Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Rack by A.E. Ellis (pub.1958)


The village of Brisset where the inaction takes place appears to be a fictional location of sanitoria of a type which abounded in the Haute Savoie area of France . In their heyday before the new drugs particularly streptomycin proved effective T.B. patients flocked to fill them to take advantage of the high south facing plateau. The fresh air cure which those who could afford a stay of perhaps years had a degree of efficacy. If you were forced to stay in the aerosol climate of Ireland death was a likely outcome. My good friend, whom the Savoyards would term un ancien thoracé spent a few years as a child in St.Ultan’s in Dublin which backed on to a canal. He was saved by the new drugs, his brother died.

The 4 Volume set of The Practical Woodworker(pub.between the wars) ed. by Bernard Jones has a section dedicated to Garden Rooms or Bungalows.

The illustration (Fig. 1) shows how a modern type of summerhouse can be adapted to the cult of the open-air life. In its arrangement it has been made as far removed as possible from the haunts for spiders so often encountered and it is capable of being kept in a perfectly hygienic condition. It consists of a room 15ft. by 10 ft. 6 in., with glass doors opening on to a small veranda enclosed by treillage, and it should be so placed as to command the sunniest outlook available, and in a fairly dry situation.

If we only had Davos over here. Notice how the dreaded acronym is never mentioned and the discreet trellisage to hide the lungers lounger where the patient lay out hawking into a sputum cup. I

To get back to the novel which is really a fictionalised memoir of A.E. Ellis’s (Derek Lindsay) time in a Sanatorium. His late diagnosis means that he arrives at Les Alpes in Brisset rather far gone. Luckily for him because he is student at Cambridge on a grant from the army after his war service the International Students’ Organisation have given free treatment. He is 27 the oldest member of the group of British students and the sickest. Thus begins the torment of what is essentially mechanical treatment, all described in detail. Air is pumped into the chest cavity to depress the lungs and restrict their action. Cannulae are introduced to pump out pus. Various disinfectant mixtures are dripped in to contain purulance. In the latter stages creosote which I know as a preservative for non-durable wood is suggested as just the thing. Three months is the unit of treatment, years are dismissed as mere conditioning. The doctors are often anciennes malades themselves condemned to a half life in the mountains. By the way there is no magic in this mountain, we move from crisis to resolution to new crisis. Then there occurs a note of hope in the liturgy of doom. Paul Davenant falls in love with a young Belgian girl, another bad case. Radical thoroscopy must be attempted. She is only 17.

An acronyn that appears on the chart is B.K. (Bacillus de Koch) indicated by a little red cross:

Now he met young men and women who had been ill for several years, who had undergone whole series of operations, who had witnessed the passing of their youth from a bed in a hospital ward and whose case-histories, biographies, and autobiographies were summed up, concisely, synonymously, on any one of the multifarious leaves of their temperature chart by the sinister Damoclean, marking; B.K. +.

The interweaving of hope, despair, love, endless treatments is tortuous but absorbing. A superb book and the only one that the writer published though he lived to be a truly ancien malade. He died at the age of 80. There must be lots of second hand copies, my original Penguin was €2.


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