Touching a coma

When life briefly stops and you find yourself in an idyllic location for some hours…

The last few weeks have not been an improvement on the previous few documented in The day I tattooed a spider on my eye. 

The spiders have been mainly behaving themselves, I did have to take them to Addenbrookes eye clinic briefly for a bit more lasering, but after that they have thankfully settled down. 

As for my Mum? Not so much.

How many surgeries can one body take in a space of a month? And on reaching your three-quarter century birthday too. The answer is seven… so far. It would seem like an impressive feat if it weren’t for the fact that, since that birthday – and it’s after party trip to the theatre for surgery number 5, closely followed by 6 and 7 – she has been in a coma.

This window of idyl right now, is a result of my dear friend Matilda. 

When, a week ago, I had to give in to the fact that I really was going to have to go back to work – sitting by my Mum’s bedside couldn’t be a full time job, alas – I begun to panic about how I was going to manage a whole season at Glyndebourne, when I don’t own a car, and it’s 130 miles away from home.

A few panic fuelled days later (and the help of amazing friends), I had a plan, and this was part of it.

Sarah Walton is an artist working in ceramic, oak, lead and cast iron. 

She is a potter and her studio, house and work are all beautiful – what a privilege to be able to share it for a few days.

As if this was not enough, I was taken aback at the depth of my reaction to seeing her art – sculpture – close up, and in particular, being able to touch it too.

So often when seeing sculpture in a gallery I feel almost cheated to not be able to touch it. 

All those Rodin sculptures. The incredible surfaces of Brancusi’s work. The length of time they have spent to get that surface that draws you close, that is aching to be touched.

Really? They made them to be seen but not touched? I find this hard to believe – like inviting people in to a concert that they can see but not hear.

Sarah Walton – Birdbath

Of course, predictably, my mind is taken back to Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures. Funnily enough, I haven’t ever had that same feeling that I am missing out on something with Bourgeois’ sculptures.

Louise Bourgeois – Fée Couturière (Fairy Dressmaker) Conceived 1963, Cast 1993
Louise Bourgeois – The Cold of Anxiety, 2001

Firstly, there is such a wide range of materials used – but I think it’s more fundamental than that. For me, the experience of her work is more cerebral than that of say, Rodin.  Often the textures are fascinating, the materials used intriguing. In some cases, such as Maman, you can touch it. And in others the point of their finish is that it is so highly polished that what you see is your reflection. You become a part of the artwork, in this case touching it would be a to sully the shine, to take something away from the experience, to blemish your own image.

Louise Bourgeois – Arch of Hysteria, 1993

To tour Sarah’s studio and to be able to touch, to feel the textures of the clay, in various stages of process, felt such a luxury. The damp surface. The rough surface. The smooth polished surface. The reflections, the unfinished cracks, the lines drawn and the salt glazed finish. A deep pleasure.

Sarah Walton – recent work

In the peace and quiet of the South Downs National Park – not a bad side effect of going to work!


That sense of touch has been absolutely paramount to my last few months.

Did you know that when you use your senses (thereby engaging your prefrontal cortex) you cannot also use your amygdala (the fight and flight bit of your brain – your adrenaline pumping friend who is still constantly looking out for that sabre-toothed tiger)?

Don’t quote me on the ‘cannot’ part of that sentence. I have been taught this twice, once that you cannot use them at the same time, and once that using the prefrontal cortex severely dampens down the messages from the amygdala. 

Rebecca Burman – Brain, 2017

It’s really immaterial here though – either way, this means that when you feel that sense of dread, that rush of fear, that overwhelming sense of panic taking over your body, if you engage with your senses – feel your hands on the table, focus on the feeling of your feet on the floor, or just get in touch with your breath – you immediately reduce the possibility of panic.

This is a trick I have used in my work as a musician for years – it really does work. 

But over the last six weeks, it has also come in use in dealing with the immense and fuck awful rollercoaster ride that has come with my Mum being subjected to seven brain surgeries and now 18 days in a coma. To be clear – I’m not missing the irony of not being entirely sure how the brain works despite spending most of my last six weeks in one of the biggest Neurology Departments in Europe – you’d think I could have found someone to ask?!

I joke, but what alternative is there? 

Staying grounded, trying to remain in the moment – when the very worst fears feel so close, it seems just raising your hand will touch them – and holding on to my family. That mutual exchange of oxytocin creeping through your body. 

So these short hours of calm and quiet will live with me for a while. 

Listening to the birds singing, and the steady tick of an ancient clock. Breathing easy the fresh air of the surrounding fields. The smell of the roses, the view across the South Downs. And the touch, present not only in the art, but also of my Mum’s hands, held as often now as when I was a small child.

Louise Bourgeois – Welcoming Hands,  Tuileries Garden, Paris
Touch – George and Dan (1983-2019) 2011

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