Book of the Week, Radio 4, Tuesday Archive on 4: Lunch is for Wimps, Radio 4, Saturday

A poet in the pathology lab peers into our hearts

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The Independent Culture

One of the principal functions of the poet is to ask big questions that have no easy answers, and it became clear that the fêted Scots poet Kathleen Jamie subscribes to this notion in the second reading on Book of the Week from her second collection of essays, Sightlines.

In "Pathologies", read in exactly the right no-nonsense manner by Maureen Beattie, she described how she'd been provoked into wondering "what is nature exactly, and where does it reside?" when she attended a conference on man's relations with other species (at which the hearty lunch, she noted, was local venison).

She consulted a pathologist, Dr Frank Carey from Dundee, who took her on a microscopic magical mystery tour of cell samples: "I was looking down from a great height upon a pink countryside, a landscape," she observed of one sample. "It was our local river as seen by a hawk." He told her about the discovery in the 1980s that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria and not by stress. "D'you think there are other connections, other things we aren't seeing?" she asked him. "Oh, certainly," he replied.

He showed her healthy cells, calm and ordered, and tumour cells – "densely packed ... all dark dots that seemed too busy for comfort". Then he showed her some infections; one slide was "sapphire blue, valleys fanning down to the shore". Then she saw the germs, dots "ranged across the blue valley like musk oxen on tundra seen from far above".

Thanks to her exposure to the inner world of the microscopic, she concluded, "the outer world also had flown open like a door, and I wondered then, and I wonder still, what is it that we're just not seeing?".

According to a survey in January, 1 per cent of British workers take a full one-hour lunch break, and my keyboard does indeed have what Matthew Sweet refers to as "a sheen of mayonnaise and bacon fat", the result of years of lunching "al desco", to use the current vernacular. In Archive on 4: Lunch is for Wimps he explored the sorry demise of the properly taken midday meal. The show was full of nice material, my favourite being a letter from 1973 to an agony aunt. The writer complained that her husband's new job enabled him to come home for lunch – and he demanded the full, multi-course experience. "He's not the kind of man who can get his own lunch," she reported, ruefully. "Also, he gets amorous when we're home alone. But that's for another letter ...."