A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Anonymous

In Cambridge, walking down lanes with memories. Piss Alley (Kings Lane), the way to my old college. Round the backs. Is that the house where…? I remember wandering about like this on the morning after the one May Ball I ever went to, and a picnic on the green patch of island across from the Mill pub; long-forgotten, I would never have remembered it without coming back here. I drank in the Anchor because I lacked imagination and friends, except for that time after Finals when I drank in the Eagle and met a man who was ready to die. I never cycled in Cambridge. I got a 2.2. I was never named in reviews of plays. Anonymous boy. Anonymous man. Nothing changes. The river still flows.

Despite the tone of this, which I wrote on Saturday night on my way to a drinks reception, I had a very pleasant weekend in Cambridge, staying in student accommodation at Christ’s College and attending a workshop on the Uses and Abuses of Biology.

I wasn’t entirely anonymous at the workshop – I introduced myself to a few people, had some enjoyable chats and learned a lot from the speakers. But there are always those moments at lunch, or having drinks, when I am on my own without a good idea for how to not be by myself in the crowd. Now, I don’t mind at all being by myself – until I think someone else thinks it is odd. And maybe it is odd. And that’s when I start to think of ways to mask my public isolation. Which only draws attention to it. Which is when I get most awkward. But people are often nice and sometimes come up and break me out of my exhibition of introversion. For which I am grateful.

A point of listening

If a tree doesn't fall and there's no one around...?

If a tree doesn’t fall and there’s no one around…?

When I was 15 or so, I had to do work experience. Clearly my only experience of work till then had been teachers, so I ended up helping in a class at my old primary school for two weeks. There I met William, a 5-or-6-year-old whom I was asked to read with because he was struggling a bit. Every time William encountered a word he didn’t know, he would say something instead. “The cat sat on the something.” “The ball something over the something bridge.”

That’s all I remember about William, if his name was even William, but I remember him every time I try to read a French book in French, which is something I do considerably often considering I am not very proficient in French.

I was reminded of all this today at an event called Points of Listening 6. I had not been to any of the previous five, so was not sure what to expect. What happened was really lovely. Daniela Cascella performed a reading of various texts – written, cinematic, acoustic. We were at the London College of Communication, and had been led through the building, around which students were strewn like fashionable throws or functional objets d’art, to a small, rather warm room with three arcs of seats and the curtains drawn.

Cascella began with film and sound of a gang of motorbikes being ridden round a (presumably Italian) city, their engines recapitulating the undulating monotony of televised Formula 1 races. Then we heard the sound from the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly. Then we saw the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly and understood more or less than we had understood from the sound alone.

The piece was called ‘Borders’, and from this opening position of credits marking a boundary of sorts between not understanding and understanding a situation, Cascella defined, developed, decayed, regained and recycled a sequence of cyclical themes to the end of the world and back.

In amongst it, she said she had read a 500-odd page book by a seminal French anthropologist; a self-anthropology, if such a thing is even possible. But to add to the monstrosity of the tome, she revealed that she does not read French very well and there is no English translation. So, she took it to the British Library and sat with it, reading, sometimes without understanding but still able to enjoy – perhaps more so – the objectiveness of this text. “Le chat s’assit sur le something.”

Talking to aliens

In the Q&A afterwards, Cascella mentioned that she had been discussing recently the topic of talking to aliens. Without going in to details, she told us the conclusion she and her interlocutor had reached was that we are always talking to aliens.

And then I put up my hand and spoke.

This never happens. It’s not that I don’t have interesting thoughts when listening to talks and performances, and it’s not that I am not grateful to the speaker or performers who inspire those thoughts. It’s just that I have this internal damping mechanism that suggests it is enough to have the thought or feeling: maybe jot it down in a notebook somewhere; expressing it would serve nobody well.

Alcohol has been known to override this mechanism but I had not been drinking today. Perhaps it was the opportunity afforded by being granted honorary alien status that enabled me to speak.

I was at another conference on silence last week, since which it has occurred to me that you have to listen in order for there to be a silence. An unheard silence is just another tree not falling in a philosophical wood. Perhaps, then, you also have to speak in order to listen.

So I spoke and made a point or two.

Points of listening, I hope.

The case of the demented Labyrinth

Having succumbed to self-pity last time, here’s a more constructive response to my Alzheimer’s feature: the short story version!

Image: Hephaestian Studios

Image: Hephaestian Studios

I don’t know if I was born in it or brought some time later, but my first memories – all my memories – were in the Labyrinth. Alone, but not lonely, and there were myriad opportunities to step outside or look out of the windows and interact, talk to others, fall in love, create, have effects on the rest of the world. Equally, as I grew older, I liked to retreat into the cool depths of the maze, clear away the cobwebs and do a cryptic crossword or read a detective story. Poe, Dickson Carr, Takagi – classic locked room mysteries were my particular delight.

But at some point, daylight withdrew and my comfortable corners became too dim to see. It became harder to navigate the Labyrinth and I reached doors and windows less often. The paths had become overgrown with fibrous masses. I tried burning them away but nothing worked. They constricted my way, eventually blocking off whole sectors of my inner life. Glimpses of the outer world made little sense now, though I strove to make connections, even if they were absurd. A kind of nausea gripped my head, not my stomach. I stumbled around, often with my hands over my eyes, forced to take torturous routes around the obstructions, missing the comforting familiarity of my old ways, until I would curl up in a ball with my head in my hands despairing of it all.

I saw faces I recognised – my parents, or my children, perhaps – and wanted to speak to, but the only way to reach them would be to turn away and search down some forgotten pathway for a secret passage and when I turned my head I began to doubt I had even seen them at all and would be taken along another path to a distant memory or a fragment of degenerate fantasy. There were paranoid flickers of others, too, unrecognised; ghosts in my Labyrinth trying to find me, perhaps. I would find scraps of thread crudely woven from the overgrowing fibres and discarded as useless, not mapping the way out but compelling all the same. I would follow some of the longer ones for a while, hoping, while traces of music led me on, but whether to the outside or deeper towards the centre I wasn’t to know.

At last, I stopped trying to find an exit. It brought me only grief.

When I came to the centre, there was the Minotaur, its breathing ragged, an upside-down A on its forehead, a double-headed axe in its hand. The brute looked like death. We raised our axes, each intent on destroying the other, but when my axe fell, it struck only glass. My reflection shattered the mirror and sealed my fate.

Pimping the Minotaur

mosaic-alzIt was Dementia Awareness Week last week, which would have been a good time to promote my Mosaic feature on Alzheimer’s disease, except that I failed to spot the opportunity. A shame, as my piece is languishing as the least-read piece on the site when I had hoped it would by now be giving people a genuinely useful new way to think about what dementia really is.

I’ve probably said it before, but I struggle rather with the need for self-promotion. I recognise that the quality of writing doesn’t matter one jot if no one starts to read it, and so marketing is as important to a piece’s success as the writing of it; I just don’t like that that’s the way of the world. It leads to vicious/virtuous circles, whereby a piece that is marketed well gets more readers, increasing the chances – if it is decently written – of people recommending it through the various channels we have to do that nowadays, bringing more readers and so on. Whereas a less overtly marketable piece gets fewer readers and fewer opportunities for word-of-mouth promotion, even though it may be very good despite (or even because of) its lack of marketability. So the judgement of what is marketable becomes key and I don’t seem to fulfill the criteria.

It’s difficult even to broach the subject, because I don’t dare to assume that my writing is good enough to warrant marketing, even if it were considered marketable. There have been nice comments about my Alzheimer’s piece, and it was the first Mosaic article to be republished by Pacific Standard, but reader numbers are the yardstick we use to assess success and I am bottom of the pile – for whatever reasons. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough.

Understanding through stories

It’s a shame, because I was trying to do something useful with my article. I found out it was Dementia Awareness Week last week when John Humphreys mentioned it on the radio this morning. In his introduction to the segment, he repeated what is in danger of becoming a cliche: that dementia is frightening because we understand it so poorly (‘we’ being the general public, patients and their families, as opposed to the scientific ‘we’ of the doctors and researchers, who also understand it pretty poorly but more than ‘we’ ever did before). Well, my piece was an attempt to address this and give people a handle with which to comprehend what dementia means beyond a diagnosis, beyond practical, clinical descriptions of mental decline.

An ambitious goal, perhaps, but I felt I had found a suitable metaphor, one that resonated with early 20th century attempts by Freud and his ilk to comprehend psychological conditions through mythological narratives. Joining the Oedipus Complex and so on in the popular conception of psychological disorders, I saw (in my hubris, perhaps) the ‘Minotaur Complex’ as a metaphor for dementia. Read my piece to see why I thought it could – assuming I communicated the thought successfully, that is.

The only trouble with my description of my aims here is that they applied retrospectively, after writing the damned thing, which languished drafted and edited and fact-checked and sub-edited for months prior to publication. So what I have here declared to be my motivation for writing the piece did not motivate the writing of it. Which may explain why I (and the rest of the team) find it hard to promote – there is a germ of a potentially useful idea in it but maybe it leaves too much to interpretation, and the interpretation of a very particular reader (ie the writer, ie me), to become readable in the published text.

Well so be it; I have to move on. It was a first attempt in many ways, and I hope with future pieces I can realise (in both senses) my aims during the writing rather than after it. And hopefully that will make them more marketable, and more read. But while “The Alzheimer’s Enigma” remains my only published Mosaic feature, I can’t seem to leave it alone; I keep worrying away at it ineffectually and wishing it would, somehow, find its market share of readers and switch the circle from a vicious one to a virtuous one, giving more people the chance to understand the spectre of dementia through the familiar story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth.

Milwaukee April 2014

Milwaukee, April 2014

Milwaukee, April 2014

As well as India, I’ve had the pleasure of a trip to the States this year: I flew from London to Chicago, then drove to Milwaukee, then flew to Boston and from Boston to London – all in the space of three days! By Boston, I was feeling pretty ragged, so only pictures (6) of Milwaukee here….

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India, Feb/Mar 2014

Looking over the rooftops of Bhumihin camp, Delhi

Looking over the rooftops of Bhumihin camp, Delhi

I’ve been travelling a bit for work so far this year: India and the US were the big trips researching stories for Mosaic. While I work on the draft of my India piece (about migration and health), I thought I could at least post some (8) of the photos I took. I am no photographer* but they give you a sense of what I went to see.

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* I was accompanied to India by Ben, our fantastic in-house photographer, so the pictures to accompany the feature will be so much better than this!

Truths and fictions

And Chesterton, in his book about Browning, writes about other great poets; he says that Homer might have thought, for example, “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell them the truth based on the fall of a great city, on the defense of that city,” and he made the Iliad. And then another poet, whose name has been forgotten, says: “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell it based on what a just man suffered, his friends’ reproaches, the voice of God who descends in a swirl,” and he wrote the Book of Job. And another poet could say, “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell it by describing an imaginary or visionary journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise,” and that poet is Dante. And Shakespeare could have thought, “I will tell them the truth about the world by telling stories about a son who learned, from a ghost’s revelations, that his mother had been an adulteress and a murderer,” and he wrote Hamlet. But what Browning did was stranger. He said, “I have found this story of a criminal trial, a sordid story of adultery, the story of a murder, the story of lies and deceptions. And based on that story, which all of Italy talked about, and which all of Italy has forgotten, I will reveal to them the truth about the world,” and he wrote The Ring and the Book.

[Arias & Hadis (eds) (2013) Professor Borges: A course on English Literature. New Directions: New York]

Fictional stories have the power to tell great truths about the real world; nonfictional stories tend to be more focused in the scope of truths they tell, but this passage, from a lovely book that has certainly done a lot to educate me about the history of my own language’s literature, reminds me that nonfiction can also harness this power to be bold, to speak to the universal as well as to the specifics of the science (or whatever facts are at play).

Utopian thinking

A map of Utopia

A map of Utopia

While talking about the political presumptions inherent in the academic field of bioethics, Professor Richard Ashcroft asked if it was possible to imagine a non-liberal approach to the subject. In light of the title of his talk at King’s College London last week, “Bioethics as a style of utopian thought”, I was more tempted to ask if it was possible to imagine a non-utopian approach to bioethics.

I didn’t quite dare ask, however, as I was again interloping at an academic seminar, bringing only a very specific and naive perspective with me. The title had intrigued me, sparking off my continuing interest in concepts of Utopia, and I was hunkered down at the side of the room, at a table across which bars of light were falling from the window in a peculiarly attractive manner. Bioethics is not a field I am so familiar with but by the end of Ashcroft’s talk, I was wondering how anyone could doubt that it is a utopian endeavour: the demarcation of what is good or bad in biological research and medicine or, failing that, the identification of good or bad ways to identify what’s good and bad in biomedicine. I’ve probably misunderstood the entire field, whose practitioners apparently consider it to be resolutely non-utopian, but how can you consider good/bad or right/wrong dichotomies (or even spectrums) without having a view as to what would be ‘best’, and what is the world where everything is at its best but Utopia?

Now I should admit that my only real model for thinking about Utopia is the original story by Thomas More. I feel as though his work should have some elevated status if only because its title was yet another word that he coined for the English language. But perhaps the original has been superseded and redefined by all of its successors. There is a conference on Utopian studies in Canada in October (which I learned about from a tweet from Ashcroft later in the week): perhaps that would be a good place to find out how Utopia stands amid its later imitators and rivals? Now if there was only some way I could persuade work to send me….

Anyway, I don’t think More’s Utopia is the ideal of perfection that the current understanding of ‘utopia’ would suggest. Obviously it is hard (for me) to translate and comprehend the contextual culture of 1516, but even so, More’s Utopia has some downright illiberal features including, but not limited to, the use of slavery as a penalty for ‘un-Utopian’ behaviour. It is, perhaps, a mistake to read it as a vision of a perfect society. Of course, it is no dystopia either. To use today’s parlance, maybe the original Utopia is a heterotopia, a place of good and bad, written to pass comment on contemporary English society rather than to offer a vision of something ‘better’, or even ‘best’. I suspect that More’s temperament was not so far from Ashcroft’s, with a deprecating sense of humour born of a tendency to grouchiness that may seem cynical but probably hides a great big heap of idealism. Or maybe I am projecting on to both men what I would like the truth of my own temperament to be. Are utopias visions of (imperfect) happiness from generally unhappy people?

Relating this tentatively back to bioethics for a moment, I liked a quote that Ashcroft used in his talk: “If you don’t like the Utopia you’re being sold, build another one.” It reminded me of a talk last year, in which Ernst Bloch was cited as saying something along the lines of, “Life has been put into our hands…. If there is something missing, make it – now!” Bioethics may be riddled with solutionism (seeing medical technology as a body of (potential) solutions to social and political problems), but if you don’t like that, you could build your own version instead. But be in no doubt that in considering the best way for human societies to incorporate medical advances, you are at some level envisaging an ideal, utopian society, with the ever-present caveat that utopias can only really ever be signposts, not destinations.

In the Q&A afterwards, someone referred to a description of bioethics as a jardin des plantes, or zoological garden, which Ashcroft interpreted as, among other things, a place to breed familiarity with the strange. I liked that idea very much.

Purim poem

One of the benefits of living in Stamford Hill, amid one of the largest orthodox Jewish communities in the world, is that, once a year, we get to enjoy the spectacle of Purim. While the men are under orders to get stinking drunk over the course of the day, the children have to dress up in proper, full-on fancy dress, either hired from a specialist or home-made but to such a degree of creativity and professionalism that if we ever need fancy-dress costumes for the girls, we won’t have to look very far. So here’s my rundown of costumes spotted this year….

First, Napoleon at number 59,
Then clowns, kings, bakers and coppers;
Cowboys,
Cats and bears and maybe a wolf
in thick woollen head-to-toe costumes.

Lions, and a big-headed dalmatian swapping hats with a musketeer;
A butcher with a string of pork sausages; an African prince with ill-judged black-face and a yellow and brown striped gown; a trio of sultans in powder-blue turbans and elaborate felt-tip mustaches.
A grey-haired ‘old woman’ in tartan, and a young man with his belongings tied up in a kerchief on the end of a stick on his shoulder, seeking his fortune.

More clowns, several pirates, girls in ‘English’ school uniforms;
boys with drawn-on glasses.
A ladybird toddler; a red-faced tomato in a pram;
Two ice cream cones and a choc-ice.
A Sainsbury’s shelf-stacker, a boy with a trilby and an inky five o’clock shadow, Royal Mail delivery personnel.

Princesses – less Disney, more Anne of Hanover – and queens and soldiers and paramedics and chefs;
A penguin, two Hello Kittys, and a panda toting his brother’s replica semi-automatic rifle;
A gaggle of 1950s midwives (or possibly Salvation Army troops).
Four gift-wrapped presents and a girl dressed as a packet of sweets.

Naked launch

mosaic-alz

Mosaic, the new publication at work, finally launched this week. I’d missed a lot of the build-up, as I was in India researching a story for a week beforehand, and also because I am not really an integral part of the project team, though I will be writing more for Mosaic than most. So launch day was a bit anticlimactic for me: it was my first day back in the office after India, and although I had a piece in the first batch ever to be published on Mosaic, it wasn’t getting as much attention as some of the other four pieces.

I had a blog post drafted here all about how I had always struggled to convince my Dad that I was grateful for the Christmas presents he bought me. It detailed how I usually was grateful (our family circulated lists of desired gifts well in advance, so it was rarely a surprise but usually wanted and appreciated), but my innately low-beat expressions of gratitude failed to persuade him of my sincerity, so I had to exaggerate, to display or perform gratitude, which stank even more of insincerity, thus leading to rows and ill-feeling on all sides.

This tension between sincerity and the display of sincerity remains. It was particularly challenging this Christmas because my Dad bought me presents from my Amazon wish list – except that he managed to find a different Michael Regnier on Amazon and bought me books about intellectual progress in 19th century Hapsburg Vienna. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised when I say that I could not have been happier to receive books about the history of Austrian philosophy, but how could I persuade my Dad of that? I must be getting better at it, because I think he was reasonably convinced this time round….

But why did I want to talk about sincerity on the occasion of the publication of my first piece on Mosaic? Because I still worry that my sincerity gets lost among a certain degree of intellectual posturing in my writing (such as making the links between Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges a fundamental motif in my explanation of the science of Alzheimer’s disease). Speaking sincerely, of course, this is utterly sincere: I believed this approach would genuinely facilitate an appreciation of the difficulty of doing medical research in this disease area and in all diseases, actually. And it is important to me that a feature of this length (5000 words and up) does more than just describe events or understandings at a particular point in time. I think we authors need to tell our stories in order to create something over and above that, to construct a deeper argument, to layer meanings and interpretations so that the scientific content becomes one element of a broader, more ambitious tale.

Mosaic offers us the chance to construct that kind of story, but I was worried that the emphasis was on more of a science journalism approach, which, though no less valid, assumes an existing degree of engagement from the reader, I think. Mosaic is intended, as far as I can make out, to appeal to a wider readership than that which already consumes science journalism, and I think there is an opportunity here to try different styles of science writing and see what else is possible.

My piece, then, is not just an attempt to explain Alzheimer’s disease; it is also an attempt at a different approach to science writing. I know that this particular piece is imperfect – it is my first go, after all – but it was important to me that Mosaic should be seen to be capable of innovating in terms of content as well as in terms of how that content is distributed. And my approach seems to have won some admirers: it was picked up by Pacific Standard magazine, and has garnered some positive comments on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s more than I’d hoped for on launch day, and I hope it means I get to do more in the same vein in the future.

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