I worked out she could solve the issue by cutting certain foods out of her diet. Sure enough, the problem went away!” He clicked his fingers.
Like traditional Western medicine though, he caveated, it doesn’t work every time and there are some cases he’s failed to crack. But very often homoeopathy can cure a patient for a fraction of the cost of pharmaceutical treatments.
Bob had another example. He’d treated a man who had degenerate neuropathy. He was slowly losing feeling in his feet and in the ends of his fingers. It was spreading, getting steadily worse. The medical world had no cure, in fact, they didn’t even know what the problem was. The man’s uncle had something similar so they presumed it was hereditary. There was nothing for it they pronounced. Bob solved it by realising there was a psychological cause. He got to the root and straightened out the knot. Soon the man was cured.
“If psychology causes ailments in the body, what causes the ailments in psychology?” I asked, trying to get to the root myself.
“That’s a bit more complicated,” Bob responded. His words were clean cut and he used his free hand to illustrate. It was a bit more complicated, but from what I could gather there were a few reasons. Often trauma is the cause but sometimes it’s to do with energy discrepancies. When there’s an imbalance in energies, the balance between psychology and pathology is upset. Bob spoke quickly and eloquently. The concept was a new one to me so it was tricky to land.
“…But a lot of it is about finding remedies in plants or animals that can heal those imbalances.”
He illustrated the point with a story about another patient. They came to him with gradual muscle paralysis, symptoms that might be associated with a serpent or a snake bite. By understanding the snake energy at the root of the issue meant he could prescribe a remedy made from snake venom. The problem was solved. The same could happen with plants.
The way the remedies are discovered was interesting too. They perform trials on healthy volunteers using small doses of a particular plant or animal. They then observe what effects they notice on their bodies, how it makes them feel. He told me about a cactus plant study. “After taking the remedy for a while, the volunteers began to feel like their hearts were being clutched or squeezed,” Bob twisted his hand expressively, “So then we knew it could be used to treat ailments that were the opposite of that. It’s also really interesting because when you look at the plant itself, you realise that makes sense. That kind of expanding is how it behaves in nature.”
I asked if it was similar to any indigenous forms of medicine. Bob wasn’t too sure, although he knew that some indigenous North American healers would find their remedies by going into the forest and listening to the plants. The right remedy would speak to them.
I loved hearing about methods beyond science. A few years ago I met a Zambian woman in a squat in London. She was telling me about how the colonisers got rid of their traditional medical methods. I remember thinking how could that be bad? Western medicine was proven. It had so much evidence, charts, data and the rest of it. It was only in the car with Bob that I realised what she had meant.
Bob said that there is a lot of good in Western medicine. Science has taught us a lot, he couldn’t deny that. But he feared there were many people who’d become fundamentalists, and fundamentalists are never good. Religions have fundamentalists, like ISIS or Al-Qaeda or the Puritans - we’d just left Ely where Oliver Cromwell, the most famous Puritan, was from - but any belief system can have them, including science.
There used to be five NHS homoeopathy hospitals in Britain Bob explained. Slowly they’d all been closed. Today there are none. The reason had been cited as cost. “The hospitals cost a million a year to run,” he said, “A million! I mean, in medical terms that’s a fraction of a fraction of nothing! But they said they’d cut it because there wasn’t enough ‘evidence’ to justify it.”
I suggested one could be cynical and blame the pharmaceutical companies. It’s no secret that they’re in the game for money.
“Well…” Bob erred, “I think there might be an element of that. I mean there was one guy who was curing 90% of his rheumatism patients by changing their diets. The hospital he worked in was funded by a pharma company and they were losing out on huge sums because of him so they cut his funding. I guess that is an example of that.”
Broadly speaking though, Bob thought the issue was more ideological. “These people are fundamentalists, that’s all,” he said frankly, “They can’t understand that there are things that just can’t be quantified in their evidence-based methods.”
He thought it was interesting, perhaps significant, that the guy from NHS England who led the charge was the son of a church minister.
The conversation reminded me of Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Sir Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby were respectable men governed by the rational and by facts. Hard facts. “Facts alone are wanted in life,” booms Gradgrind to a room of tepid children, “You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them!” But when Gradgrind scrapes his daughter from the floor, ruined by his rational religion, broken by his devotion to Fact, Dickens reveals that there’s a world beyond the factual. A world that can’t be explained, evidenced or rationalised.
I learnt a lot from Bob that day. He taught me that the knees and the heart are linked, they’re similar tissues, joints and valves. Similarly skin and the lungs. “In traditional Chinese medicine, they call the lungs the third skin,” he told me, “They’re the same because they both have contact with the outside.” There wasn’t much overlap between Chinese medicine and homoeopathy, but Bob liked to hope if there was some truth it could be shared.
By now we were approaching Peterborough. We’d gone well past where I’d first asked to go. Engrossed in conversation we’d gone further and then further again. It was still flat around us. The dark soil of the Fens. Fraying tarmac roads raced along the causeways and cut across dead straight dykes. Fields were laid out below, with their sharp edges and hard corners. It was funny to think this was once a marsh, impassable, uninhabitable. Now it was a grid, crawling with tractors, conquered by reason itself.
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