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Utopian lab: Stranger than kindness

What can we do to enable, embody and engender care in carers? We appear to revel in a body politic that makes demands of people; instructs them to be compassionate but does not give thought to how we can construct sustainable compassion.

Mark Radcliffe’s novel Stranger than kindness was ostensibly about what happens to (mental health) nurses who are scarred, bruised or traumatised by the things they have seen or done. As a former nurse he was always interested in how caring reshaped the nurse; how what you witness fills or empties you.

He tried to answer some of these questions about carers in his novel, drawing his initial ‘data’ from fiction, and the novel’s informing ideas from philosopher Merleau Ponty, from neuroscientist Damasio, and from medical humanist Iain McGilchrist. 

What emerged was that nursing seems to need a more comprehensive philosophy in order to help engender, sustain, rejuvenate and value the art of caring. Exploring these ideas further in clinical settings, Mark spent time with nurses and their patients as they wrote about themselves; about their bodies, their experiences and their memories.

Stranger than kindness was an installation that presents some of these testimonies alongside extracts from the novel and photographs of the sea.

The central character in the novel Stranger than kindness immerses himself in the sea everyday. Mark soon started sea swimming too and became quite addicted, noticing what the body does in the sea, how it is moved and how it moves, and how it is made small. Noticing how every day is different. The movement is different, the colour, the current, the waves, the resistance. Mark was compelled by his own powerlessness in the changeability of the sea, a force that cannot be negotiated with but has to be accepted.

At the heart of Stranger than kindness is a desire to find out how re-conceptualising the art of caring might help us at the bedside. But also an acknowledgement that physicality, curiosity and reflexivity (or just keeping swimming) might help sustain the ability to care.

Project lead

Dr Mark Radcliffe is a writer and lecturer in the Department for Mental Health Nursing, King’s College London.

Utopian lab

This project was part of the Utopian lab, a contemporary glimpse of the Health Faculties at King’s College London. The crusade to understand, save and compliment the human body and mind was the spirit of Utopia itself, uniting cultures, defining humanity and standing on the shoulders of giants.

Rotating through the different stories of present day work day work being carried out across the Health Faculties at King’s College London, Utopian lab was a snapshot of the future with roots firmly planted in King’s College Hospital’s past: a workhouse on the Strand that was propelled to notoriety by the surgery work of Joseph Lister in the late 19th century. 

‘I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results’ – Florence Nightingale



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