Archive for the ‘Music and Medicine’Category

The Birth of a Nerd


It’s been roughly 1,512½ hours since we last spoke. I’d like to say a lot of things have happened since then and now. I’d like to describe the exotic locales and hair-raising adventures that have kept me from you for so long, the tales of mystery, fun and excitement, the hilarious anecdotes and witticisms that I’ll be writing about for months to come. I’d like to sweep you off your feet with charming stories so that you soon forget the chasm that has developed between us, the unforgivable dereliction of my duty to provide you with a constant stream of beautiful folk day in and day out. I’d like to, but I can’t.

You see, unless you find stories about the hydrophobic interactions of non-soluble molecules particularly riveting, anything I tell you about the past two-and-a-half months probably isn’t going to have you on the edge of your seat. I found out pretty quickly on my eight-hour journey back from Oakland to San Diego with my Dad that the colligative properties of solutions do not make especially interesting road trip conversation topics. The same goes for quantum mechanics, DNA replication models and the intricacies of molecular photophosphorylation.

The problem is, suddenly these things have become incredibly interesting to me.

I spent so much of my life negotiating around the stickier, more troublesome elements of maths and science (kind of like how a triacylglycerol molecule would avoid the hydroxyl groups of water molecules, am I right?). I felt safe amongst grammar and vocabulary, secure within the pages of a novel and coddled by the familiarity of a language I needed to use every day. Maths stumped me. It wasn’t that I was bad at it (though I was also pretty bad at it). It just seemed so mean. There is nothing forgiving about mathematics. English would invite me over to its house with a nice broad question, ask me to elaborate, give me some wiggle room in response and a chance to express my own opinions, before sending me home in the afternoon with a good grade and some friendly constructive criticism. Maths and science would steal my lunch money and give me a wedgie. And a B-.

I began to change my opinion about science when I was introduced to biology. It wasn’t long before I was in love, describing the alimentary canal and mitotic cell cycle not only with the beauty of a writer, but the precision of a scientist. (Biology, you see, allows room for both.) After maths and chemistry were done holding my head in a toilet, biology would be waiting outside the bathroom with a towel and a hug. And so, I accidentally fell in love with science. It wasn’t enough to stop me from reverting back to the familiarity of the humanities when it came time for university, however, but through those long three years biology waited for me patiently, snubbed, but knowing that one day I would return.

And so when it came time to get my prerequisite subjects for medical school, I was a little nervous. Would biology still remember me? Would we still have fun together? Could we restore the As of the good old days? Even more importantly, how would chemistry and maths treat me now that I was all grown up?

It turns out I had nothing to fear. Biology and I are back in love. It’s as though we never left one another’s side. As for chemistry and maths, well let’s just say things have changed a little. We’re all a bit older now and those silly days of our adolescence have been mostly forgotten.

Of course, my writing has taken the biggest hit of all, now that, you know, I’m a scientist and everything. It’s been hard to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard midst all the formulas and equations I’ve had to learn, but now that I’m back home for Christmas I’ll be able to catch you up on the little bits and pieces that have occurred in between lectures. I suppose a couple cool things may have happened to me since last October, and I’m sure I can squeeze out a good story here and there. Whether or not you’ll need to start memorizing portions of the periodic table in order to read my blog, well, I can’t make any promises.


While I stay busy searching for the perfect folk song based on the quadratic formula, I’ll have to make do with donations from elsewhere. Wonderful, beautiful Lacey emailed me out of the blue last month with a fantastic suggestion that has been keeping me very happy. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are The Milk Carton Kids, a couple of wise LA fellas with a penchant for making beautiful folky noise. Midst the cornucopia of nu-folk offerings and Mumford-imitators, I really respect a couple of guys who can cling on to their Americana roots, and still make something that sounds so original. While their lyrics can sometimes seem a little contrived, and sometimes even cringey, for the most part they echo something deep and meaningful, and have me hooked throughout.

everybody loves something new/ ’cause you can open it and plug it in/ and it feels like a good night’s sleep/ like the girl you like paid you a compliment/

Holly has three basic principles when it comes to finding music that she likes: anything with jangly guitars, vocal harmonies and a catchy melody will eventually wiggle its way into her heart and onto her iPod. I’m pretty sure The Milk Carton Kids, who tick all of Holly’s boxes will be there soon too.

Check out Queen Jane below, but also know that they have TWO FREE ALBUMS available on their website, should you, you know, want free music or something.

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12 2011


When I wrote my last post I was only a few days away from setting out  across the Atlantic for a long month in San Diego. Now I’m preparing myself for the journey in the other direction. Is STFU a necessary precursor to intercontinental travel?

Traveling is a major theme in my life right now. After two days of door slamming, passive-aggressive body language  and the subsequent gestures of apologetic tea-making, Mama Burns and I finally negotiated the ridiculously convoluted world of airline ticket purchases. I’ll spend the next few months polishing off the rest of my degree in Bristol, before flying to Singapore for three weeks of medical shadowing. Then it’s on to Melbourne for a road trip with friends I haven’t seen outside of a Skype window for nearly three years, and finally back to California where I’ll be beginning my pre-med in San Francisco.


I’d spent the first few days in California convincing myself that I didn’t want to study medicine in the US, that all my friends were in the UK, that Britain’s National Health Service was far superior to the strange amalgamation of insurance companies, HMOs and half-functioning government programs of America. I had already been rejected from a program on the East Coast, I had had such trouble getting my documents from Singapore and Texas and Bristol and San Diego to the colleges I was applying to, I just wanted to get my rejection over and done with so I could start looking at A-Level science programs in the UK.

So when I received an email one morning from Mills with the subject line reading ‘Congratulations!’, I was initially confused. I opened the document, read the attached letter of acceptance, checked the date, examined the signature. It looked legit, but it couldn’t possibly be real. April Fools had only been a few days earlier, and in my apparent lack of any self-confidence I was certain that one of my housemates must be pranking me. (Just before I left Bristol I steam-opened some of Josh’s junk mail before it got to him, inserted my own document with genuine company letterhead informing him that the job he thought he was getting with said company at the end of the summer had been nullified due to ‘unforeseen market circumstances’ and innocently delivered it to him when he came home from lectures. The joy I felt at watching his face fall as he read the letter was nearly as great as the joy I felt when I revealed the truth to him just as he was frantically dialing the head offices.).

Despite my doubts, I half-ran to see Papa Burns (Susie’s American friend Brindley later remarked that my footsteps followed the distinct cadence of someone who had just got into college), who promptly released me from my own doubts with a big congratulatory bear hug.

(I still phoned Mills just in case.)

A few days later I drove up to San Francisco with Mama Burns and saw Holly, SPS and their fashionably-shaved cat, as well as the beautiful campus grounds and overwhelmingly friendly staff at Mills.

I’ve spent the last couple weeks figuring out how I am going to scrape together the cash to pay for my pre-med and also found the time to finish my 10,000 word dissertation, which is sitting in front of me, printed, bound and full of tiny little errors that knock a year off my life every time I uncover one of them.

The outcome of all this nonsense is that I’ve had little time to do my folky due diligence. Nevertheless, somewhere in between the paragraphs on American social capital, the fender benders on the I-5 going North to San Francisco and the trips to banks to secure low-interest loans, a few songs somehow trickled into my iTunes ‘Most Recently Added’ playlist. I’m not sure where I got them from or how they found their way onto my computer, but the Shins-y, clappy, Vodafone-advert-soundtracky folkiness of Radical Face make me kind of wish they’d got here sooner.

(Actually it’s a ‘he’, not a ‘they’, a certain Ben Cooper from Jacksonville, Florida, the kind of guy who’s left his fingerprints on various musical projects over the years.)

I’d do a little more folkological research, but it’s time I got packing. In the mean time, if the person who inserted this fantastic music into my iTunes without me realising would like to continue, I’d be much obliged. Just get it to me before my next transatlantic departure.

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Welcome Home – Radical Face

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Wrapped in Piano Strings – Radical Face

Sticking Up for Students Was a Lot Easier Before a Drunken Gang of them Formed Outside my Window Ten Minutes Ago

Being a student means a lot of things to a lot of people.

To my mother, for example, being a student is about being in the prime of your life, about freedom and enthusiasm and new experiences. It is about being fresh and young and staring down a corridor of open doors. It is about turning up receptive and sponge-like and leaving with a cranium brimming with knowledge and intellectual fervour. To my mother, when you’re a student you are in the salad days of youth. I don’t know about salad days. I think cup noodles and beans on toast would probably be more accurate.

Well, what a surprise, hearing another student moan about something. Next thing you know you’ll be dodging fire extinguishers and helping me convert ‘Tory Cuts’ into a cheeky slogan for my picket sign.

Before you start unwraveling your fire hoses, I’m not here to complain about being a student. For the most part, Mama Burns is right: student life is exciting, stimulating and, in certain moments, romantically bohemian. It is not, however, easy.

Like many cities in the UK, there is an attitude of reluctant tolerance between students and locals. This is understandable. When I wrote for the university paper we had weekly stories of students being asked outside clubs what school they went to, before getting thumped by groups of locals if it was the wrong one. On the other hand, I’ve seen my fair share of drunken students weeing on parked cars/statues/traffic wardens. You can kind of see where the resentment originates.

(To my American readers: have you ever seen a public urinal? Apparently it’s so difficult to keep yellow puddles off English streets these days that they have to actually build these four-person towers for drunken men to pee into. It’s like multiplayer urination. These were one of the first things I saw on my first night out after eight years of living in a country where it is illegal to chew gum and spit on pavements. Of course I used it–to make a stark political statement–two minutes later.)

Sometimes all the blame that gets shifted onto students is a little unfair. Sure we all seem noisy, obnoxious and perpetually inebriated, but that’s only because you can only ever see the noisy, obnoxious and perpetually inebriated ones. The quiet ones are in the library working on their degrees, or in lecture halls actually doing the thing they came to university to do.

The truth is, sometimes people forget that life as a student can be tough. I remember a few weeks before I started uni in the UK I was working as an intern at my brother’s company, and he turned to me during a lunch break and gave me this really creepy far-off look. “You don’t realise,” he said. “That you are about to enter the easiest part of your life.”

In a sense he was right. On the surface, students have it made. They are young and innocent with oodles of free time and a whole city of pubs and clubs to explore. The problem is, there’s only so much exploring you can do with an empty wallet.

Most students get a sizeable grant, either from the government or their parents. Very few students I know are properly poor, even those who are self-funded. Even so, spending is always tight. The phrase I’m a student has now become instant waiter code for No drinks, thanks, we’ll just have a couple of tap waters.

Alright, you may be thinking, O pity the poor students who have to forgo the Evian when dining at Daddy’s restaurant chain! You don’t realise, however, how soon the life of la bohème wears off, kind of like how on the first night of camping, eating straight out of a frying pan is really fun, but by the final night you are gagging for silverware.

It’s the little things. Walking everywhere, instead of forking over £2 for bus fare. Relying on Sainsburys Basics Everything. Volunteering for experiments in the pyschology department to pay for Christmas presents.

Now, this blog post has suddenly become a lot more ranty than I intended. The truth is that despite the slow weariness of scrimping, student life really can be incredible. Not only have I learned some fantastic things about the subject I came here to study, but I’ve trained myself to be self-dependent, to take responsibility for my actions and to be much more aware of everything I do and buy. Most importantly, I’ve really, really, really learned to appreciate my mother’s cooking and ironing skills.

It’s good I’m starting to get used to this life, because at the very least I can expect another six more years of it, and for the ten years after that, while I’ll no longer be a medical student, I’ll have roughly a quarter of a million dollars of debt to economise myself around.

However, like I’ve said before, the fact that none of this fazes me in the slightest is testament to how stubborn I am about getting through medical school. There is no doubt in my mind that I’d rather love life as a student than hate it as a millionaire.

I’ll just end up really, really good at making beans on toast.


It makes sense to continue my defense of students by promoting something that they can often be pretty good at: making music. There are a few folky bands floating around Bristol, but one that has been humming through my cheap, student headphones lately is Joyshop, a five-piece collection of sound that certainly makes me want to forgo the £2 bus fare, just so I can listen to their album Casual Sincerity a little bit longer on the walk home. They’re what I like to call ‘Clever People Music’, the kind of music that you know is based on actual key signatures and can be described with words like syncopation and tonality. The fact that their logo is an ambigram kind of makes you want to drop out of university and start a Sarah Palin fan club.

In essence, Joyshop is deep, and the more you listen, the more you’ll uncover, plunging further everytime until you realise you’ve been enveloped in their sound and you don’t know how to get back out again. Suddenly, though, that trail of breadcrumbs doesn’t seem so enticing and you’re happy just to melt in the afterglow of someone else’s genius. Let’s just say, the cup noodles taste a lot better when you’ve got a bit of Joyshop in the background.

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When I Finally Grow Up (Part 2)

This post carries on from Part 1, found here.

I live with a very successful bunch of boys. Two o them have already secured graduate jobs with salaries that make me wonder if that whole ‘recession’ thing we went through was just a bad dream. One is midway through interviews with various oil and gas companies that will probably land him in an air-conditioned office in Sydney or Singapore next year, while another is up in London every other week living his own anglicised Don Draper fantasies in the big bad world of advertising. The final one is currently on a year abroad in Russia, living a comfortable life in a beautiful Moscow flat, furnished and paid for by a very famous legal firm.

Me? Oh, I just sweep up vomit on the weekends.

The weird thing is, I kind of like doing it. Preparing for medical school applications has been one of the best boots I’ve ever had the privilege of getting kicked up my backside. It’s forced me to stray away from the usual haunts of the student (lecture hall, kitchen, club, bed) and go to places and take part in activities I would otherwise have had no idea about.

The aforementioned vomit usually materialises at a night shelter I traipse to weekly in a dodgy part of Bristol where things occur my mother probably wouldn’t like to hear about. Some nights I break up fights, other times I take abuse from those too inebriated or high to know what they’re saying, but by the far the majority of my time is spent chatting and sharing stories with some incredibly interesting people. I’ve met ex-professors and asylum seekers. I’ve met mothers and murderers. I once chatted with a lady who told me she was going to court the next day for ‘detagging’. My face must have looked puzzled as I contemplated what I thought might be Facebook’s latest attempt to enforce privacy settings, because she lifted up her trouser leg to reveal the electronic GPS tag attached to her ankle, which she had tried to pry off with a knife a weeks earlier.

Suffice to say I felt a little bit silly.

Everything I’ve seen so far has been eye opening, and not just things in the shelter. I spend Wednesday afternoons in a charity shop carrying boxes of donations up and down stairs and gossiping over cups of tea with a couple of sixty-ish ladies who spoil me like favourite nephew. You wouldn’t believe it, but theft in these places is pretty common and when I’m at the till I keep one eye firmly pinned on the CDs stacked in the corner, many of which get brought to the counter days later by genuine shoppers who then realise they aren’t holding anything but an empty case. Hey, if we decent human beings are not going to steal from Oxfam then I guess somebody has to, right?

There probably aren’t many things more boring than having someone tell you about how wonderful volunteering is, but really if you don’t already do something for a couple hours a week, you really should try it. If not to get that warm fuzzy feeling inside from helping others (and trust me, it’s become like crack to me) then at least to scoop you out of your comfort zone and put you in situations that scare you a few times a month. I don’t mean you should go out and join your local chapter of the Latin Kings or try your hand at some casual pimping, but that you should do your best to seek out the freedom that comes from walking on the side of life you rarely usually tread.

It’s taken me a committment to a six-year education and a hundred thousand bucks in debt to realise that helping people is really where it’s at. I’m proud of my housemates with the eye-watering salaries but it’ll take more than a six-figure income to make me give up my barfy Saturday nights.


I’ve been a little bit enthusiastic with my folkfinding lately. Right now I’m sitting back in my chair, fingers greasy with acoustica and swaying side to side like the corpulent, overindulged folkseeker that I am. The number of tunes flowing in has meant that it’s been difficult to pick music this week, and it came down to a choice between two fantastic artists, each singing from different sides of the Atlantic. In the end, though, in honor honour of my approaching departure from the British Isles and also as a vigorously enthusiastic nod to the great Folk Radio UK where I first heard of her, I decided that  Elena Tonra would be the obvious choice.

Daughter, as Tonra now likes to be known, is that gorgeous girl you always pass on the street who you know is way too trendy for you to ever consider talking to. She’s the kind of girl who rolls cigarettes in the closing minutes of tutorials and dates guys who grow ironic moustaches.

Luckily for those with less developed hirsute capabilities, Tonra’s beautifully aching voice has been recorded for the world to hear. ‘Peter’ is one of those songs that manages to drop the F-bomb like an A-bomb, making you sit up in your seat, smile and think, “Silly Peter, I bet his moustache looks terrible.”

Tonra has released a 4 song EP, which you can download from her Myspace page here. You know how much I love free music and I know how much you love folk. It’s a match made in heaven and Daughter is holding those Pearly Gates wide open. Get downloading.


12 2010