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Wednesday 29 June 2011

Vintage Sea: an introduction to the poetry of Marion McCready (part one)


My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.[1]Samuel Beckett

On Friday 17th June I made a (for me) rare appearance at an event in Glasgow, the release of two new chapbooks by Colin Will’s Calder Wood Press: Songs the Lightning Sang by Geoff Cooper (you can read a review here) and Vintage Sea by Marion McCready. I don’t know Geoff – he seems a decent enough chap who writes engaging and accessible poetry but this was the first time I’d encountered his work. Marion and I, on the other hand, have known each other for years, albeit only through comments on each other’s blogs and the occasional e-mail, and it was for her sake I made the effort.

It was a pleasant enough do. I make no secret that I’m no great fan of poetry readings and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number I’ve been to in the last thirty-five years. I mention this to underline the fact that to call my attendance ‘rare’ is something of an understatement. Marion was frankly surprised to see me quietly slip into the seat nearest the door. Actually gob-smacked would probably be a fairer expression.

We didn’t have much time to chat but neither of us being especially good at, or fond of, small talk we dived straight into why poetry readings are in some ways anti-poetry: we both agreed that the best poetry is something that you can’t possibly ‘get’ – I use the term loosely and will come back to it – in a single reading and yet, at a poetry reading, you’re bombarded with poem after poem. I conceded that I wasn’t opposed to hearing poetry read aloud as long as that wasn’t all there was to it, as long as I wasn’t being expected to figure out the poem for the first time there and then. I’m perfectly happy to listen to recordings of, say, Larkin reading his poetry because I’m already intimately acquainted with the work; I can now sit back and enjoy the sound of the poetry in its own right. And when it came Marion’s turn to read her poems I have to say I enjoyed the sound of her reading. It was interesting too because she read quite differently to how I, for example, would have read the same poems. I tried to explain to my wife how she came across but it’s much easier if you just listen to her yourself. Here’s a wee video of her reading three poems from the event. The sound quality could be better but if you turn the volume up it’s fine.

Marion reads 'Black Tulips', 'Autumn Trees' and 'Brenhilda'

Douglas Dunn, talking about his own poem ‘Loch Music’, a poem that’s not a million miles away from Marion’s poetry in both theme and tone, said this, “There's nothing especially advantageous about being a Scottish poet but it means you can rhyme 'Bach' and 'loch' and 'moors' and 'conifers', so we have one or two advantages.” He’s being a little facetious here but what I take from it, reading between the lines, is that there is such a thing as a Scottish sound. And by that I’m not talking about poetry written in Lallans (think Burns) or Gaelic or even the Glaswegian poetry of the likes of Tom Leonard but poetry that evokes Scotia.

There are many poets out there for whom place is an important factor in their poetry. Hart Crane is a quintessential American poet. The landscape – or in his case, the cityscape – that he found himself in inspired him and the same goes for R.S. Thomas and his connection to the Welsh countryside. I see Marion McCready as that kind of poet. What surprises me, however, once you learn a bit about her, is that that is that kind of poet:

I never studied English Literature beyond first year at uni, the reason being I was unwilling to drop either of my other two subjects: Classical Civilisations, which I loved, and politics.

At that time I was madly into party politics. I was the chairperson of my local branch of the Scottish Socialist Party and spent most weekends demonstrating or raising support for the various causes the Party stood for. Of course, this was all long before the infamous Tommy Sheridan scandal which well and truly binned the Party. Those were the heady days of comradeship, purpose and a sense of power. – Poetry in Progress, 5 November 2008

She left Glasgow University with a Masters in Philosophy and lists philosophy on her blog as her favourite subject of study and yet you would be hard-pressed to find any overtly (or even covertly if it comes to that) political poetry by her, or philosophical insights into the Scottish psyche, come to think of that. So if you’re expecting glimmers of Hugh MacDiarmid in her first collection you’ll be sadly disappointed (not a thistle or a drunk man in sight[2]), or not as the case might be; I was never a great fan of MacDiarmid to be honest.

Her favourite prose writers are Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; her favourite poet, Sylvia Plath and her favourite literary character, Sherlock Holmes and yet it’s hard to see the confessional in her poetry despite the fact that some is clearly autobiographical – even without having read her blog for years that’s obvious – with references to her husband and her second pregnancy jumping out at me. Nor are these puzzle-poems, ‘decoder-ring poems’ as my wife calls them, poems to be solved. And when I learned of her love of Russian literature I was very surprised, let’s put it that way.

PortpatrickandMarion 041I asked Colin why he decided to approach Marion with a view to publishing her poetry. In part he said, “I think Marion has a distinctive poetic 'voice', and her choice of subjects, images and words is clearly her own.” I have to agree. Just like you can pick up a poem by Larkin and know within a few lines that it’s a poem by Larkin, there is definitely a feel to a Marion McCready poem. If, however, I was to pick a single word to encapsulate Marion’s poetry, the one I keep finding myself coming back to is ‘sonorous’. There have been many poets who you could tag as sonorous and it’s not always a compliment, either. Back in 1820 a French critic described no other than Lord Byron’s prosody as “vague sonorous poetry which we term imitative and descriptive, and which resounds in the ears without ever penetrating the soul or the understanding.”[3] So, am I saying that Marion’s poetry sounds good but lacks substance? No; this is why I opened this article with the quote from Beckett. No one would ever suggest that Beckett’s writing wasn’t able to penetrate the soul even if it might be a little hard to understand, but what he is saying that the bedrock of his writing is its sound and that’s also true of Marion’s poetry:

I love language, I love words. I love playing around with images, sounds and language but I also know that that amounts to very little if there isn't a poem in amongst those words, sounds and images, if there isn't that unknown thing that makes itself know to me (at least partially) by the end of the poem, of what the poem is actually about. – Poetry in Progress, 12 January 2010

I never realised how fully involved I am in my poems, I know that sounds like a daft thing to say. I think part of it is my love of sound repetition in poems, be it rhyming, internal rhyming, assonance, alliteration etc. This means I find it relatively easy to memorise a number of or chunks of my own poems – the sounds get stuck in my head and, like an annoying song, parts of my latest poem can clog up my brain for days. – Poetry in Progress, 19 November 2008

I was aware of this long before I heard her read aloud but sitting there not looking for meaning but only permitted access to the sound of her poems the importance of the sound the words make was very clear to me: it was, if you’ll forgive me being twee for a moment, music to my ears. Let me illustrate with a few snippets from her collection starting with this wonderful onomatopoetic line:

Shushing leaves fill the sky with the rush of the sea

(from ‘Brenhilda’)

I’m waiting inside. Inside I’m waiting
to open the door to your hair curling in the breeze.

(from ‘I Carried my Sand-Freckled Face)

Clouds cover, hover,
peter out to blue,
then gather their diaspora.

(from ‘Becoming Spring’)

Plucked from the page only the sounds remain and yet, ironically, sounds are one of the least dominant features of these poems. She describes the blood birds falling from cone to cone and the veined waves tilting towards the shoals but the sounds are all quiet:

…my voice
has thinned to a damp psalm.

(from ‘Becoming Spring’)

The cry of her oilskin tongue,
lost to the wind.

(from ‘The Herring Girl’)

You whisper ‘crossbills’
and a bird rises in my throat.

(from ‘We Met by a Charm of Crossbills’)

Images dominate…

I gather my images, page after page of groups of scenes that I try to find meaningful homes for. The images are the easy part, a walk by the river or in the gardens and the images come but not just nature description, images with real emotional weight. But finding the right narrative home, the story that these images come from is the real struggle. – Poetry in Progress, 24 May 2010

…and many of them related to water: sea-fields, archipelagos, lochs, the North Sea, the Clyde, the Firth, the Fyne, “boats filled with Nessmen”, river-suns, ports, brine, coral, sun-pools, islands, tides, beaches, sand banks, skerries, ferries, ships, piers, waves, shallows, ripples, puddles, foam, eddies, surf…

On days like these I close my eyes
and wade into the sun-bell of your arms,
reaching for your words as they rise,
a flotilla of songs on the horizon.

(from ‘Words’)

Marion was born on the small Isle of Lewis and brought up in Dunoon, Argyll and it’s obvious that long before she had any interest in philosophy or politics the thing that touched her was the landscape around her. Talking about an upcoming trip back to Lewis in 2010 she had this to say:

I spent every summer there as a kid on my gran and seanair's [grandfather’s] croft, I'm looking forward to reliving this part of my childhood and taking my own children there to experience the long white sandy beaches, the machair, the huge Atlantic waves, the sprawling moors. – Poetry in Progress, 3 July 2010

Isle of Lewis

In the poem by Douglas Dunn I mentioned earlier he includes the following couplet:

The intellects of water teach
A truth that’s physical and rich.

I think this is something that Marion could relate to – I’m also reminded of Larkin’s poem ‘Water’ – and Marion herself has said “Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that water features very prominently in my poems.” I asked her to expand on this:

I live next to the Firth of Clyde. I’ve spent most of my life living beside this body of water and I can’t ever imagine not living either on the coast or next to a substantial body of water. I find water at once soothing and exhilarating. I adore swimming underwater edging out into the deep, feeling the great expanse of it widening around me. Water gives me a great sense of physical and mental freedom, I associate myself strongly with it.

The above might lead you to believe that Marion is predominately a ‘nature poet,’ a term that is in danger of becoming a derisory term these days. Nature is her setting (she says herself, “nature, by and large, is my key inspiration for writing a poem and the clothing I use for writing about other things” (23 September 2008)) – as far as I could see, only the poem ‘The Red Road’ had an urban location – and references to the modern world, things like ultrasounds, circuit boards, even cars are rare, which give most of these pieces a timeless quality if not exactly a placeless one; there is hardly a poem that doesn’t evoke some part of Scotland but this is Scotland-the-country as opposed to Scotland-the-nation. It’s not that the poems are devoid of people but they are types of people rather than individuals, the herring girl, the cockle-picker’s wife, Nessmen, priests, Greenock girls, pier-hands, hes, shes and wes. Many of the poems are in the first person but as I said earlier these don’t feel like confessional poems, reportage more likely; it just so happens that she was there and it could have been anyone telling us about the wrecked sugar ship or waiting for the Greenock ferry.

I have mixed feelings about learning too much about any author (of prose or poetry) before I read their work. I believe – very strongly as it happens – that a work of fiction should be able to stand on its own without any additional information. This is where I’m probably not the ideal reviewer for this pamphlet because I have read many of the poems that appear in this collection when Marion first posted them in draft which she has a habit of doing, leaving them up for a few days and then she deletes the post. The problem is when I read a poem like ‘Brenhilda’ (St Ronan's sister), which was inspired by The Guga Hunters by Donald S. Murray, I can remember our exchange and how I made a flippant remark about Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung – the most famous of the valkyries was Brunhilde – besides knowing nothing about saints, well, what was I to think?

Is a poem a bad poem if you need additional information to appreciate it? I believe it is. Which is why I would have done one of two things with the poem, actually my favourite poem in the collection, ‘The Red Road’ – I would have added a footnote to explain why the poem was written or I would have left it out. Poets have used footnotes before – look at T.S. Eliot’s footnotes to ‘The Waste Land’ or Beckett’s notes to ‘Whoroscope’ – and they have their place. First here’s the poem sans commentary:

The Red Road

The morning scent of spring
colours the sky
above the Red Road

close your eyes.

Swallow this bitter butterfly,
let its wings expand in your throat
(as we tie ourselves together with rope).

Mother, father,
at cloud-height,
the clouds form crosses in the sky.

God will catch us.

The frost-thumbed grass will cry
with our broken bones alone
(the furniture of our souls),

for we are citizens of the sky.

If you don’t know the story you might assume that ‘Red Road’ is being used as a metaphor (especially since there’s an earlier poem entitled ‘Bramble Street’) – red indicative of blood perhaps? – but although that would work the simple fact is that Red Road is a real place, the location of the infamous Red Road flats home to a great many of Glasgow’s asylum seekers. On 7 March 2010 the following report appeared in The Guardian:

Police are investigating a suspected suicide pact after three people apparently threw themselves from a high-rise block of flats in Glasgow.

The identities of the two men and a woman were still unconfirmed last night, but unofficial reports said that they were Kosovan nationals whose applications to stay in the UK had been rejected.

The bodies were found yesterday morning at the foot of a tower on the Red Road complex in the Springburn area of north-east Glasgow. Several witness reports, later categorically denied by Strathclyde police, said at least two of the three were tied together when they fell.

The flats, many of which are unoccupied, were among the highest in Europe when they were built in the 1960s.[4]

The lack of context, for me at least, completely changes the poem; it diminishes it. I cannot read it now and interpret it any other way. I asked Marion why leave the poem to stand on its own merits:

I considered adding a footnote but ultimately decided against it. Adding a footnote would reduce the impact of the poem to a particular event, time and place allowing the poem to become too easily dated. Pound famously said: “poetry [actually he said ‘literature’] is news that stays news”[5], I didn’t want the poem to become old news. Although it is based on a specific incident, I believe a good poem should be able to rise above the specifics and have a more universal and long-term impact.

It’s a fair point, one which the Scottish poet Archibald MacLeish echoed when he wrote:

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

(from ‘Ars Poetica’)

With this singular exception most of the references to real things and places, although unfamiliar to most people, e.g. The Captayannis in poem of the same name can be looked up easily. In this case Wikipedia tells us:

The Captayannis was a Greek sugar-carrying vessel that sank in the River Clyde, Scotland in 1974.

Even ‘drookit’, one of the few Scotticisms that finds its way into the book, is not hard to find c/o Literal Barrage:

(droo·kit) Dialect, chiefly Scot ~adj.
1. drenched, soaked through. (used in “Ah fell in the burn an’ got drookit”)

Yes, this is a book of Scottish poetry, but if you have that shortbread-tin perception of Scotland you’ll be disappointed. The poems here are primal, even a poem like ‘Ultrasound’ feels very un-twenty-first century:


Mists drag
their foamy nets
across the lochside hills.

In the darkness you shine
like a silver fish.
Flesh leaping: arms, feet, head;

a heartbeat, unseen,
The black screen of my womb,

a brackish bed
of reef, kelp, coral.
Skin webbed to translucent skin,

child of my monochrome dream.
The road here ends in evergreen
where the wind chudders

over the Fyne,
and waters rise and fall
on pebble shores.

I think this a good example of what Marion was talking about when she refers to nature as something she clothes her subjects in.

I’m always interested to hear how other poets structure their poetry. When is it a poem and when is it chopped-up prose and is it just a poem because someone says it is? This is why I was pleased to learn that real effort goes into these poems:

I think I think too much about the process, I'm too self-conscious, too aware when I start writing. I've got this mad idea in my head that I want every poem I write to count, to be really meaningful to me, to tell me something. And because of this I struggle to write a poem just for the fun of it. It's counter-productive, this self-imposed pressure is immensely unconducive to writing. – Poetry in Progress, 24 May 2010

I mainly break my lines according to natural pauses when I read it aloud and what I particularly want to emphasize. For a long time (so it seemed to me) I was stuck writing in three-line verses, I found it hard to shake that off. Now I've found a freedom in not keeping to the same number of lines in every stanza but this introduces the problem of when to have a stanza break and how does it look on the page if, for instance, I have a three-liner followed by a two-liner followed by a one-liner! – Poetry in Progress, 4 March 2010

It's a rejection letter that Marion received from Chapman, Scotland's quality literary magazine, the editor, Joy Hendry, said to her that her poems had reached the 'final selection' but hadn’t made the final cut. That in itself is something of an achievement but what is noteworthy is that, rather than your bog-standard rejection slip, she got a personal response which she wrote about in her blog (10 September 2008):

The letter says: "I very much like these poems, and enjoyed reading them. You have real poetic talent. There's a lovely sense of the music of words, of rhythm and a sense of form and focus. Descriptively, these are first rate".

Now, I’m reading in between the lines here, but I’m wondering if what Joy found missing was content. Marion continues:

So what's the problem? The letter goes on to say "I'm looking for that extra 'something', a 'third dimension' of meaning, reference and relevance, which is largely missing here".

There are lots of different kinds of poetry. Marion and I write very different kinds of poetry and both are equally valid. My poetry could only be regarded as better than hers if you’re looking for straight-talking, predominately literal writing where meaning dominates, not that feeling is ignored but it definitely is subservient. This is what Marion says about poetry:

I don't feel the need to comprehend a poem to enjoy it, was it Pound [actually it was Robert Lowell[6]] that said a poem should be an event in itself not just the recording of an event. I look for a poem I can experience rather than read and empathise. I loved Plath's poetry long before I knew anything about her life or understood what a good number of her poems were about, for me they were an experience of words on the level of the senses. – Poetry in Progress, 11 July 2008

Marion’s poems are things to be experienced. Her readings are events in themselves. In sounding out her poems by way of durational, intonational, pitch, stress and loudness variation she ramifies the text. To ramify means “To extend; to spread (in various directions); to grow in complexity of range.” (OED) When I listened to her read without the text in front of me I was forced to confront her poems anew – quite literally these were different poems to the ones I thought I knew – and I got to experience the poem rather than read or simply hear the poem read. Did I get the poems? I don’t know. I certainly got something from her reading and I think part of what I got was an appreciation – if not necessarily a comprehension – of what she is on about above.

This seems like a good point to bring in the lady herself but you’ll have to wait for that. In the next part of this introduction to Marion McCready’s poetry a few questions about poetry: writing it, reading it, reciting it and getting it.

In the meantime let me provide links to a number of poems still available online:


[1] Samuel Beckett in a letter to Alan Schneider quoted Disjecta: miscellaneous writings and a dramatic fragment, p.109

[2] For those unfamiliar with MacDiarmid’s poetry I’m referencing his most famous poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’

[3] The London literary gazette and journal of belles lettres, arts, sciences, etc for the year 1820, p.297

[4] Severin Carrell and Aidan Jones, ‘Three dead in suspected suicide leap from flats in Glasgow’, The Guardian, 7 March 2010 (edited 8 March 2010)

[5] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading, p.29 and the actual quote is: "Literature is news that STAYS news" although innumerable textbooks misquote him and fail to reference the quote anyway.

[6] The phrase was delivered in one of Lowell's lectures, and is quoted in Robert Lowell, interviews and memoirs, by Robert Lowell, Jeffrey Meyers, p.291

Friday 24 June 2011


Bed UK

I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day – Linda Evangelista, misquoted[1]

Why? It’s not a big question. It is, however, the key question of David Whitehouse’s novel, Bed. Sometimes doing nothing is the only thing to do, the right thing to do. Doing nothing isn’t always being lazy or uncaring. A mother who does nothing while her child struggles to cope with some task is probably desperate; desperate to run to their assistance, but what does she do? She stands there and watches them fall, fail, perhaps, over and over again because, as her own mother probably told her, “You’ve got to learn to do it for yourself.”

When Malcolm Ede decides one day not to get out of bed his mother and father have “the biggest argument” his younger brother, the book’s narrator, had ever overheard:

‘Stop cooking for him, waiting hand and foot on him, and he’ll have to get out of bed. Don’t you see?’ Dad had said. Not for a second did he consider that this might actually happen.

‘He can’t starve,’ Mum said, her voice shaped powerfully.

‘He won’t starve.’

‘He’s my son and I’ll look after him if he needs looking after.’

‘You’re a fucking martyr, you are!’

‘Go up in your loft. Don’t you worry about anyone else.’

The next morning I asked Mal to stop. To get out of bed and carry on. I reminded him about his flat. About his job. About Lou. I begged him. But it had begun. It had most definitely begun.

Seven thousand four hundred and eighty-three days later Mal is still in bed and a lot has happened in the twenty years since he first decided to abandon his previous life, his job, his flat, his girlfriend (Lou), move back in with his parents and crawl back into the single bed he occupied as a boy growing up. For one thing, he has grown, considerably . . . gigantically! And in all this time his mother has done nothing; nothing apart from continue to take care of his every need. Of course his demands on her have also grown because eventually he can do nothing bar feed himself. His father has also done nothing; nothing apart from hide in the loft doing whatever it is that he does up there because no one is allowed up there, especially when he’s working on whatever it is he’s working on. Mal’s brother has done nothing; nothing apart from trying to get on with his life, a life where no one knows him for who he is anymore; people stop him in the street and say, “Aren’t you Mal Ede’s brother?” Lou does nothing, nothing apart from erecting a tent in the family’s garden and taking up residence therein hoping that this display of . . . love? solidarity? I don’t know . . . might have some effect.

So there’s a lot of nothing going on in this book; nothing apart from waiting to see what happens when Mal finally gets out of bed. The blurb on the back of the book says:

Twenty years in bed. Mal’s death is the only thing that can save this family, because his life has destroyed it. And here I am, at the end, sharing this room with him. The room we began in.

But, why? It’s not that no one thinks to ask him why but for years the only people he will have anything to do with are his immediate family. When Lou comes calling she is sent away empty-handed. He refuses point-blank to speak to her. It’s left to his brother to communicate with her:

Lou arrived eventually. Her eyes were tropical spiders, red rings with faint black legs.

‘Why?’ she said.

I said I didn’t know.

‘I love him,’ she said, and then she wept.

Every last ounce of what was inside me squeezed up inside a tight rubber ball and bounced around my body.

I watched Lou leave, back to her father. So did Mum, through a slit in the curtain.

The next chapter jumps to the end of the first year.

In this short time Mal had become our sun, our lives in his orbit. The rings we were forced to travel around him were getting smaller and smaller, pulled further in.

This is the first time the press come calling. They’re not allowed entry; in fact the only thing they go away with is the realisation that no one appears to know why he is doing what he’s doing (not doing?). Still, it makes the next evening news accompanied by some footage “taken from over the garden fence, of [his mother] trimming Mal’s toenails.” Not long thereafter the first fan mail arrives, if you discount the love letter Lou passed to Mal’s as-good-as-nameless brother to hand onto Mal but which ended up in the rubbish:

It was purposely pressed into the rotting meat and bones at the bottom, soaking up the unloved juices of that evening’s meal. But not before I pressed it to my own cod-tinged lips just in case.

Bed USYou would think considering Mal’s size and the fact that he’s forced so many people to put their lives on hold and attend to his needs that the book would also revolve around him as the centre of its universe. Yes, he looms large in it (if ‘large’ will suffice) but he is not its focal point: that would be . . . at this point I stopped and thumbed through the book but I’ll be damned if I could find Mal’s brother’s name and that’s not simply because he’s the narrator; no one ever seems to refer to him directly by name; in fact the only time he get’s called anything it’s ‘Mr. Ede’ which was of no help at all. This book is primarily about Mal’s brother, his love for Lou and their love for Mal. I wondered why David had chosen to keep him nameless:

Mal's brother spends the duration of the book, over four decades, in Mal's shadow. Everywhere he goes people ask him if he is Mal's brother. Robbing him of an identity of his own seemed to heighten that sense of his having an ability to establish himself away from Mal. People get his name wrong at points... that was just something I found funny to do to a narrator.

This book could have easily been called The Fattest Man in the World because that is what Mal becomes, an enormous turkey that his mother effectively spends “[t]he latter years of her life … basting … lifting it, turning it and coating its flesh without the reward of a hearty meal.” The descriptions of Mal’s condition (and conditions – he is not a well man by the end) are graphic. Whitehouse describes how his ring disappears inside the fat on his finger and how the bedclothes have begun to bond with his body. It’s not always comfortable reading especially if, like me, you tend to steer clear of those Channel 5 shows about unfortunate individuals with gross physical deformities like tree trunks for legs. But as often as we’re drawn into Mal’s orbit – the story jumps between past and present – this is still Mal’s brother’s story. This is what David had to say about the novel’s title when I asked him:

Ha. No, the title was Bed from the very beginning. I never considered it a book about the fattest man in the world[2]. It's a book about family and home. It just so happens that the world's fattest man is at its centre.

BedWe begin with the brothers as young boys. Even then Mal draws the eye, not for doing nothing, but for what he does do, much of which involves public nudity. I did wonder at the start if Mal had something wrong with him but other than being a bit on the eccentric side, there is nothing up with him. The first time Lou sees him he’s not in class, he’s standing out in the pouring rain after which he marches “straight into the office of the headmaster and demand[s] to have a lesson on the subject of rain, before passing out on the carpet.” When asked – in the hospital recovering from pneumonia – he does have an answer this time:

‘Seeing how wet I could get,’ he said.

Okay, not the cleverest of answers – it belies a certain innocence – but at least he had an answer and he has an answer why he decided to take to his bed. We don’t learn it until page 293 of a 296-page book but it’s a perfectly reasonable reason. My question was: When did Mal think of it? Come to think of that, when did David Whitehouse think of it? I decided to ask him:

The answer came as I was writing the book, at least in part. His actions are a reaction to a disillusionment with mediocrity, with adulthood, with the broken promises of childhood – that was clear from the outset. That is what the book was always going to be about. So that, in one respect, is 'why'. But there needed to be something else, something in his actions that meant Mal wasn't just some kind of tyrant. An element of altruism, if you like. So that's what I had to arrive at, how that was portrayed, and it wasn't until some way into the book I found that which was altruistic that could be taken from his experience was possibly something good for his family. … Mal had that as answer from the outset, even if I didn't.

So where did he come up with the premise?

The idea came from me being unemployed and with no money to really do anything, finding myself being happy in bed. Clearly, as a fan of not meeting bailiffs, this couldn't continue. But I began to fantasise about what would happen if it could. And I'm interested in societal dropouts. I imagined taking to bed being the purest form of that. I think it’s a very brave thing to do, in a way, dropping out. I've always wished I was brave enough. I liked the idea that going to bed could be a form of rebellion.

The Bookseller called this novel “momentous”. It certainly has its moments although I’m not sure that “momentous” is the right word for this book. “Momentous” suggests something . . . ‘mountainous’ keeps coming to my mind, something to be scaled but it’s really not that kind of book. It’s not a grand book. Let’s face it, a lot of its (in)action takes place in a bedroom. It’s a chamber piece and, well, you just don’t call chamber pieces “momentous”. I prefer how the reviewer in The Observer put it: “Sad and funny and pretty brilliant, too” and I have to agree with that: that hits the nail on the head. Is it perfect? No, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a perfect novel. I’ve certainly never written one.

My own personal gripe is that I would have liked a bit more of that first year. We jump from day four to the end of the first year and I had questions, practical questions, procedural questions: when did he stop going to the toilet or bathing for example? Considering how short the chapters are – there are eighty-four in the book – a couple of pages could have dealt with that but that’s me being nit-picky, that’s all. This is an excellent book. As soon as I got my review copy I made a start on it and I’m usually quite good at taking books in their turns. And, of course, once I’d started I couldn’t put it down. I felt guilty about griping so I gave David an opportunity to respond:

That's a fair gripe I think. In response, it simply never occurred to me as such. Also, I never wanted to describe him as a human – or at least I wanted to avoid doing so as much as possible. That's why I stayed away where possible from issues about the toilet etc. I didn't want it to seem graphic and real. The whole notion of going to bed and becoming the fattest man in the world is so strange, so abstract, that I tried where possible to dehumanise it in terms of its physicality. I guess the emotions I describe related to the act are human, but in my physical descriptions of Mal's metamorphosis I could be describing a planet, or a strange sea creature. Something difficult to imagine. I never wanted it to be that explicit.

That said, I'm aware that it's fairly graphic at points. A fine line I guess.

One last thing to think about: when David’s agent at William Morris, Cathryn Summerhayes, sent this book out “to every publisher in the country, confident of landing a deal … the manuscript was roundly rejected by everyone.”[3] What can I say? They’re idiots. But obviously that’s not the end of the story:

Summerhayes would not forget the book, and when she heard of something called the To Hell with Prizes award, in which agents were encouraged to submit the best unpublished novel currently languishing in their bottom drawers, she entered it. The very same manuscript that had been turned down by everyone three years previously proved now, according to a judging panel that included a novelist, a playwright, an editor and a bookseller, to be the unanimous winner. Whitehouse received a cheque for £5,000, and then watched bemused as his book became the subject of a fierce bidding war.[4]

I would be curious to learn what happened to the runners up, because if Summerhayes hadn’t been so diligent one of them would have won. Just a thought.

You can read the opening to the book here but I think this extract is more interesting because it doesn’t focus on Mal.

And can I just take a moment comment on the clever British cover? This is classy book design. The US cover is okay but the UK one is inspired. What adds to its classiness is that it’s embossed; the collar and the buttons are raised. It feels good. Very well done.

Let me leave you with the UK trailer to the book. The US trailer can be viewed here. The only difference is the book cover.

BED by David Whitehouse - UK trailer from James Lees on Vimeo.


David WhitehouseDavid Whitehouse was born in 1981. His journalism has appeared in Sunday Times Style, the Independent, Esquire, Time Out, Observer Magazine and has won awards from The Times and the Evening Standard. His first short film, The Archivist, screened at film festivals including Seattle and Berlin. In a Q+A on the Simon & Schuster site David reveals that one of his previous jobs was writing lonely heart ads and if he was only allowed to eat one thing for the rest of his life he’d choose Walkers Salt and Vinegar Crisps. Bed is his first novel and he lives in London.

This is what he’s up to at the moment:

I've just finished the script for a short film called Ending which shoots in Scotland in the summer with Sigma Films. It's about the last four people in the world, who all happen to be bored teenagers. And I've started, though only recently, a new novel called Mobile Library. It's early days. Seems I have forgotten how to do anything.

Oh, and he does have an older brother who is neither bed-bound or obese.


[1] She actually said: “We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”

[2] In the book Mal’s weight is estimated at “a hundred stone” (1400lbs). At the moment the world record is held by Manuel Uribe who, at his heaviest, weighed 1235lbs. At birth a baby elephant will weigh about 250lbs, if that puts these figures in perspective.

[3] Nick Duerden, Is an award the only way to guarantee an author's shelf life?, The Independent, 9 June 2011

[4] Ibid

Sunday 19 June 2011

I have nothing to say


“The most valuable thing we can do for the to let it rest…” May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

30th April

I have nothing to say. If that were true – and as much as I feel it to be true I doubt if it is – how do I feel about having nothing to say? Guilt is probably the first thing but then I feel guilt with greater ease than I feel anything else so I shouldn’t be surprised when I find that to be the case. So why do I feel guilty? Quite simply because I feel I ought to be writing. I like to call myself a writer but I only feel comfortable using that appellation when, as I am at this very moment, engaged in the physical act of writing. Having completed a piece of writing however there is a residual effect; I can feel like a writer for, oh, several days afterwards even though I have written nothing in that time and thought about writing nothing.

The last thing I wrote was about a week ago. I wrote a poem that pleased me and piece of flash which did not. The poem pleased me because it arrived out of thin air whereas I deliberately sat down to write the flash piece with submission in mind, not something I generally do, but Carrie said the piece was fine and so I submitted it despite my reservations. The poem made me happy and that was enough. But, as I’ve just said, a week has passed and I’ve not written anything.

That’s not true. I’ve written two book reviews but they don’t count. Even though the mechanics are the same, fingers clattering over a keyboard (this very keyboard), and I still get to try to do clever things with words, I don’t feel the same about reviews. I want to write something new. It’s not that long since I finished my novel. You would have thought that I’d be basking in that success for weeks but the glow I felt when I finished it didn’t last much longer than the poem I wrote last week.

I feel I ought to be writing. But I have nothing to say, nothing that matters to me. At the moment some of my friends are working on poems for a celebration of Ginsberg but I’m not. Had it been a celebration of William Carlos Williams I might have had a crack at it but Ginsberg does nothing for me. I don’t care about Ginsberg and I don’t care about not joining in with my peers. Caring is clearly important when it comes to writing.

I could pick a topic out of thin air and write something about it. Or better still, let’s try an experiment. There’s a book lying on the table next to my desk (The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock) and I’m going to open it on page thirty and pick the fourth noun (today is April 30th): the word is whisky; not something I’m fond of, but let’s give it a go:


He didn’t hide the bottles
it is true but then neither
did he leave them on display.

He drank to help himself sleep;
that is what he told himself
and us, his conscience and God.

God knew different and so
did we. I don’t know what his
conscience knew or thought it did.

I can’t stand the stuff myself,
whisky I mean, although I’m
not fond of the truth either

if I’m totally honest.

30 April 2011

Bells_Whisky_10clOkay, I cheated a bit. The fourth noun was actually ‘Dad’s’ as in ‘Dad’s whisky’ and so that’s why I started thinking about my dad’s drinking.

How do I feel just now? The answer is: better. I’ve written a poem. Okay, it’s not the best poem I’ve ever written but it works. It’ll get a number (#1055) and go in the big red folder.

So I did have something to say. And the truth is there is always something to say. So why is it we let ourselves feel as if we have nothing to say? The answer is because feelings are unreliable. We misread them all the time. Or if not exactly misread, we oversimplify them. I want to write another novel. Correction, I feel I ought to write another novel. I want to write one too. I like the idea of having written another novel. I imagine that I’ll feel more of a writer if I’ve written six novels as opposed to five. (Stupid, I know.) I like writing poems too. I actually like writing poems more than I like writing novels. But I still feel I ought to be writing a novel.

If I’m being honest then I’m disappointed that I wrote a poem and not the opening paragraph of a new novel. I never set out to write a poem. I just wrote the opening few words without much thought and the next thing I knew I was working on a poem. At what stage did I realise it was a poem and not prose? At the end of the first sentence, the only part of the poem not to be tweaked in some small way, I had an idea but by the time I’d written that second sentence I knew for sure, not that I paused for any length of time before drafting the third stanza.

Could this be the opening to a piece of prose? Let’s see:

He didn’t hide the bottles it’s true but then neither did he leave them out on display. He drank to help himself sleep, so he said; that’s what he told himself, us, his conscience and his god. God no doubt knew different and so, in time, did we. I can only imagine what his conscience knew or thought it knew. I can’t stand the stuff myself, whisky I mean, although I’m not fond of the truth either if I’m being totally honest. Lies slip down without any effort. Truths are harder to swallow and come back on you. There are consequences to both of course. It can be every bit as hard to live with a lie as it can a truth – I should know. I prefer lies diluted with just a drop or two of the truth.

Certainly that’s how it started with my father, innocently enough, just a wee nip to push him over the edge. A guy at work was selling the good stuff cheap, no questions asked, and Dad was never one to turn up his nose when it came to a bargain. Before that I’d never seen him touch anything stronger than Martini Rosso (it wasn’t as if he was teetotal or anything) but he never darkened the door of a pub and always handed over an unbroken pay packet. When that cheap source dried up though Dad found he couldn’t go back – he now needed his tipple before bed – so a bottle found its way into the weekly shopping – Tesco’s own brand – and when that wasn’t enough half-bottles started to find their way into the rubbish bin, no questions were asked. Lies grow in most conditions but one of their favourites is silence.

1st May

Not a bad start but I’m not sure how much farther I could go with this. For starters it’s too much like biography for my tastes, too reliant on the truth even though I’m not sure of all the facts. I don’t care about the truth. The poem is better. It is anonymous. I know I’m talking about my dad but no one else will. So who’s this next poem about?


She did not offer me any
nor did I expect her to
knowing it was her last.

Quickly I became aware
of my mouth filling with
clichés and platitudes
till I felt sick.

But I forced myself to swallow
and the truth nearly choked me.

28 September 1986

Actually it’s my sister. It’s also about drink but it could just as easily be about crack cocaine or cake. In the piece of prose the reader is reduced to voyeur. I give him all the details. He can do little more than watch. In the poems there is room for him to get involved, to speculate.

I said I felt as if I had nothing to say but those are the only two poems written as an adult that involve drink bar this one:


I drink so much
to drown the taste of myself
and to blur my vision of you.

21 July 1989

which is not about anyone. I’ve certainly never turned to drink in times of trouble. When my first wife left me I went to the corner shop and bought a box of Munchmallows. So why don’t I say more about the evils of drink? I think the real reason is that so much has already been said and I’m not sure I have anything significant to add, anything that would make a difference. No, that’s all rubbish. I don’t write for anyone but me – there’s nothing altruistic about my writing – I don’t write about the demon drink because I don’t care about it. I’m clearly capable of writing more about it – I probably gave that first poem about a minute’s thought before I started typing – but it’s not what I want to write about, not what I feel I ought to be writing about.

snowmanHow much could I have written about while I was sitting around waiting to write about what I ought to be writing about? Is ‘The Things We Knew’ a masterpiece? No, but that doesn’t mean that it has no right to exist. Masterpieces last. They will be playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a hundred years, in five hundred years. I’m not sure one could say the same about Howard Blake’s Diversions for Cello and Orchestra. Why? – is it crap? No, far from it. It’s a wonderful piece of music. Have a listen to a few snippets here if you want proof. I bought a copy in John Menzies on Sauchiehall Street. It was in a bargain bin and probably cost me 99p or £1.99 or something ridiculous like that. I personally think it is a masterpiece but what’s my opinion worth. Odds are The Snowman will still be around in a hundred years time (yes, he wrote that too) and as charming as that is I’m not sure it is a masterpiece; it’s just popular because of the film.

5th May

I’ve not looked at this post for a few days. I got caught up in a blog about voyeurism as it happens but I also found time to write another poem, this time inspired by a comment I made on one of Lis Hanscombe’s posts. I’m not sure it’s any better than ‘The Things We Knew’ but it came naturally and that’s how I like my poems to come. In that respect I do find the Internet a real source of inspiration: you never know what you’re going to read about next.

A body at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an external force. I wrote that down a few days ago at the end of this post. I’ve just stumbled across it again. I don’t believe in muses or inspiration, not in the way the Romantics did, but I am aware that we are the sum of our experiences and I can only draw of what I’ve been exposed to. And there is a randomness to all of this. If I’d decided to write that poem today and not on the 30th of April then my noun would have been ‘anyone’ and I’m sure I could have done something with that too.

(I just had a go and wrote a few lines about a killer sitting on top of a roof trying to decide who to shoot first since, according to the law, every life is the same. He finally decides to shoot the fourth person wearing a red top answering to the higher law of probability. The idea is okay but I didn’t like the poem and scrapped it. I may come back to it later. Perhaps it might work as a piece of flash.)

Anyway, how do I feel today? Do I feel I ought to be writing? Not so much today. bc_milligan_tnNow I have two blogs on the go and I’m nearly finished reading The Book of Lies which means I’ll have a book review to write. What I really should be doing is editing Milligan and Murphy if I want to get it out by this Autumn. It’s all good.

Writing is like weight training. I did a bit of that in my early twenties. My first wife had left me and so I set up a bench in the living room and trained most nights. Now it would kill me to do a dozen push ups. The thing about weight training is that it is a process, a sequence more like: you eat, digest (very important), exercise, rest (equally important) and repeat. The resting also includes healing. You cannot just exercise day after day. Well you can because I did but you don’t exercise the same muscles two days in a row. You have to give them time to rest. It’s easy to resent the resting bit. It feels like wasting time because you don’t feel like you’re doing anything. But you are. And it is important that you recognise that you are.

Now I really ought to read a few chapters of that book.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain


If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we'd be so simple that we couldn't. — Ian Stewart, The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World

I didn’t write this review and so if it’s a crap review don’t blame me, blame my brain. The same goes if it’s a brilliant and insightful review because I won’t be able to take credit for that either. And if I’m reading David Eagleman right then he also can’t take credit for his excellent book. It was his brain. But isn’t our brain simply a part of us? Yes, in purely physical terms, if we accept that everything you and I are is contained within the physical framework that is our bodies. But who are you really? I’m not myself today – how often have you said that or had that said to you? And you know exactly what people mean when they say that but, seriously, if they’re not themselves then who are they? And we’re not talking about schizophrenics or people with dissociative personality disorder, we’re talking about you and me, your parents, your kids, your neighbours and workmates. If you lose a leg, do you stop being you? What about your prefrontal cortex?

What is the purpose of a book? Broadly-speaking to entertain and/or educate. There is no doubt whatsoever that Eagleman does both in this book. This is science for the rest of us, an update on where they are at the moment. Not that long ago the breaking news was mapping the human genome, before that the discovery of DNA and a while before that the surprising new revelation was the fact that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, the ramification of that last one being that humans were also not the centre of the universe. In fact, over the centuries, our place in that universe has become ever smaller and smaller. Now our place in the universe-that-is-ourselves – the I that I am – is under threat: if I am not the centre of my own universe then who am I and who’s running the shop?

I don’t read popular science books. I don’t tend to watch popular science programmes on TV. I don’t actively avoid them but then neither do I seek them out. My brain mustn’t like them. I tend to find most could say what they have to say in ten minutes but they insist on padding everything out to fill an hour slot. Although there are one or two lulls in Incognito one thing I really cannot say is that you don’t get your money’s worth. It is crammed full of interesting facts and figures but mainly facts; he doesn’t burden us with pages and pages of scientific data, graphs, charts, diagrams, just nice round numbers. I mean, seriously, when you start quoting figures in billions and trillions all that I hear is “very very big” and I bet you do too.

I’ve been using the first person pronoun, ‘I’, up until now purely for convenience. I used to have a fair decent handle on who I was but after reading this book I am far from certain. I always thought that ‘I’ consisted primarily of the conscious part of me: I like Star Trek, I like chocolate, I like to write. Apparently it’s not that simple. Okay, so am I the sum of my experiences then? Yes and no. Scientists have argued for years over the whole nature vs. nurture view of human development and the view that Eagleman takes is that both are contributory factors (even though we choose neither one) but it is primarily who we are (our chemistry) that affects how we react to whatever life throws at us.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Actions as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. His has published considerable amounts of scientific research so is an actual, real scientist. This is not something he’s sat down and researched in his local library in order to write a book and make a few bucks, this is what he does day in and day out and he just happens to have written a book about it. His main interests are time perception, synaesthesia and neurolaw (punishments that fit the brain, not the crime) and it’s the last of these that really caught my interest, which he deals with in Chapter 5 of the book, ‘Why Blameworthiness in the Wrong Question’. You see the thing about discovering new things is that we often have to reassess how we treat people. There was a time people got burned alive at the stake for hearing voices. Joan of Arc springs to mind. She was probably suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy:

When brain activity is kindled in the right spot, people hear voices. If a physician prescribes an anti-epileptic medication, the seizures go away and the voices disappear. Our reality depends on what our biology is up to.

Now, that’s not such a new thought. People have suggested that Joan may have been schizophrenic in the past but the simple fact is we will never know for sure. The authorities judged her based on what they believed to be true at that time. Had the technology been available she might not have been burned at the stake, she might have been lobotomised instead. We now regard both treatments as barbaric and I’m reminded of Star Trek IV where, after listening to two 20th century doctors discussing treatments in an elevator, Doctor McCoy turns to Kirk and says, "Sounds more like the goddam Spanish Inquisition." As Eagleman puts it:

Keep in mind that every single generation before us has worked under the assumption that they possessed all the major tools for understanding the universe, and they were all wrong, without exception. Just imagine trying to construct a theory of rainbows before understanding optics, or trying to understand lightning before knowledge of electricity, or addressing Parkinson’s disease before the study of neurotransmitters. Does it seem reasonable to you that we are the first ones lucky enough to be born in the perfect generation, the one in which the assumption of a comprehensive science is finally true?

And if Star Trek chronology is to be believed then it looks like McCoy didn’t/won’t live long enough to see a dermal regenerator in common use in Starfleet sickbays. The point is that our understanding is growing all the time and the more we understand the more we realise we don’t yet understand. Take neuroimaging as an example. The history of neuroimaging, began in the early 1900s with a technique called pneumoencephalography and you would have thought in the last century that the technology would have improved in leaps and bounds and it has:

[N]euroimaging remains a crude technology, unable to meaningfully weigh in on assessments of guilt or innocence, especially on an individual basis. Imaging methods make use of highly processed blood flow signals, which cover tens of cubic millimetres of brain tissue. In a single cubic millimetre of brain tissue, there are some 100,000,000 synaptic connections between neurons. So modern neuroimaging is like asking an astronaut in the Space Shuttle to look out of the window and judge how America is doing. He can spot giant forest fires, or a plume of volcanic activity billowing from Mt. Rainier, or the consequences of broken New Orleans levies – but from his vantage he is unable to detect whether a crash of the stock market has led to widespread depression and suicide, whether racial tensions have sparked rioting, or whether the population is stricken with influenza.

And we have much the same problems when we look at ourselves. We see the things we do and assume that we’re the one doing them. So what about Kenneth Parks, a 23-year-old Toronto man with a wife, a 5-month-old daughter, and a close relationship with his in-laws, a man described by his mother-in-law as a “gentle giant”?

[I]n the wee hours of the morning of May 23, 1987, Kenneth got out of bed, but did not awaken. Sleepwalking, he climbed into his car and drove twenty-three kilometres to his in-laws’ home. He broke in and stabbed his mother-in-law to death, and then assaulted his father-in-law who survived; He then drove himself to the police station. Once there, he said, “I think I have killed some people . . . my hands,” realising for the first time that his own hands were severely cut.

That Kenneth did the deed is not an issue. Whether he is culpable is another matter. There is a condition, believe it or not, called homicidal somnambulism and after testing it was discovered that Kenneth was not acting of his own free will and was subsequently found innocent. Sounds incredible but we accept Tourette’s sufferers effing and blinding and most of us will be aware of alien hand syndrome so is it really so incredible what Kenneth did?

The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot, or whether there is some little bit that is “free” to choose, independent of the rules of biology.

Dark-Side-sleeveThis is what Eagleman explores in the four chapters leading up to this one and he begins with a chapter with a quote from Dark Side of the Moon: ‘There’s Someone in my Head but it’s Not Me.’ (My brain made me play the album twice after reading that chapter.) Beginning here he shows us just how little we know and can trust ourselves. In fact he even demonstrates how consciousness can be an impediment:

[H]and a friend two dry erase markers – one in each hand – and ask her to sign her name with her right hand at the same time that she’s signing it backward (mirror reversed) with her left hand. She will quickly discover that there is only one way she can do it: by not thinking about it. By excluding conscious interference, her hands can do the complex mirror movements with no problem – but if she thinks about her actions, the job gets quickly tangled in a bramble of stuttering strokes.


The conscious mind is not at the centre of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity.

Okay, this is a neat parlour trick and there are plenty more where our body fools us into believing or doing one thing when we ought to be doing another. Magicians have been taking advantage of us that way for generations even if they weren’t aware of the science behind their misdirection skills. But what about something a bit more serious, not as serious as trying to kill you in-laws, but pretty damning: racism.

If anyone was to ask me if I am a racist I know what answer I would give. I know what answer I would be expected to give but I’d like to think I would give the right answer because it was true and not simply to prevent getting myself into trouble. But after reading about poor Mel Gibson in this book I’m not so sure how honest I could be. Let me fill you in. I was aware that Mel Gibson had said or done something a while back that had got him into hot water but I didn’t know the specifics. What happened was this:

On July 28, 2006, the actor Mel Gibson was pulled over for speeding at nearly twice the posted speed limit on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California. The police officer, James Mee, administered a breathalyser test which revealed Gibson’s blood-alcohol level to be 0.12%, well over the legal limit of 0.08%. […] The officer announced to Gibson that he was under arrest and asked him to get into the squad car. What distinguished this arrest from other Hollywood inebriations was Gibson’s surprising and out-of-place inflammatory remarks. Gibson growled, “Fucking Jews…. Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” and asked the officer, “Are you a Jew?” Mee was indeed Jewish. Gibson refused to get into the squad car and had to be handcuffed.

Needless to say the very next day the press got wind of this and a contrite Gibson apologised, as he jolly well should. And he appeared to be sincere. But the question that needs answering is: Is Mel Gibson a bigot at heart? Okay, if a guy can get away with homicide then a small thing like bigotry is going to be easy to wriggle out of you’d think. It is once you realise just how conflicted we are all the time:

There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain; each competing to control the single output channel of your behaviour.

This sounds like it might be a bad thing but we already build social machines of this type: think of a jury of peers in a courtroom trial:

The jurors debate, coax, influence, relent – and eventually the jury coheres to a single decision. Having differing opinions is not a drawback to the jury system, it is a central feature.

Broadly-speaking Eagleman reduces these factions to the rational and the emotional but he admits that there will be many more involved. He does this a lot in the book as you might expect; looks for simple examples and illustrations to make his points. And he manages it quite effectively.

Probably one of the best is where he describes consciousness as the CEO of a large company, a large company of zombies actually:

As long as the zombie subroutines are running smoothly, the CEO can sleep. It is only when something goes wrong (say, all departments suddenly find that their business models have catastrophically failed) that the CEO is rung up.


This may be the way in which our conscious minds – who play only a small part in our total neural function – really shine.

But what if the CEO, as in the case of Mel Gibson’s, was incapacitated due to overindulging in tequila? Some people believe that a drunk never lies, indeed the Romans used to use alcohol as a kind of truth serum (in vino veritas – in wine there is the truth), but all we can truly state about what was said on the night of July 28, 2006, is that Gibson is capable of anti-Semitism:

In the end, we can reasonably speak of someone’s “most dangerous” colours, but “true” colours may be a subtly dangerous misnomer.

In the final chapter Eagleman allows himself space to ponder: What is the soul? Is there a connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness? Do human minds interact with the stuff of the universe? These are questions perhaps more suited to philosophers than scientists but who says you can only be one or the other?

This is a fascinating book not simply because it’s crammed full of interesting stories like the blind woman with Anton's syndrome who believed she could see (if you asked her how many fingers you were holding up she’d give you an answer) or the mass murderer who asked for his brain to be examined after his death to see if something had changed to make him behave the way he found himself compelled to behave (yes, a dirty great tumour) or the fact that if you carry a particular set of genes your probability of committing a violent crime goes up by 982% (no, I didn’t miss out a decimal point). What is really scary is that all the evidence Eagleman has amassed points to the fact that “we are not the ones driving the boat of our behaviour, at least not as much as we believe.” This has certainly made me pause and think. I’m not sure it excuses everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life but it has made me think about my actions a little differently; to open myself up to other possibilities like the fact that the first girl I ever fell in love with’s name began with a ‘J’ might not have been a coincidence because apparently more of us marry people whose names begin with the same letter as ours does than you would reasonably expect.

The book is not perfect, however. On the website Brian Clegg point out a couple of faux pas:

We are told that the visible universe is 15 billion light years across – probably a factor of 5 out. Eagleman suggests that Galileo's near-contemporary Bruno was burned at the stake for rejecting an Earth-centred universe – which he wasn't. (He was burned at the stake, but for heretical religious views, not his science.)

but admits that these “aren't huge errors” and goes on to give the book 5-stars. I agree with him wholeheartedly on this particular point: “One good mark of the mary-the-elephanteffectiveness of this book was that I couldn't resist telling people about a couple of things I read here.” The example he gives is about the fact that some women have a fourth colour receptor in their eyes, so would see colours and colour matches differently but the simple fact is that this is the kind of book that you want to share. I keep thinking of bits I wish I’d told you, like the fact that someone once hanged an elephant: Murderous Mary, a five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus, was hung by the neck from Derrick Car 1400 on September 13, 1916. You can read all about it here. Also Thomas Edison also once electrocuted an elephant. (I think those are the only pachyderm-related factoids from the book.)

Not every reviewer has been as charitable. Alexander Linklater had this to say in The Observer:

This book belongs to a popular trend of neuro-hubris wildly overstating the ramifications of a science that is still in its infancy. The true fascination of neuroscience lies not in bombastic philosophical claims but in the fine detail of brain function, illustrations of the mind-brain problem, and the human interest of case histories. There isn't even that much actual neuroscience in Incognito. Its illustrations are drawn just as much from the annals of evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and more traditional forms of psychology.

He probably has a point. I’m not clever enough to argue in his defence. Barbara Melville in her review for The Scottish Review of Books has some quibbles about the way the book is organised and the length of certain chapters. I think her points are valid; I found the last chapter a bit out of place when he starts conjecturing but I still don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions you don’t have answers to. As Stewart Hotston says in his review on his blog, The Universal Library:

[O]ne shouldn't forget that he is a scientist not a philosopher and so his method is particular to his training. It's not a great sin to be accused of, because at least he's looking for new ideas and explanations to fit the data that we have now.

I am grateful to one Amazon reviewer from California who had this to say:

There was an interesting profile of the author recently published in New Yorker magazine (April 25, 2011, p. 54-65). For me it made the book even richer by having first read the profile, to understand the interests, motivations, and background of the author. If you are interested in reading this book, you may enjoy reading the New Yorker profile first.

The whole article is online and you can read it here. Normally I’m not especially interested in the author and like to judge a book on its own merits but I did find this interesting especially the fact that wrote his first words at the age of two, on an Underwood typewriter. I was easily five before I got anywhere near my dad’s typewriter.

I expected to find some people who absolutely ate up everything Eagleman has to say and also those who were more cautious in what they chose to praise but this is a hard book to dislike and I certainly didn’t hate it. Probably the harshest opinion was one, again on Amazon, where the reviewer wrote the whole thing in capitals. This is the salient bit: “THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT THIS IS A DANGEROUS BOOK WRTTTEN IN A FRIENDLY WAY; BUT REMEMEBER IT IS ONLY ONE VIEW OF HOW THE HUMAN BRAIN WORKS.(sic)”

If it comes to that this is a claim that could be levelled against so much literature in so many fields in the past from Freud on although I’m not sure how friendly Freud’s writing style was. If this review has piqued your interest, buy it, read it, make your own mind up or, if Eagleman is right (I really should be addressing all of this to your brain); he’s the one in charge anyway and has probably already made your mind up for you.

You can read an extract from the book here.

Let me leave you with a video of the author talking:

There’s also a video profile on the PBS site here but you can’t view it in the UK. There's also an audio podcast here and a radio interview here.


eaglemanDavid Eagleman grew up in New Mexico to a physician father and biology teacher mother, where he attended the Albuquerque Academy. An early experience of falling from a roof raised his interest in understanding the neural basis of time perception. As an undergraduate he majored in British and American Literature at Rice University, with his junior year abroad at Oxford University, graduating in 1993. He earned his PhD in Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in 1998, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute. He serves on the editorial boards of the scientific journals PLoS One and Journal of Vision. He directs a neuroscience research laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine. Eagleman sits on several boards of arts organizations, and is the youngest member of the board of the Long Now Foundation. In 2011 he was named a Guggenheim Fellow. Eagleman has written several neuroscience books—including Unsolved Mysteries of the Brain; Dethronement: The Hidden Hegemony of the Unconscious Brain; The Dynamically Reorganizing Brain; Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synaesthesia, and a book of fiction titled Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.

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