This Old Heart Of Mine

Ep 1/5

Monday 4 December to Friday 8 December



Reverend Giles Fraser recently had a heart attack followed by quadruple bypass surgery. His heart has suddenly become very real to him in a way it never was before - this is life and death stuff, and he has been forced to look at changing his ways.

He sets out to find people who can help him better understand the workings of this most resonant and symbolic of organs.

How can Giles find a way to live better with his quite literally broken heart? And how can he understand this most symbolic human organ in its broader context, negotiating a path from the pump, to the Valentine’s Day card emblazoned with the instantly recognisable two-curves-with-a-point-at-the-bottom, the ubiquitous shorthand for love?

The heart has been demoted in relation to the status of the brain. Death is no longer decided by the stopping of the heart, but by brain death. The heart can be re-plumbed, jump-started, and even transplanted. And yet it retains a mystique, and is, for many of us, across culture and time, the place where we feel our ‘true self’ to be located, as well as our emotions and the torch of our romantic passions.

As a Reverend in the Church of England, Giles looks again at the iconography of the ‘Sacred Heart’ in its spiritual dimensions. Recent research into the heart is tantalisingly suggestive of the idea that the heart is associated with emotion on a chemical level, might even be able to transfer memory during transplant.

Did the Romantic poets have it right all along?

Episode one: The Pump (Monday 4 December)
Giles meets the surgeon who performed his emergency heart by-pass surgery, Dr. Vassilios Avlonitis, a cardiac surgeon at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, who literally held his patient’s heart in his hands in order to save his life.

Episode two: The Open Heart (Tuesday 5 December)
Giles talks to his one-time psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. Giles’s physical rehabilitation is well under way, but the emotional after-effects are more elusive and counter-intuitive. He wants better to understand his response to the trauma of his heart attack and surgery. Where he was expecting a gloomy sense of physical depletion and mortality, he has found instead a sense of elation. Why would that be? Who better to ask than the woman on whose psychoanalytic couch he once laid?

Episode three: The Sacred Heart (Wednesday 6 December)
Giles meets Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury until 2012, at his home in Magdalene College Cambridge where he’s now Master. As a Reverend in the Church of England, Giles is curious to look again at the iconography of the ‘Sacred Heart’ in its spiritual and historical dimensions, and also at how the beat of the heart relates to prayer, poetry, and our sense of the rhythms and boundaries of our lives.

Episode four: The Broken Heart (Thursday 7 December)
Giles meets cultural historian Dr. Fay Bound Alberti at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and asks how the landmark moments in the story of heart surgery and medicine to fix the pump - the transplants and the bypasses - relate to the heart as poetic symbol. The heart has long represented love, courage, and been perceived of as the home of emotions: is cutting-edge science hinting that the Romantic poets were right all along?

Episode five: The Lonely Heart (Friday 8 December)
Giles speaks to essayist on love and the language of the heart, Adam Phillips. Why is he feeling so elated after the emergency life-saving surgery, when he imagined he would feel physically and spiritually traumatised?

Producer: Victoria Shepherd for Somethin’ Else


This programme is part of Heart Week on BBC Radio 4, which will be marking 50 years since the first heart transplant (3 December 1967) with a range of programmes (from Monday 4 - Friday 8 December) which explore the latest surgical techniques and research in cardiology, as well as our personal and philosophical relationship with the heart. 

BBC Radio 4 Publicity