We tell true stories, mostly. And all the better for it.

by John Carey

What follows is an extract from John Carey’s introduction to The Faber Book of Reportage, 1987. Here he explains the distinction we have to think of between writing truth and writing fiction. When Carey refers to reportage he does so in the broad sense, meaning live, on-the-spot news journalism.

 

…if we ask what took the place of reportage in the ages before it was made available to its millions of consumers, the likeliest answer seems to be religion.

Not, of course, that we should assume pre-communication age man was deeply religious, in the main. There is plenty of evidence to suggest he was not. But religion was the permanent backdrop to his existence, as reportage is for his modern counterpart. Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon (reassuring even, or particularly, when the events themselves are terrible, since they then contrast more comfortingly with the reader’s supposed safety). Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself. In all these ways religion suggests itself as the likeliest substitute pre-modern man could have found for reportage, at any rate in the West.

When we view reportage as the natural successor to religion, it helps us to understand why it should be so profoundly taken up with the subject of death. Death, in its various forms of murder, massacre, accident, natural catastrophe, warfare, and so on, is the subject to which reportage naturally gravitates, and one difficulty, in compiling an anthology of this kind, is to stop it becoming just a string of slaughters. Religion has traditionally been mankind’s answer to death, allowing him to believe in various kinds of permanency which make his own extinction more tolerable, or even banish his fear of it altogether. The Christian belief in personal immortality is an obvious and extreme example of this. Reportage, taking religion’s place, endlessly feeds its reader with accounts of the deaths of other people, and therefore places him continually in the position of a survivor – one who has escaped the violent and terrible ends which, it graphically apprises him, others have come to. In this way reportage, like religion, gives the individual a comforting sense of his own immortality.

If reportage performs these social functions it clearly has a social value comparable to that which religion once had. Its ‘cultural’ value, on the other hand, has generally been considered negligible with certain favoured exceptions such as Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which are allowed to be literature because their authors also wrote respectable literary hooks. The question of whether reportage is ‘literature’ is not in itself interesting or even meaningful. ‘Literature’, we now realise, is not an objectively ascertainable category to which certain works naturally belong, but rather a term used by institutions and establishments and other culture-controlling groups to dignify those texts to which, for whatever reasons, they wish to attach value. The question worth asking therefore is not whether reportage is literature, hut why intellectuals and literary institutions have generally been so keen to deny it that status.

Resentment of the masses, who are regarded as reportage’s audience, is plainly a factor in the development of this prejudice. The terms used to express it are often social in their implications. ‘High’ culture is distinguished from the ‘vulgarity’ said to characterize reportage. But the disparagement of reportage also reflects a wish to promote the imaginary above the real. Works of imagination are, it is maintained, inherently superior, and have a spiritual value absent from ‘journalism’. The creative artist is in touch with truths higher than the actual, which give him exclusive entry into the soul of man.

Such convictions seem to represent a residue of magical thinking. The recourse to images of ascent which their adherents manifest, the emphasis on purity, the recoil from earthly contamination, and the tendency towards a belief in inspiration, all belong to the traditional ambience of priesthoods and mystery cults. Those who hold such views about literature are likely, also, to resent critical attempts to relate authors’ works to their lives. The biographical approach, it is argued, debases literature by tying it to mere reality: we should release texts from their authors, and contemplate them pure and disembodied, or at any rate only in the company of other equally pure and disembodied texts.

The superstitions that lie behind such dictates are interesting as primitive cultural vestiges, but it would be wrong to grant them serious attention as arguments. The advantages of reportage over imaginative literature, are, on the other hand, clear. Imaginative literature habitually depends for its effect on a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in audience or reader, and this necessarily entails an element of game or collusion or self-deception. Reportage, by contrast, lays claim directly to the power of the real, which imaginative literature can approach only through make-believe.

It would be foolish, of course, to belittle imaginative literature on this score. The fact that it is not real – that its griefs, loves and deaths are all a pretence, is one reason why it can sustain us. It is a dream from which we can awake when we wish, and so it gives us, among the obstinate urgencies of real life, a precious illusion of freedom. It allows us to use for pleasure passions and sympathies (anger, fear, pity, etc.), which in normal circumstances would arise only in situations of pain or distress. In this way it frees and extends our emotional life. It seems probable that much – or most – reportage is read as if it were fiction by a majority of its readers. Its panics and disasters do not affect them as real, but as belonging to a shadow world distinct from their own concerns, and without their pressing actuality. Because of this, reportage has been able to take the place of imaginative literature in the lives of most people. They read newspapers rather than books, and newspapers which might just as well be fictional.

However enjoyable this is, it represents, of course, a flight from the real, as does imaginative literature, and good reportage is designed to make that flight impossible. It exiles us from fiction into the sharp terrain of truth. All the great realistic novelists of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola – drew on the techniques of reportage, and even built eye-witness accounts and newspaper stories into their fictions, so as to give them heightened realism. But the goal they struggled towards always lay beyond their reach. They could produce, at best, only imitation reportage, lacking the absolutely vital ingredient of reportage, which is the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened.

When we read (to choose the most glaring example) accounts of the Holocaust by survivors and onlookers, some of which I have included in this book, we cannot comfort ourselves (as we can when distressed by accounts of suffering in realistic novels) by reminding ourselves that they are, after all, just stories. The facts presumed demand our recognition, and require us to respond, though we do not know how to. We read the details – the Jews by the mass grave waiting to be shot; the father comforting his son and pointing to the sky; the grandmother amusing the baby – and we are possessed by our own inadequacy, by a ridiculous desire to help, by pity which is unappeasable and useless.

Or not quite useless, perhaps. For at this level (so one would like to hope) reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend – in both directions – their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. Bur since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are – and ought to be – more telling; and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.

What happens when I try to give my Guantánamo guards presents?

From the Reprieve website. See below for details. 

Emad Hassan was abducted by bounty hunters while studying in Pakistan and sold to US forces for $5,000. A simple mistake in the confusion of interrogation sealed his fate – he told his interrogators he knew about ‘Al Qa’idah’, referring to a small village with that name near his hometown in Yemen. Emad was then taken to Guantánamo Bay, where he has been held ever since. He has been on hunger strike since 2007, longer than any other detainee.

Emad has never been charged with a crime and was cleared for release in 2009. But he has lost a third of his life to Guantánamo. These are his words.

 Emad Hassan

While I was being fed, the Block Commander fell down unconscious, his eyes rolled back up into his head, a choking sound came out of his chest and his legs kicked at something invisible. I watched for a second. Then two. Then three. I found myself crying, calling the medical team to come. I was worried about him. I forgot who we both were. The block guards jumped to his aid, trying to help him breathe. He was taken to the hospital.

Believe it or not, I was really worried about him. I tried to analyse my feelings later, but found it odd that I would do so. This is the reaction of any human, surely? But here in Guantanamo, things are different. I’m supposed to enjoy this terrible scene. I’m supposed to be happy to see this man suffer. After all, he is, as the colonel put it, “an enemy”. If he is truly an enemy, then I shouldn’t have called the medical team over, I should not have asked about his condition for the rest of the day. Yet I thanked God for my reaction – it means I am still human.

I agree with Colonel Bogdan the guards here have been suffering. Although he said guards here suffer from PTSD at twice the rate of combat troops and that was an absurd statement. [He later retracted it.] The guards here are suffering because of the inferiority complex with which they live. They are ordered to separate their bodies from their souls and to abandon their humanity, yet this cannot be. They are forced to ignore their emotions and feelings for others. More than that, an important part of them was murdered: Justice, freedom and rights were erased.

These are the principles that they live by and are willing to die for, that’s the fuel that keeps them standing their ground in Afghanistan. So, where is it here? Guards do what they are convinced is wrong and say what they believe is nonsense. Especially the Block Commander who collapsed unconscious.
 This life affected him; it created an imbalance within his personality. This conflict disabled his mind, eyes and ears and instead he used his boss’s mind, eyes and ears. What his boss decided, judged, said – that is what he does. He is a robot.

I once gave a guard a gift, if you can consider chocolate milk a gift. He refused it with a fierce look, as if I was trying to bribe him. I expected the refusal. A refusal like that is nothing new. But why did he react like that? Did the chocolate milk offend him? Did he misunderstand my simple action? I explained why I did what I did. I told him: ‘My religion and morals teach me to appreciate respect and so when you show me respect, I want to give you a gift. I know it is nothing – the chocolate milk, I mean – but as you can see, there are few things I have. If we were living outside in the real world, it would be different. I didn’t mean to offend you, it never came to my mind that such a simple offering would offend you.’

Even after this speech, he refused to accept the chocolate milk. Perhaps he just doesn’t like chocolate milk.
 I continued to give guards small tokens of my appreciation. The medical staff reacted in the same way. Some accepted, but most refused my presents. I had to explain why I was doing this to everyone, particularly the women. It is hard to get beyond their suspicion. I have learned that if you give someone something then you must expect something in return. And no one here – guards, medical staff – wants to give us detainees anything.

They believe it is a risk to accept something from us. Once, one guard saw another guard accept candy bars from a prisoner. The first guard told someone what had happened, and the guard who accepted the candy was punished and moved to another camp while the detainee was targeted and harassed by the guards. 
So now we have been taught as detainees that our job is to hate the guards and we will be punished if we do not do our job.

How many times have I been punished for this reason? Too many. But I refuse to stop. Sometimes the gifts are not just for them, they are for me, they are given to remind me that there is a place for gifts in my heart, to remind me that I am alive and am capable of love, honesty and sincerity.

 

Story reproduced with permission from Reprieve,

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Reprieve’s lawyers and investigators are supported by a community of people from all around the world, connected by a belief in human rights and justice. Together, they fight for the victims of extreme human rights abuses with a combination of public pressure and legal action.

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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. 

Billy Ray Harris and the ring of fortune: what happens when a homeless man does the right thing?

From NBC’s TODAY programme.

‘His spirit has been rejuvenated,’ said Sarah Darling, who accidentally dropped her engagement ring in Billy Ray Harris’ donation cup in February. Harris returned the ring and the story inspired donors around the world. Sarah Darling and her husband Bill have since formed a lifelong friendship with Harris.

 9. Billy Ray Harris
Billy Ray Harris is no longer homeless, after returning a stranger’s ring.

A few short months ago, 55-year-old Billy Ray Harris was homeless. He lived on a street corner in Kansas City, holding out a cup and asking passers-by for spare change. But then, one day, his life changed.

Last February Sarah Darling passed Harris at his usual spot and dropped some change into his cup. But, unbeknownst to her, she also accidentally dropped in her engagement ring. Though Harris considered selling the ring — he got it appraised for $4,000 — he ultimately couldn’t go through with it, and a few days later, he returned the ring to Darling.

‘I am not trying to say that I am no saint, but I am no devil either,’ he said at the time.

‘I was so incredibly upset’, said Sarah Darling, who lost the ring, ‘because, I mean, more than the value of the ring, it had sentimental value,’  

Realising her loss she had returned to the same spot in the Plaza where she had first encountered Harris. Squatting down beside him, she asked if he remembered her.

‘I don’t know.’ Harris replied.  ‘I see a lot of faces.’ Darling then said she may have given him something very valuable the day before. Then Harris then knew exactly who she was.

‘I says, ‘Was it a ring?’ Harris recalled. ‘And she says, ‘Yeah.’

The homeless man then pulled the ring from his pocket and presented it to Darling.

‘It seemed like a miracle. I thought for sure there was no way I would get it back,’ Darling told KCTV5. ‘I think in our world we often jump to like the worst conclusion, and it just makes you realize that there are good people out there.’

Though Harris had lived beneath a bridge and begged for his living in the Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., he says, ‘my grandfather was a reverend. He raised me from the time I was six months old, and thank the good lord, it’s a blessing, but I do still have some character.’

So while Darling rewarded Harris with all the cash she was carrying in her wallet, perhaps even greater reward was the homeless man’s sense of pride that he had done the right thing.

Sarah Darling
Sarah Darling said her concern wasn’t the monetary value of the engagement ring, but its sentimental value.

As a way to say thank you, Sarah and her husband Bill started a fund to raise money for Harris, to help him get his life back on track. ‘We set a goal for a thousand dollars,’ Darling told TODAY in March. ‘We set it up because a lot of people who had been touched by the story expressed interest in helping Billy Ray.’

The fund raised far more than any of them expected — in just three months, people donated more than $190,000. 

Harris talked to a lawyer, who helped him put the money in a trust. Since then, he’s been able to buy a car and even put money down on a house, which he’s fixing up himself.

And that’s not all: After he appeared on TV, his family members, who had not been able to find him for 16 years and had heard rumors he was dead, were able to track him down. They were happily reunited, and Harris is now working on his relationship with them, including nieces and nephews he hadn’t even known existed.

‘When I think of the past, I think, thank God that it’s over,’ he told TODAY. ‘I mean, I feel human now.’

And the Kansas City community hasn’t forgotten about Harris and his good deed. ‘I still see some of the same people,” he says, ‘but only now, instead of coming up and giving me change, they’re coming up shaking my hand and, you know, saying ‘hey, good job’.’

Since the fateful day that Darling’s ring landed in his cup, Billy Ray Harris’ life has done a 180. ‘This is what they call the American Dream,’ he says. ‘I want to thank all the people that helped me out. I want them to see where all their efforts, blessings and kindness is going.’ I got an air mattress now, it’s like living like a king compared to where I was,” he said.

Later the TV station reunited Billy Ray with his family, who he’d fallen out of touch with.

‘I never would’ve thought this,’ Billy Ray Harris said during a joyous reunion with his siblings on the TODAY show on Sunday. ‘This was a total shock.’