The running man

From Born to Run

by Christopher McDougall

The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, are a Native American people from northwestern Mexico, renowned for their long-distance running ability. In their language the term rarámuri refers specifically to the men. This passage was read at Sir Christopher Chataway’s memorial service, held at St John’s Church on 19th March 2014, a brilliant celebration of a wonderful life. Chris was one of Britain’s most famous athletes. He held the world record for the 5,000 metres and paced Roger Bannister for the first 4-minute mile. Though running was his passion, he was so much more; a highly successful businessman, government minister and chair of the international development charity ActionAid to mention just a few. A great man and a good friend too.

Borntorun1

‘That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath, mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle – behold, The Running Man. Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten: you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love – everything we sentimentally call our ‘passions’ and ‘desires’– it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run: We were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.’

Borntorun3

‘Oh me? I eat anything!’

This story illustrates the smug self-satisfaction of the seasoned traveler. I’ve included it because it has the power to make people squirm, simply because of its subject matter. When I’ve told this tale in public, grown adults have begged me to stop.

By Ken Burnett

It’s a great thing to visit the work and see for yourself. Stories just leap out at you, particularly in Africa, or anywhere in the developing world.

I was in Cambodia, with the charity ActionAid, on a private though semi-official visit as former chairman of the board. I was given some time off to see the country and, as I always do wherever I go, I was telling my hostess, a delightful young Cambodian woman called Boromey, that, of course, I have no dietary restrictions. Boromey was charged to take Marie and me out to lunch, and had asked out of simple politeness.

‘Oh me, I eat anything,’ I replied, with the smug self-assurance of someone who when in Rome, habitually does what the Romans do.

‘Would you like to try a Cambodian delicacy?’ she asked.

‘Of course’, I replied.

‘Ok she said. And I swear she smiled, sweetly but just a bit slyly.

The appetizers were brought, a rare Cambodian delicacy indeed. Three large, hairy tarantula spiders, deep fried but cold, accompanied by a small amount of bitter, quite revolting pepper sauce. I nearly fell off my chair. Boromey fixed me with a gimlet eye.

‘You did say…’
KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
The beer can is strategically placed to give you an idea of the scale of this brute. Marie declined. I was firmly hoisted on my own wretched petard.

Tarantula
I thought the legs might be least revolting, because they looked crisp and not too hard to digest. This was a mistake. They were soft and chewy, pliable but covered in hairs and quite stringy. Not at all nice. And there were eight of them!

Then came the head. The abdomen had looked so bad I decided to leave it till last. But the head was about as revolting as I could take. Its soft skin was filled with a kind of puree, a pungent, sticky blackish-red paste. But it wasn’t some confectionary put in there by some chef with a twisted sense of macabre humour. It was whatever tarantula spider’s heads are habitually filled with, rendered into a horrid paste. It was execrable.

Then came the abdomen, the big body of the beast.

I was now sweating profusely and feeling squeamish indeed. But I gamely struggled on and ate the thing, to its last, obnoxious drop. The body was full of a greenish, more liquid fluid of very uncertain origins. Boromey was by now rolling between the tables with laughter.

Boromey and Keshav
Boromey and Keshav back at the office, looking very pleased with themselves.

OK, so I deserved it. But however long it takes, I will get even with Boromey, one of these days.

I’ll invite her to Scotland and offer her haggis. Only I’m sure she’ll like it.

Tripe and dripping, perhaps? Any ideas welcome.

The President’s Task Force

From Relationship Fundraising, by Ken Burnett, Wiley 2002.

This story is and example of supporter recognition par excellence. It’s included here because it shows that donors and volunteers want to be involved in their favourite causes and will happily go along with whatever creative ways we can find to make that involvement real. This story was first told to me by an eminent American database expert called John Groman.

Donors want to be involved in their favourite causes. Even if they clearly understand it as a device designed to secure their involvement, they appear not to mind at all. The joining of a structured scheme gets them in on the inside, usually at a very modest cost. Fundraisers and campaigners should capitalise on this compulsion to belong. Voluntary organisations have a clear and very desirable product in involvement schemes, one that is so far under-developed in many countries.

A classic example of how completely this can work in practice was the launching of the President’s Task Force, an elite donor group established by Ronald Reagan’s office shortly after his election in 1981 as president of the USA. Of course the qualification to join the President’s Task Force was that you should give a minimum donation – $10 each month – to campaign funds. Large numbers of patriotic Republicans rushed to do their duty, trading a small amount of their disposable cash for the recognition and reward that went with being able to tell friends and neighbours that they were a member of the President’s Task Force.

Various pieces of commemorative paraphernalia were produced and distributed in case members had to prove their status to doubting acquaintances who needed physical evidence of their friend’s important role in the affairs of slate. These included a ‘presidential medal of merit”, a presidential medal of merit lapel pin, a model American flag, which was dedicated en masse at a special ceremony in the White House, and inscription of the donor’s name on the ‘presidential roll of honour’. There was even an exclusive ‘members only’ Task Force telephone hotline.
Donors, of course, loved it. For just $10 a month this was real value for money. Most of all to encourage the authentic feel of the campaign the fundraisers had produced stationery that was the exact facsimile of the President’s writing paper. Colour printed and embossed, laser personalised and signed it looked exactly as it would had the President himself taken time out from his busy schedule to write a personal note to Elmer E Rosenblum, or whomever, to acknowledge his individual contribution and stress its importance to America.

More than a few of these letters were framed and hung in a prominent place in the family home so that visitors could be easily subjected to an hour or so’S dissertation on Elmer’ 5 sacrifice for his country.

Across the length and breadth of the entire United States, thousands of Republicans took their membership of the President’s Task Force very seriously indeed – and the dollars rolled into the President’s office as a result. Sustained by a brilliant direct marketing campaign of record and reward, the President’s Task Force gave its donors something beyond price – the prestige of practical involvement in something they believed in. As such it simply used the best of technique and technology, plus a forgivable amount of kitsch, to establish the ideal relationship fundraising proposition, an ongoing relationship where both donor and recipient could benefit in equal amounts, at the end of which a clear financial and practical target could be reached.

In relaying the case history of the ‘President’s Task Force’ at the International Fund Raising Workshop in Holland, John Groman of Epsilon Data Management provided an anecdote which summed up the power of the campaign.

Late one evening a motor-cycle patrolman flagged down a speeding motorist on one of America’ 5 interminable inter-state highways. With customary leisurely grace he strolled up to the driver, who appeared to be in something of a hurry, and proceeded to ask him to provide his driving licence and evidence of insurance. Without a word, but inwardly seething at the delay, the driver – it may even have been Elmer E Rosenblum – got out of his car and led the patrolman firmly by the hand round to the back of the car, to the enormous boot (or trunk) of his Cadillac. Still without a sound, but with a gesture of magnificently righteous indignation, he flung his hand dramatically down to point out the large and very official-looking bumper sticker which prominently proclaimed the ‘President’s Task Force’ and indicated that the driver was, in fact, nothing less than a member.

The patrolman was astounded. He stammered a fulsome apology, saluted, swore it wouldn’t happen again and waved his distinguished visitor happily on his way. I don’t know that the patrolman escorted Elmer across the state line with lights flashing and sirens wailing, but I like to think he did.PTF1

Clancy, of the Overflow

By AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Banjo Paterson wrote ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and is one of Australia’s most famous and respected poets, so much so that he’s featured on Australia’s $10 banknote, along with an illustration based on another of his epics, ‘The man from Snowy River’. But this, in my view, is his finest work. It helps if you read it in an Australian accent, but  just read it any way you want to, for it’s simply brilliant, however you do it.
Banjo 1

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
   Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
   Just "on spec", addressed as follows: "Clancy, of The Overflow".


And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
   (And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
   "Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are."


In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
   Gone a-droving "down the Cooper" where the western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
   For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.


And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
   In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
  And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.


I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
    Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
   Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.


And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
   Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
   Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.


And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
  As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
   For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.


And I somehow fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
   Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal -
   But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of "The Overflow".

The Bulletin, 21 December 1889.

The cremation of Sam McGee

by Robert Service

This poem, from ‘Songs of a Sourdough’, is simply a delight. As of course are so many of the poems of Robert Service. He regaled armchair adventurers with gripping yarns of the wild Canadian Northwest— the 49ers, rough men braving hardship on the lonely frontier in pursuit of ‘the muck called gold.’

Service 2

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

 

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

 

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

 

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

 

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

 

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

 

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

 

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

 

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

 

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

 

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

Service 1

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.

 

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

 

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

 

Home

Storytelling1
Some shortcuts to great stories

Adventure: The gorilla.
Delight: Love the taste of words.
Action: One in the eye for Hitler.
Squirm: A mastectomy, before the discovery of anaesthetics.
Tenacity: A tortoise crosses the road.
Wonder: Rough sex down by the river.
Feel good: What happens when a homeless guy does the right thing?
Bizarre: The strange case of Mr Phineas Gage.
Exploration: First meeting with a ghastly creature, the witch-finder Gagool.
Survival: How to eat a salamander.
Gruesome:‘Oh me, I eat anything…’
Satire: A solution to the rising birth-rate among the urban poor.

 

An uplifting solution

It’s inner city Glasgow, 1975, and a new teacher takes on some hard men and wild women who’ve been kept behind at school.

by Isobel Robertson 

Teaching secondary school is an awesome responsibility even at the best of times. I like this story because it shows that winning is possible whatever the odds, that even the hardest and toughest of youngsters can be reached.

43 Scotland's tawse

‘Take a deep breath, it can’t possibly be as bad as you imagine.’ I tried hard to convince myself that I would cope splendidly. Turning the door handle I stepped across the threshold into the lions’ den.

Thirty pairs of eyes swiveled to ‘clock’ my entrance, sullen 15-year-olds, the cream of the ROSLA kids. ROSLA, Raising Of the School Leaving Age, passed amid crisis and panic within the teaching profession, had just become the latest piece of genius theory to reduce unemployment numbers. These were the first class forced to stay the extra year in school, with no discernable syllabus, resources, or goodwill. And here they were, sitting in my classroom, thinking they’d rather be anywhere else. I pulled myself up to my five feet four inches, tried best as I could to scowl and marched to the comparative safety behind my desk.

The next few weeks were hell on earth. I tried a host of topics related to my geography degree; environment, weather, town planning, country capitals, quizzes, puzzles….even ‘draw your granny!’ The cries of ‘useless’ and ‘boring’ rang in my ears each night as I trudged home to mark jotters with nothing in them, or worse, comments I’d rather not decipher.

Then there was the discipline.

Matthew Mills was the worst. He goaded me every day, trying to force me to give him the TAWSE, or strap, a leather belt Scottish schools used as an instrument of punishment, even torture. I had decided, as a cultured human being, I would never give ‘the belt’. I could remember the pain I had suffered when it made rapid contact with my tender palms and fingers. Matthew was the leader of the pack and eventually I had to do it. I extracted him from the class; no way was I going to belt him in front of his adoring public. He was over six feet tall. I got a stool to stand on. Then I issued a warning. 

‘So help me, if you move your hands I’ll go straight into that class and tell your boys just what a coward you are.’

Then I hit him as hard as I could. And another twice for luck! His face was predictably impassive. I hadn’t really hurt him.

Then, unbelievably, he said, ‘Aye, you’re no bad.’

Things really improved after that, but in my professional opinion I was not doing a good job. Discipline had recovered, but what to do about the education part of my job? I had access to transport; I had imagination and a supportive head of department pleased to sign off any idea as long as he was not asked to participate. And I had a cousin who managed a factory on the edge of Glasgow. It was a small factory but part of an industrial estate. So began the germ of an idea.

In those days there was negligible focus on Health and Safety or parental consent and in any case most of these kids were untraceable in the evening hours, their parents or parent being only too glad of their absence. I did prepare. I thought about learning outcomes and rationale. They’d see a production line, see working in a team, learn about economics, advertising and so on. Some of these kids would end up working in a factory. I had my link to industrial geography.

All set! Seatbelts on in a minibus full of excited ROSLAs. On this their first ever field trip were Matthew and his pals plus five girls, with the distinctly unlovely Janice among them. Janice was a ‘big lassie’ and a member of the Orange band. Yes, the type that marches the streets throughout the marching season to the stress and discomfort of the city of Glasgow Police. Janice played the horn but her voice alone sufficed to create a deep bass background to any tune. With Janice and Matthew on board we left the playground, my heart fluttering in my chest.

‘Aw muss, gonae pass they busses so we can gie them the finger?’ ‘Certainly not. We must get there safely children.’

And safely we did arrive, amid raucous laughter, at our first stop, the lightbulb factory. But sadly the experience left the kids unenlightened. On to watch paint dry at a paint outlet on the industrial estate. Few questions were asked and little interest shown. I was thinking the whole thing was a disaster but I did have my trump card, my cousin’s factory. As we drew up outside the Lovable Bra Factory there was a gasp from the crew.

We entered the building to be met by Gordon. He gave them the uplifting story of the company and explained the production line. We were ushered in to the factory space where rows of Glaswegian ladies at their Singer sowing machines were blathering away nineteen to the dozen. Reams of pink, black, neon lace, ribbon and wire for the DD cups. I had never seen the boys or Janice so quiet and riveted.

The banter and the chat from the women was pure Glaswegian. Finally a brassy redhead addressed Matthew

‘Ah son, d’ya fancy a job on this line, eh?’

Immediate response,

‘Nah. Ma job’ll be taking them aff!’

Much hilarity all round. And the laughter continued all the way home with hearty singing and even a ‘thanks miss’ at the end.

I had found a breakthrough. The kids had to finish the term and we managed to get there but life for me was tolerable and I actually had a new group of minders in the school.

‘Aye, she’s ok her. Gie her some slack eh?’

Tawse2

The Making of the Eye

by Sir Charles Sherrington

This is the finest description I’ve read of the wonder of life. It’s long, but oh-so worth it. I’ve included this extract in full because it’s a story everyone should read at least once, just to taste the sheer miraculousness of it. The English physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) won a Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work on the nervous system of mammals. Experimenting on cats, dogs, monkeys and apes that had had their cerebral hemispheres removed, he showed that reflexes must be regarded as integrated activities of the whole organism. He coined the words ‘neuron’ and ‘synapse’ to mean the nerve cell and the point at which the nervous impulse is transmitted from one cell to another. His book Man and His Nature (1940) presents man – both mind and body – as the product of natural forces acting upon the materials of our planet. This extract is from the second edition, 1951.

The eye
Can then physics and chemistry out of themselves explain that a pin’s-head ball of cells in the course of so many weeks becomes a child? They more than hint that they can. A highly competent observer, after watching a motion-film photo-record taken with the microscope of a cell-mass in the process of making bone, writes: ‘Team-work by the cell-masses. Chalky spicules of bone-in-the-making shot across the screen, as if labourers were raising scaffold-poles. The scene suggested purposive behaviour by individual cells, and still more by colonies of cells arranged as tissues and organs.’[1] That impression of concerted endeavour comes, it is no exaggeration to say, with the force of a self-evident truth. The story of the making of the eye carries a like inference.

The eye’s parts are familiar even apart from technical knowledge and have evident fitness for their special uses. The likeness to an optical camera is plain beyond seeking. If a craftsman sought to construct an optical camera, let us say for photography, he would turn for his materials to wood and metal and glass. He would not expect to have to provide the actual motor power adjusting the focal length or the size of the aperture admitting light. He would leave the motor power out. If told to relinquish wood and metal and glass and to use instead some albumen, salt and water, he certainly would not proceed even to begin. Yet this is what that little pin’s-head bud of multiplying cells, the starting embryo, proceeds to do. And in a number of weeks it will have all ready. I call it a bud, but it is a system separate from that of its parent, although feeding itself on juices from its mother. And the eye it is going to make will be made out of those juices. Its whole self is at its setting out not one ten-thousandth part the size of the eye-ball it sets about to produce. Indeed it will make two eyeballs built and finished to one standard so that the mind can read their two pictures together as one. The magic in those juices goes by the chemical names, protein, sugar, fat, salts, water. Of them 80 per cent is water.

Water is the great menstruum of ‘life’. It makes life possible. It was part of the plot by which our planet engendered life. Every egg-cell is mostly water, and water is its first habitat. Water it turns to endless purposes; mechanical support and bed for its membranous sheets as they form and shape and fold. The early embryo is largely membranes. Here a particular piece grows fast because its cells do so. There it bulges or dips, to do this or that or simply to find room for itself. At some other centre of special activity the sheet will thicken. Again at some other place it will thin and form a hole. That is how the mouth, which at first leads nowhere, presently opens into the stomach. In the doing of all this, water is a main means.

Dragonfly eye2 Dragonfly’s eyes.
The eye-ball is a little camera. Its smallness is part of its perfection. A spheroid camera. There are not many anatomical organs where exact shape counts for so much as with the eye. Light which will enter the eye will traverse a lens placed in the right position there. Will traverse; all this making of the eye which will see in the light is carried out in the dark. It is a preparing in darkness for use in light. The lens required is biconvex and to be shaped truly enough to focus its pencil of light at the particular distance of the sheet of photosensitive cells at the back, the retina. The biconvex lens is made of cells, like those of the skin but modified to be glass-clear. It is delicately slung with accurate centring across the path of the light which will in due time some months later enter the eye. In front of it a circular screen controls, like the iris-stop of a camera or microscope, the width of the beam and is adjustable, so that in a poor light more is taken for the image. In microscope, or photographic camera, this adjustment is made by the observer working the instrument. In the eye this adjustment is automatic, worked by the image itself!

The lens and screen cut the chamber of the eye into a front half and a back half, both filled with clear humour, practically water, kept under a certain pressure maintaining the eye-ball’s right shape. The front chamber is completed by a layer of skin specialised to be glass clear and free from blood-vessels which if present would with their blood throw shadows within the eye. This living glass-clear sheet is covered with a layer of tear-water constantly renewed. This tear-water has the special chemical power of killing germs which might inflame the eye. This glass-clear bit of skin has only one of the fourfold set of the skin-senses; its touch is always ‘pain’, for it should not be touched. The skin above and below this window grows into movable flaps, dry outside like ordinary skin, but moist inside so as to wipe the window clean every minute or so from any specks of dust, by painting over it fresh tear-water.

The light-sensitive screen at the back is the key-structure. It registers a continually changing picture. It receives, takes and records a moving picture life-long without change of ‘plate’, through every waking day. It signals its shifting exposures to the brain.

This camera also focuses itself automatically, according to the distance of the picture interesting it. It makes its lens ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ as required. This camera also turns itself in the direction of the view required. It is moreover contrived as though with forethought of self-preservation. Should danger threaten, in a moment its skin shutters close protecting its transparent window. And the whole structure, with its prescience and all its efficiency, is produced by and out of specks of granular slime arranging themselves as of their own accord in sheets and layers and acting seemingly on an agreed plan. That done, and their organ complete, they abide by what they have accomplished. They lapse into relative quietude and change no more. It all sounds an unskilful overstated tale which challenges belief. But to faithful observation so it is. There is more yet.

The little hollow bladder of the embryo-brain, narrowing itself at two points so as to be triple, thrusts from its foremost chamber to either side a hollow bud. This bud pushes toward the overlying skin. That skin, as though it knew and sympathized, then dips down forming a cuplike hollow to meet the hollow brain-stalk growing outward. They meet. The round end of the hollow brain-bud dimples inward and becomes a cup. Concurrently, the ingrowth from the skin nips itself free from its original skin. It rounds itself into a hollow ball, lying in the mouth of the brain-cup. Of this stalked cup, the optic cup, the stalk becomes in a few weeks a cable of a million nerve-fibres connecting the nerve-cells within the eye-ball itself with the brain. The optic cup, at first just a two-deep layer of somewhat simple-looking cells, multiplies its layers at the bottom of the cup where, when light enters the eye – which will not be for some weeks yet – the photo-image will in due course lie. There the layer becomes a fourfold layer of great complexity. It is strictly speaking a piece of the brain lying within the eye-ball. Indeed the whole brain itself, traced back to its embryonic beginning, is found to be all of a piece with the primordial skin – a primordial gesture as if to inculcate Aristotle’s maxim about sense and mind.

The deepest cells at the bottom of the cup become a photo-sensitive layer – the sensitive film of the camera. If light is to act on the retina – and it is from the retina that light’s visual effect is known to start – it must be absorbed there. In the retina a delicate purplish pigment absorbs incident light and is bleached by it, giving a light-picture. The photo-chemical effect generates nerve-currents running to the brain.

The nerve-lines connecting the photo-sensitive layer with the brain are not simple. They are in series of relays. It is the primitive cells of the optic cup, they and their progeny, which become in a few weeks these relays resembling a little brain, and each and all so shaped and connected as to transmit duly to the right points of the brain itself each light-picture momentarily formed and ‘taken’. On the sense-cell layer the ‘image’ has, picture-like, two dimensions. These space-relations ‘reappear’ in the mind; hence we may think their data in the picture are in some way preserved in the electrical patterning of the resultant disturbance in the brain. But reminding us that the step from electrical disturbance in the brain to the mental experience is the mystery it is, the mind adds the third dimension when interpreting the two dimensional picture! Also it adds colour; in short it makes a three dimensional visual scene out of an electrical disturbance.

All this the cells lining the primitive optic cup have, so to say, to bear in mind, when laying these lines down. They lay them down by becoming them themselves.

Cajal, the gifted Spanish neurologist, gave special study to the retina and its nerve- lines to the brain. He turned to the insect-eye thinking the nerve-lines there ‘in relative simplicity’ might display schematically, and therefore more readably, some general plan which Nature adopts when furnishing animal kind with sight. After studying it for two years this is what he wrote:

The complexity of the nerve-structures for vision is even in the insect something incredibly stupendous. From the insect’s faceted eye proceeds an inextricable criss-cross of excessively slender nerve-fibres. These then plunge into a cell-labyrinth which doubtless serves to integrate what comes from the retinal layers. Next follow a countless host of amacrine cells and with them again numberless centrifugal fibres. All these elements are moreover so small the highest powers of the modern microscope hardly avail for following them. The intricacy of the connexions defies description, before it the mind halts, abased. In tenuis labor. Peering through the microscope into this Lilliputian life one wonders whether what we disdainfully term ‘instinct’ (Bergson’s ‘intuition’) is not, as Jules Fabre claims, life’s crowning mental gift. Mind with instant and decisive action, the mind which in these tiny and ancient beings reached its blossom ages ago and earliest of all.

Fly's eye Fly’s eyes.
... The human eye has about 137 million separate ‘seeing’ elements spread out in the sheet of the retina. The number of nerve-lines leading from them to the brain gradually condenses down to little over a million. Each of these has in the brain, we must think, to find its right nerve-exchanges. Those nerve-exchanges lie far apart, and are but stations on the way to further stations. The whole crust of the brain is one thick tangled jungle of exchanges and of branching lines going thither and coming thence. As the eye’s cup develops into the nervous retina all this intricate orientation to locality is provided for by corresponding growth in the brain. To compass what is needed adjacent cells, although sister and sister, have to shape themselves quite differently the one from the other. Most become patterned filaments, set lengthwise in the general direction of the current of travel. But some thrust out arms laterally as if to embrace together whole cables of the conducting system.

Nervous ‘conduction’ is transmission of nervous signals, in this case to the brain. There is also another nervous process, which physiology was slower to discover. Activity at this or that point in the conducting system, where relays are introduced, can be decreased even to suppression. This lessening is called inhibition; it occurs in the retina as elsewhere. All this is arranged for by the developing eye-cup when preparing and carrying out its million-fold connections with the brain for the making of a seeing eye. Obviously there are almost illimitable opportunities for a false step. Such a false step need not count at the time because all that we have been considering is done months or weeks before the eye can be used. Time after time so perfectly is all performed that the infant eye is a good and fitting eye, and the mind soon is instructing itself and gathering knowledge through it. And the child’s eye is not only an eye true to the human type, but an eye with personal likeness to its individual parent’s. The many cells which made it have executed correctly a multitudinous dance engaging millions of performers in hundreds of sequences of particular different steps, differing for each performer according to his part. To picture the complexity and the precision beggars any imagery I have. But it may help us to think further.

There is too that other layer of those embryonic cells at the back of the eye. They act as the dead black lining of the camera; they with their black pigment kill any stray light which would blur the optical image. They can shift their pigment. In full daylight they screen, and at night they unscreen, as wanted, the special seeing elements which serve for seeing in dim light. These are the cells which manufacture the purple pigment, ‘visual purple’, which sensitizes the eye for seeing in low light.

Then there is that little ball of cells which migrated from the skin and thrust itself into the mouth of the eye-stalk from the brain. It makes a lens there; it changes into glass-clear fibres, grouped with geometrical truth, locking together by toothed edges. The pencil of light let through must come to a point at the right distance for the length of the eye-ball which is to be. Not only must the lens be glass-clear but its shape must be optically right, and its substance must have the right optical refractive index. That index is higher than that of anything else which transmits light in the body. Its two curved surfaces back and front must be truly centred on one and the right axis, and each of the sub-spherical curvatures must be curved to the right degree, so that, the refractive index being right, light is brought to a focus on the retina and gives there a shaped image. The optician obtains glass of the desired refractive index and skilfully grinds its curvatures in accordance with the mathematical formulae required. With the lens of the eye, a batch of granular skin-cells are told off to travel from the skin to which they strictly belong, to settle down in the mouth of the optic cup, to arrange themselves in a compact and suitable ball, to turn into transparent fibres, to assume the right refractive index, and to make themselves into a subsphere with two correct curvatures truly centred on a certain axis. Thus it is they make a lens of the right size, set in the right place, that is, at the right distance behind the transparent window of the eye in front and the sensitive seeing screen of the retina behind. In short they behave as if fairly possessed.

I would not give a wrong impression. The optical apparatus of the eye is not all turned out with a precision equal to that of a first-rate optical workshop. It has defects which disarm the envy of the optician. It is rather as though the planet, producing all this as it does, worked under limitations. Regarded as a planet which ‘would’, we yet find it no less a planet whose products lie open to criticism. On the other hand, in this very matter of the eye the process of its construction seems to seize opportunities offered by the peculiarity in some ways adverse of the material it is condemned to use. It extracts from the untoward situation practical advantages for its instrument which human craftsmanship could never in that way provide. Thus the cells composing the core of this living lens are denser than those at the edge. This corrects a focussing defect inherent in ordinary glass-lenses. Again, the lens of the eye, compassing what no glass-lens can, changes its curvature to focus near objects as well as distant when wanted for instance, when we read. An elastic capsule is spun over it and is arranged to be eased by a special muscle. Further, the pupil – the camera stop – is self-adjusting. All this without our having even to wish it; without even our knowing anything about it, beyond that we are seeing satisfactorily.

The making of this eye out of self-actuated specks which draw together and multiply and move as if obsessed with one desire namely to make the eye-ball. In a few weeks they have done so. Then, their madness over, they sit down and rest, satisfied to be life-long what they have made themselves, and, so to say, wait for death.

The chief wonder of all we have not touched on yet. Wonder of wonders, though familiar even to boredom. So much with us that we forget it all our time. The eye sends, as we saw, in to the cell-and-fibre forest of the brain throughout the waking day continual rhythmic streams of tiny, individually evanescent, electrical potentials. This throbbing streaming crowd of electrified shifting points in the spongework of the brain bears no obvious semblance in space-pattern, and even in temporal relation resembles but a little remotely the tiny two dimensional upside-down picture of the outside world which the eyeball paints on the beginnings of its nerve-fibres to the brain. But that little picture sets up an electrical storm. And that electrical storm so set up is one which affects a whole population of brain-cells, Electrical charges having in themselves not the faintest elements of the visual – having, for instance, nothing of ‘distance’, ‘right-side-upness”, nor ‘vertical’, nor ‘horizontal’, nor ‘colour’, nor ‘brightness’, nor ‘shadow’, nor ‘roundness’, nor ‘squareness”, nor contour’, nor ‘transparency’, nor ‘opacity’, nor ‘near’, nor ‘far’, nor visual anything – conjure up all these. A shower of little electrical leaks conjures up for me, when I look, the landscape; the castle on the height, or, when I look at him, my friend’s face, and how distant he is from me they tell me. Taking their word for it, I go forward and my other senses confirm that he is there.

It is a case of ‘the world is too much with us’; too banal to wonder at. Those other things we paused over, the building and shaping of the eye-ball, and the establishing of its nerve connections with the right points of the brain, all those other things and the rest pertaining to them we called in chemistry and physics and final causes to explain to us. And they did so, with promise of more help to come.

But this last, not the eye, but the ‘seeing’ by the brain behind the eye? Physics and chemistry there are silent to our every question. All they say to us is that the brain is theirs, that without the brain which is theirs the seeing is not. But as to how? They vouchsafe us not a word.

Source: Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature, 2nd edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1951. Taken from the Faber Book of Science, edited by John Carey.


[1] E.G.Drury, Psyche and the Physiologists and other Essays on Sensation (London 1938), p.4.

Two avoidable deaths, one sad, the other…well, less so

The story of Robert Scott of the Antarctic
and Anna Bågenholm, from Norway.

This story borders on unbelievable. It shows unambiguously the dividends made possible thanks to advances in research usually funded through small, seemingly insignificant gifts made by private individuals acting alone.

Though, try telling Anna Bågenholm they’re insignificant.

I’ve included it because Scott was a childhood hero of mine, because such stories as Anna’s are rare and thrilling and because I like endings to be happy, at least some of the time.
Scott of the Antarctic

It’s 29th March, 1912. Trapped in his hut deep in the Antarctic wastelands at the bottom of the world a 43-year-old British adventurer is slowly freezing to death. The weather outside is dreadful. He’s been marooned for days, slowly starving. The last of his companions has already died and he is now alone. Frostbite has taken hold. Skin ulcers cover his emaciated body. As his body’s temperature falls, one after another its normal functions cease. Heartbeat, breathing rate and blood pressure all drop catastrophically. Speech becomes difficult. Shivering grows uncontrollable. Mental confusion steadily increases, amnesia too. Exposed skin stands blue and puffy. Muscles fail. Even his hair stands on end in a hopeless, involuntary action to preserve vanishing heat.  Clinical death will occur soon after, though due to the extreme cold, brain death might be postponed for some time. It is a fearsome end.

Skiers Fast forward 87 years, to 1999. In the northern Norwegian wilderness an intrepid 29-year-old skier falls, twists onto her back and, out of control, slides into a ravine. In seconds she’s careened into a fast-flowing stream that sweeps her to where the flow vanishes under thick ice. She can’t move as her body is wedged tightly beneath the ice by the water’s fierce flow. Two friends racing behind catch her skis just in the nick of time to stop her from being swept away, but in the snow and the wild terrain they can’t haul her out from that icy mountain stream. Little by little she’s sucked ever more under. Now she too is slowly freezing to death.

Forty minutes after being trapped in the icy water her struggles slowly ceased. Minutes later her heart stopped beating. Her body now was completely still. By the time the rescue helicopter arrived her heart hadn’t beaten for nearly an hour and a half. By then, she was technically dead. Still paramedics in the rescue helicopter worked tirelessly against the odds, trying to revive her. By the time her body was handed into the care of Dr Mats Gilbert on the roof of Tromso University Hospital her heart had been stopped for well over two hours.

Both Anna Bågenholm and Robert Falcon Scott froze to death. But unlike Scott and untold thousands before him, more than three hours after her heart stopped beating, Anna Bågenholm was brought back to life.

How could this miracle happen?

Well, in part at least, because of you.

Here is Anna’s incredible story. As you read it, please say aloud to yourself, at the appropriate moment, ‘We did this. When in the past I supported medical research, I helped make this miracle possible. That’s what I, and others like me, that’s what we did.’

Say it now. Say it with pride.

Because it’s true. When you and thousands like you supported the development of those high-risk new research initiatives, this is the kind of thing you were making possible.

Amazingly, the very thing that was killing Anna also helped save her life.

The cold.

In that extreme cold Anna’s body, including her brain and all her life functions, effectively shut down.

How incredible is that?

But the cold alone wasn’t the only thing that saved her. This is the bit where you come in.

Three more modern miracles combined to bring Anna back to life. They’re all available now, even in the frozen north of Norway. Sadly, none of them were there for Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic, nor for thousands of others who died like him.

But they are there now.

The first of these advances has it roots in the makeshift ambulance wagon that appeared in 1795, during the Napoleonic wars, when medics first realized the value of getting to wounded soldiers quickly, before trauma and blood loss reduce survival chances. Anna’s equivalent though was very up-to-date – the flying air ambulance helicopter.

The second life-saver goes back to the last days of World War II, to pioneering experiments on the human heart that led to invention of the heart bypass machine which temporarily takes over the task of circulating blood so that surgeons are free to work on the no-longer-beating heart. In Anna’s case it was circulating her blood – all of it – through a gentle warming process via one of these machines that brought her lifeless carcass back to viability.

The third miracle owes its origins to the fight against polio; to the development of the iron lung and the ‘life support’ system which today routinely saves so many premature babies and others whose fragile bodies struggle just to survive.

Of course other qualities came together to play important parts in the saving of Anna’s life. Persistence, stick-ability, determination, courage, optimism in the face of hopeless odds. Not to mention professional skills that money can’t buy and the best medical facilities that money can.

But as Captain Scott and his colleagues showed such a short time before, in such circumstances human qualities alone, admirable though they are, are not enough. That’s why we promote the research that you support, that day in, day out is saving lives like Anna’s, even as you read this incredible story.

Robert Falcon Scott is presumed to have died on 29 March 1912, or possibly a day later. The positions of the bodies in the tent when it was discovered eight months later suggested that Scott was the last of the three to die. From the Antarctic wastes Scott’s last words echo down the ages with a pathos and resignation that moves us still.

‘We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last…

‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…’

Anna Bågenholm
Anna Bågenholm was very much more fortunate. Thanks to good luck, some brave and brilliant friends, some dedicated, wonderful medical staff and some quite extraordinary advances in medical science, she can tell that tale herself, in the flesh. It’s a triumph made not just possible, but effective, by all who have worked to properly fund research.

That includes you. Yes, you.

Anna has survived that ordeal now for more than 5,000 days. If Anna were able to, I’m sure she’d want to say to everyone who played a part in this modern miracle, ‘thank you for the days’.

Well done, you! Thank you for the days.

A tortoise crosses the road

From John Steinbeck’sSteinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

This story is a metaphor in which Steinbeck compares the easygoing, patient, persistent land turtle, or tortoise, with the dirt-poor, downtrodden farmers of the dustbowl seeking a better life in the far West. I so admire the turtle and how it keeps going. And Steinbeck’s description of it, of course.

John Steinbeck, 1902 to 1968.

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement,

The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.
Land turtle

The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along, and it scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along, and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch. Little by little the shell slid up the embankment until at last a parapet cut straight across its line of march, the shoulder of the road, a concrete wall four inches high. As though they worked independently the hind legs pushed the shell against the wall. The head upraised and peered over the wall to the broad smooth plain of cement. Now the hands, braced on top of the wall, strained and lifted, and the shell came slowly up and rested its front end on the wall. For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armored tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs. And one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg. For a long moment the turtle lay still and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs, and the shell tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher and higher the hind legs boosted it, until at last the center of balance was reached, the front tipped down, the front legs scratched at the pavement, and it was up. But the head of wild oats was held by its stem around the front legs.

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up, two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled, the car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.

And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.