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.

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.’

 

 

The strange yet instructive case of Mr Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage, above, was clearing rocks for the US railroad in 1848 when dynamite he’d just placed in a hole was accidentally fired. The heavy metal pole he’s seen holding rocketed through his skull leaving a two-inch tunnel diagonally through his head, tearing away his pre-frontal lobe. Amazingly he not only lived, he sat up beside the buggy driver who took him to the nearest doctor, chatting away. Despite the severity and extent of his injuries he seemed to make an almost complete physical recovery, though it was soon evident that mentally he had changed, significantly. More than 100 years passed before scientists realised that Phineas Gage had been living proof that brain and mind are connected but are not single separate entities. Instead they’re made of several different compartments all with distinct and separate functions.

Or, so it seemed. But nothing to do with the brain is ever simple
. Or uncontroversial.

That summer Mr Phineas Gage was a young man of 25 years, a popular gang boss working on the Rutland and Burlington railway of Boston. He was fit, energetic, strong, a model employee, a pillar of his community. Then he suffered an accident so traumatic it is a miracle he survived yet he survived almost unchanged. Almost, but not quite.

Phineas Gage’s survival was a boon to what was the then unknown, barely even nascent science of neurology. From Mr Gage scientists learned perhaps their single most important insight ever into the workings of the human brain.

At the time of the accident the railroad faced a stubborn outcrop of rock blocking its planned path. Mr Gage’s job was to break these rocks with strategically placed explosives. In this task he employed a straight cylindrical metal pole three and a half feet in length, one and one half inches thick, ground to a needle-sharp point and weighing 13 and a half pounds. With this implement in hand Mr Gage would first make a deep hole, fill it one third with gunpowder, attach a fuse, top this with sand, damping down the sand to form a tight seal. Then, from a safe distance, he and his assistant would light the fuse to detonate the charge and clear the rock.

On the day in question Mr Gage was going about his business when his attention was distracted by a call from behind. He failed to realise that the sand had not been applied and began damping down heavily onto the exposed gunpowder with his metal bar. This created a spark that ignited the powder causing a large explosion. The metal bar, his damping iron, rocketed skyward with the force of an exploding missile.

Between this rocketing metal spear and the freedom of the sky there stood Phineas Gage. Upon exiting its silo the missile missed his body but entered his jawbone just left of his chin. Without slowing it rocketed upwards though his brain, blasting away the prefrontal lobe to exit through a two inch gaping, mushroom-shaped hole at the top of his skull. The metal spear landed some 50 feet from the scene. Phineas Gage was knocked clean off his feet and assumed by all watching to be instantly killed. Not so. Incredibly he rose mere seconds after the explosion and walked unaided to a nearby bench, shaken, bleeding but seemingly otherwise little the worse. All including Gage himself at first assumed that the missile had hit him only a glancing blow.

This was not so, though even when the scale of injury was realized Gage refused to lie down. A coach and pair came to convey him four miles to the local doctor. He sat upright beside the driver the entire way.

The local doctor, James Harlow, promptly examined the patient and found a remarkable clear, clean wound. ‘The patient’, Dr Harlow later wrote, ‘bore his sufferings with the most heroic firmness. He recognized me at once, and said he hoped he was not much hurt. He seemed to be perfectly conscious, but was getting exhausted from the hemorrhage. His person, and the bed on which he was laid, were literally one gore of blood.’

Gage appeared normal, speaking and behaving merely as if slightly shaken, though he had a near perfect two inch hole right through his head from below his chin to the top of his skull. Yet he seemed coherent, alert and in little pain. Harlow’s assistant Dr Williams wrote later that he could see the man’s brain pulsating clearly through the gaping, funnel-shaped hole in his skull. Gage talked all the time while Williams was examining him. Crude chemical disinfection was recognized as important even then and the wound was vigorously if rather roughly cleaned. Gage later suffered from abscesses, but survived not just that day, but for 13 more years.’

The point of such a bizarre tale is simple. What Phileas Gage had shown was that the mind has many distinct compartments each responsible for different parts of what, collectively, adds up to our mind, to ‘us’.

Phineas Gage was healed and appeared unchanged. Physically, remarkably, he was. He rapidly regained outward health and strength. Save for losing the sight in his left eye he could touch, see and hear as before. His sense of smell was unchanged. He could walk purposefully upright, use his hands dexterously as before yet those who knew him noticed powerful, seemingly permanent change to his character and personality.

Dr Harlow described him as follows. ‘The intellectual balance between his human faculties and animal propensities has been destroyed.’ Gage started to swear foul oaths and gross profanities, something foreign to him before the accident.  He became irreverent, irritable, inconstant, a drunkard and a brawler. Women were counselled to avoid his company for fear of offence or worse. Indeed so radical was the change in personality that people who had known him before could scarcely recognise the man. It became clear: Phineas Gage was no longer Phineas Gage.

Though intensely documented, the real lessons from the strange case of Phineas Gage were not realised for 100 years, before it was appreciated that Gage’s experience shows that by altering or removing a small and specific portion of the brain, the mind can be so changed as to alter someone’s personality out of all recognition. Phineas Gage’s accident shows us that the human mind in its home the brain has many compartments and that damage in one area need not noticeably affect all or even any of the other areas.

Recently though this version of Mr Gage’s story has been challenged. Two photographs of Gage and a physician’s report of his physical and mental condition late in life were published in 2009 and 2010, detailing new evidence that suggests Gage’s most serious mental changes may have been temporary, so that in later life he was far more functional, and socially far better adjusted, than was previously assumed.

Perhaps, over time, his brain regained some of its former functions. It is of course a remarkable thing, the human brain. However, a noted psychologist has commented, ‘Phineas’s story is [primarily] worth remembering because it illustrates how easily a small stock of facts becomes transformed into popular and scientific myth.’

It’s a good story though. And true, for sure.

A modest proposal. Jonathan Swift’s enterprising solution to the growth of the urban poor

For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to The Publick.

by Jonathan Swift 

Swift’s straight-faced satire of heartless attitudes to the poor and Irish political policy generally dates from 1729. No doubt many will have seen it as a creative, far-sighted solution to what was evidently an irksome problem of the day. Of course, he wasn’t being entirely serious. Because the original is so long I felt obliged to edit it in the interests of space, but do so with regret.Jonathan Swift

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. …

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no salable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half-a-crown at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolific diet, there are more children born in Roman Catholic countries about nine months after Lent than at any other season; therefore, reckoning a year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of popish infants is at least three to one in this kingdom: and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of papists among us…

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

 

The End

 

Jaded at the Odeon

by George Smith, an extract from his 2003 book Tiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising.

George and I worked together for 20 years and we were close pals for even more. I’ve never stopped loving the way he writes. I’ve included this snippet from an anthology of his press articles because I treasure this image of him sitting in solitude in the darkened cinema, railing at the screen and life’s little injustices, just as he did his whole life through. KB.

 Odeon

And another thing …
This is therefore the age of prolixity – of excess words filling the space afforded by the means of expressing those words – the media again. Hundreds of radio and television channels have to be filled with something and are filled with dross – the ramblings of the presenter, the opinions of the phone-in callers and latterly the recitations of the e-mailers. You would not want to be stuck in a lift with any of these people but there they are in your house day or night.

And what are people communicating over mobile phones that could not have been thus communicated 15 years ago? Gibberish usually. How much content is there in the average office e-mail? Bugger all. It’s words filling space again, I fear.

Everyone feels the need to say more than is necessary. A cornflake packet now carries enough words for a short story. A weather forecast can fill its five minutes by telling you about today’s weather as well as tomorrow’s. Three commentators will discuss an endlessly replayed goal. So many words, so little meaning, so little attention!

And it’s irritating too. My favourite current example is the cinema, now subject to the new demands of branding.

I enter the Odeon while strobe lights scan the corridors telling me that I am in the Odeon. I am subjected to ads by Kodak and Dolby who want me to know that they played a part in proceedings. And, yes, I am subjected to a clip from the Odeon chain telling me that they show films.

I knew this already. But you want to scream at the screen. ‘I know you show films. It’s why I’m sitting here. Sod you, Odeon.’

All these new and malign things define the world in which the storyteller tries to do his or her job. Let me repeat the sixth word I used: jaded. That’s how people are these days. They’ve heard everything several times over and you are going to have to express yourself remarkably well to catch their attention and persuade them to give you money.

We should try harder with words in the belief that raising money to do good is still an honourable occupation, no matter how shabby and weary its tradecraft has become.

© George Smith 2011

A salamander, c. mid 1990s

By Kang Cheol-hwan.

Yodok Salamander
Kang Cheol-hwan described his years in Yodok, political prison camp 15, North Korea, in a press ad for Amnesty International, 21 February 2014.

Mothers tried to keep their children alive by catching pregnant rats. The placentas and tiny foetuses made rich eating and were thought to cure disease.

Kang caught frogs and worms, snakes and centipedes and learned to relish salamanders, which were thought to provide the vitamins needed for survival, but his first attempt to eat one was a failure.

‘I pushed it into my mouth, but could not swallow. The creature was struggling to get out of my mouth. I was frightened, I closed my eyes and bit it hard. My mouth was suddenly full of bitter and stinking juice and I had to spit it out.’

A friend taught Kang that the only way to eat one was to hold the tail and gulp it down.