Book Review: The Cabinet of Calm

Are you in your mubble-fubbles (feeling down, or out of sorts)? Do you need a dolorifuge (whatever it takes to expel the sadness, anguish or pain)?

The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times, by Paul Anthony Jones, brings together a collection of the English language’s more obscure and extraordinary words with the aim of offering comfort in difficult times. Gathered together into fifty-one chapters, the author explores the etymology and need for words describing trouble and its necessary corollary – solace. It is a reminder that difficulties have always been a part of life but that things will, eventually, improve.

There are delights to be found in the eclectic selection. For example,

“When it comes to indulging yourself, a word well worth living by is abliguration, an eighteenth-century term for excessive spending on food and drink (or, as the 1724 dictionary that first defined it put it, ‘a prodigal spending in belly-cheer)'”

Those who are feeling weary may feel better after a sloum – a brief nap.

We could all benefit from a house containing a growlery

“a calming, comfortable, solitary room, filled with familiar and enlightening things, in which a bad mood can be privately vented, mused on and assuaged.”

Within these pages there is no denial that people will feel anxious. What is offered is perspective. Words and their meanings develop over centuries; the experiences they were first used to describe remain familiar.

This is not a self help book so much as a reminder that the ability to express what is happening succinctly can lead to recognition that feelings will improve. The author explains the parlance of certain negative words before highlighting the many more hopeful locutions that also exist.

interfulgent – even in dark times, there is always light

meliorism – a call to arms,

“a belief that a better world is not only possible but inarguably worth taking the effort to create”

This is a book that will appeal to those who take pleasure in language and find joy in the discovery of words previously unknown. The slant towards positivity is to be welcomed given our current situation.

It is a text to be dipped into and learned from. An encouragement to view whatever is happening through a more balanced lens.

mooreeffoc – an approach to life

“things don’t in themselves become boring […] we allow ourselves to become bored with them. Change that way of thinking, and we can change the world around us.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliot and Thompson.

A tribute to my parents (from the Belfast Telegraph)

Those who follow me on social media may be aware that my parents both died at the end of last month within a few days of each other. Soon after, I agreed to be interviewed by a journalist from the newspaper Mum read for many years – the Belfast Telegraph – as part of a series they are running paying tribute to local people whose deaths were attributed to Covid 19. I would like to thank Claire McNeilly for her respectful handling of this interview at a time when I was still processing what had happened. I reproduce below the article she wrote – in case it is taken down, as I wish to keep it. A link to the original on-line version may be found here.

(It did feel a little strange to discover we had made the front page of the print edition, pictured above)

 

Coronavirus: ‘Mum and dad were old but stayed home and didn’t go out… we never expected this to happen’

Daughter of Belfast couple who died within days of each other tells of her deep shock


Jackie Law on her wedding day with husband Rick and her parents Norman and Winnie Wilkinson

By Claire McNeilly

May 04 2020 09:30 PM

 

When Jackie Law visited her parents in January, she could not have imagined it would be the last time she would see them.

Norman Wilkinson (91) and his 92-year-old wife Winnie, who lived in the Four Winds area of Belfast, died within a few days of each other after contracting Covid-19.

Norman passed away on April 25 just hours after being admitted to hospital.

His wife of nearly 69 years clung to life for another five days but died last Thursday, April 30.

Both were cremated, with Winnie’s service taking place yesterday morning.

And heartbroken daughter Jackie (55), who lives in Wiltshire, was left to grieve at home.

“We couldn’t get over [to Belfast] because no one could travel so there was no funeral service as such,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.

“My dad was cremated on Thursday, while my mum’s cremation was yesterday morning.”

Mrs Law, a book reviewer, told how her older sister Elaine Stead (58), who lives in Belfast, broke the news about her dad’s death before she even knew that he had fallen ill.

“Obviously they were both quite old and they had underlying health issues but it all happened so quickly,” she said.

“They were in their house, they didn’t go out. We certainly didn’t expect this to happen.”


Norman and Winnie as a young couple

Jackie, who has three children – Robyn (23), Ben (21) and Patrick (19) – with her IT consultant husband Rick (57), said her elderly parents were respecting the lockdown restrictions and “had carers going in regularly”.

She also reflected on how the speed of their demise shocked both her and her siblings – Andrew (67), who is retired and lives in Australia with his wife Colleen, and mum-of-three Elaine, who has twin sons Gavin and Jonny (29) and a daughter Nikki (23), with husband Gary.

“They took ill suddenly at home; they became very, very sleepy,” she said.

“My sister went up the weekend before my dad died. She was very concerned.

“But, of course, with the lockdown you’re not allowed to spend time with people so it was the carers who were going in and looking after them.

“And once they realised dad wasn’t well, they called the ambulance.”

Jackie said that after the carers informed her sister “that my dad and my mum had been taken to hospital” Elaine contacted her as soon as possible to let her know what was happening.

“Dad went into hospital around 5pm on Saturday and he was dead three hours later so by the time my sister got in touch with me he had already passed away,” she said.

“She told me at that time that mum was also ill so from then onwards we were in touch regularly but there was nothing anybody could do.”

Jackie told how her parents came to be taken to hospital on the same day.

“My dad started having trouble breathing on Saturday April 25 – the day he died – and the ambulance was called,” she said.

“But after the paramedics examined dad they were concerned for mum as well so they both went in at that time.”

She added: “My dad lost consciousness in the ambulance and he died a few hours later, whereas my mum was in hospital for a few days and was being treated before she passed away.”


From right, Jackie and Rick with sons Ben and Patrick and daughter Robyn

Unfortunately, Jackie’s Belfast-based sister did not see their mother in hospital either because she was never well enough to receive visitors.

“Mum was unconscious for most of the time, even though she was in hospital getting treatment,” she said.

“My sister was talking to the doctors regularly over the telephone.

“Mum came round a couple of times but never enough to be coherent and never long enough for my sister to be called to go in and see her.”

Speaking to this newspaper just hours after her mother’s cremation, an emotional Jackie said she was “still in shock”.

“We’re in limbo; everything has sort of stopped,” she said.

“I don’t know how long the grieving process is going to take.

“With not being able to go over and not being able to hold any sort of memorial for them at this stage, it’s all a bit surreal.”

Jackie, who has lived in England since 1988, revealed that she used to write letters to her parents and she said it would be difficult not being able to continue that ritual.

“I used to write to my parents a lot,” she said.

“They didn’t have a computer; they weren’t comfortable with technology, so ever since I left Northern Ireland I’ve written them letters.”

She added: “When little things happen I’m still storing them in my head, thinking that ‘I must put that in a letter because mum will be interested’ and it’s strange to think that those letters will never get written now.”

At least, as she revealed, she still has a collection of all the letters they sent her.

“I’ve got a drawer of bits and pieces that they’ve sent me over the years,” she said.

Her last visit to Belfast in January with husband Rick will always remain a source of great comfort for Jackie.

“We spent mum’s birthday with her on January 26,” she said.

“We bought her flowers and helped celebrate with her. We all sat around and chatted as that was what she wanted to do.

“I’m just so glad we went over, given the lockdown and everything, it was probably very well timed.

“I would’ve felt terrible if I hadn’t seen them so recently.”

She also revealed how her children paid their grandparents a visit the month before, in December 2019, because “they knew they were going to be tied up with exams in January”.

When it comes to memories of her beloved mother, Jackie, a short story writer, said that she will always think about her green fingers.

“She loved her garden,” she said.

“When I think back to what she was like, I think about her in the garden.

“She loved to bring colours to her garden with flowers and she liked to keep it tidy.”

Jackie also told how her parents enjoyed their walks and she said that they “kept doing that even when they could only walk up the road and down again”.

“She loved to visit Botanic Gardens in Belfast,” she added.

“In their younger years, once my dad retired, they loved their holidays and they always spoke fondly of them.”

She added that her mum, who trained as a seamstress, “had to leave school at 14 but when she had her children she was able to work as a dressmaker from home”.

Jackie said her father worked for the Northern Ireland Electricity Service from “after he left school until he retired”.

Describing him as a “quiet man” she said he “enjoyed classical music, reading books and the theatre”, adding that he had a great fondness for chess.

“He played a lot of chess and he played the piano,” she said.

“The soundtrack to my childhood is my dad playing classical music on the piano.

“One thing I find… whenever I hear classical music I know the piece because I’ve heard my dad play it but I don’t know what it is. The house was always full of his music.”

Even in sadness, Jackie, who has been a stay-at-home mum since the birth of her first child, said her parents’ pride in their grandchildren will endure.

“They lived long lives and they took great pride in their six grandchildren,” she said.

“Mum was always talking about how pleased she was that they all got to university.

“She was one of nine children and most of them went to work in factories as soon as they left school.

“They’ve done more with their lives but that’s initially where they started out.”

Jackie added: “Mum was so proud that all six of her grandchildren got to university.”

 

Belfast Telegraph

 

 

Following the publication of this tribute I was approached by local television (UTV) and radio (The Nolan Show) requesting interviews. I chose to decline these invitations. 

 

Book Review: The Mating Habits of Stags

“I love it up here, she said. It’s so wild.
Wild?
A-huh.
There’s nowt wild about it. It’s all man-made.
But it’s nature, you know.
It’s a desert. These hills are nowt but a sheep ranch.”

“These hills should be covered in forest.
She scanned the landscape. I didn’t realise.
Pricks that own the land, swiddening the moor, burning heather off to create new shoots for grouse to feed on. Reason yon dale floods. Peat acts like a sponge but when they burn it, they knacker it. All that damage to folks’ homes and businesses just so some posh southern twats can come up here once a year and shoot some game.”

The Mating Habits of Stags, by Ray Robinson, is set in Yorkshire where the protagonist, septuagenarian Jake Eisner, is on the run from both the police and the son of Charles Monroe – an elderly man he has recently murdered. After a childhood marked by poverty, Jake spent most of his life as a farmhand. He knows the land and how to survive.

Jake is a widower, his beloved wife, Edith, having died a year ago. They raised a son, William, but he too is dead. Jake’s friend, Sheila, cannot understand why Jake would have killed a wealthy landowner who was already in poor health and living in a care home. She does not know their shared history. Jake has talked little about his past. What Sheila does know of him she has gleaned from having been born and raised in the same locality. She would have liked to get to know him better but he often rebuffed her attempts to spend more time together.

The timeline of the story jumps back and forth giving the reader glimpses of lives marked by actions and their consequences – the beauty and pain of living. It is a tale of: desire, grief, love, revenge.

Jake makes his way across woods and moorland, camping out or finding occasional shelter in farms he once worked at. He moves on regularly to evade capture. With winter closing in he turns to those he hopes might offer assistance. He learns that he has become prey.

“Fox hunters: terrier men on quads, pony clubbers in hacking jackets, car horns and bugle calls – those privileged hooligans.”

Sheila is perplexed by Jake’s actions but is distracted by her own worries about her daughter and grandson. Feeling used and taken for granted, she has recently moved away from her home town. When Jake turns up on her doorstep she must make a decision. It is one she will come to regret.

The narrative offers a no nonsense glimpse into the lives of working class families in an area where what wealth exists is in the hands of those who made it from others’ hard graft.

“He eyed the north face of the magnificent Monroe Hall. Such places sickened him with what they represented: generations of downtrodden poor in the factories and mill-towns. Claggy-arsed industry, scab of the North Country.”

Sheila decries her daughter’s work ethic and choice of partners but recognises that her own history is chequered. She has a difficult relationship with her mother. She still has feelings for her second ex-husband – and also for Jake.

The glorious use of language provides a vivid evocation of the landscape.

“A swap of wind scurries through the abandoned mill, a wind made of leaf mould and rusted rabbit wire.”

“The plop and patter of rainwater, a liquid metronome”

The dark beauty of the place and the people who live there are rendered in unsentimental yet emotive detail. As the reasons for Jake’s behaviour are teased out, along with their repercussions, his journey and its outcome inexorably alter Sheila’s future. And yet there is much, it seems, that cannot be changed.

The sparse yet salient prose drops a depth charge into the reader’s sensory responses, the story offering so much more than the actions portrayed. The characters’ flaws are the cracks that enable a flow of empathy and understanding. This is an uncompromising depiction of northern England that I unreservedly recommend.

The Mating Habits of Stags is published by Lightning Books. 

Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

“Maybe, if we bang our heads against a brick wall for long enough, it will crumble and fall. And maybe the rubble can be used to rebuild something better and more beautiful, enabling our own wildness. Imagine that”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, is a year long account of the fourteen year old author’s life. It offers an inspiring and uplifting view of nature focusing on flora and small fauna – the insects and birds essential for balance in the ecosystem of which humans are a part. More than this though, Dara’s musings and recollections provide an eye-opening window into the challenges faced by a teenager on the autism spectrum. He must find a way to survive an intensity of roller coaster emotions as he strives to navigate society and raise awareness of the issues he is passionate about.

Dara was born and raised in Northern Ireland where he still lives with his family. The book opens at the spring equinox – his dad’s birthday. The family home is in Fermanagh. Their best days are spent exploring the gardens, parks and wild places in their vicinity. Dara is often halted by the wonder of a bird or insect he spots, pausing to observe its beauty and activity. He writes with knowledge and appreciation, drawing the reader in and bringing alive the detail of each encounter.

These moments carry the author through the black periods that assail him, when the noise of the structured world he is forced to inhabit drowns out the good he finds in more natural wildernesses. He has been cruelly and violently bullied by his peers at school. Although eager to learn, the setup of modern classrooms and teaching methods – the way he is expected to behave – leave him exhausted. His family are tuned in to his predicament and offer strategies for coping. The constant vigilance required affects them all but is deeply appreciated by the author.

At home he has the understanding and unfailing support of his family. Still though, he must find ways to survive inside his own head. A crisis occurs later in the year when the family move to the other side of the country. The land that lies below the peaks of the Mourne Mountains offers Dara many new and exciting opportunities for exploration but such a radical change is anxiety inducing, especially the change of school.

Each diary entry recounts the birds and tiny beasts that entrance and calm the author. Described in wondrous detail – in language that captivates with its colour – creatures that many would try hard to avoid are made delightful as well as exciting. Alongside this positive energy is Dara’s despair at how modern farming practices denude vital habitats. Humans strive for efficiency and tidiness over more nature friendly practices.

As well as the wild places visited, Dara has an interest in conservation. His growing on-line presence has drawn attention and support from some well known names in this arena. Dara is invited to take part in bird ringing – I was interested that this form of human intervention sat well with him. Other invitations include participation in meetings and rallies. He recognises that, as a young naturalist with a popular following, certain opportunities – especially those attended by politicians – are about using him rather than taking notice of what he has to say.

The writing flows, the structure enabling both brief dips in and longer reading periods. The natural world presented is inspiring but what strengthens the message presented is its honesty – how Dara notices and is affected by his varied encounters. This is a book with the potential to change attitudes and behaviour. A vital read for both young people and adults.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Random Musings: Remote living

How quickly so many in our country accepted the need for lockdown. Having been frightened into believing that proximity to other people can lead to death, will an eventual return to being part of a crowd be welcomed or cause further stress?

I have enjoyed living in the Wiltshire countryside since I moved here close to thirty years ago. In the past few weeks it has proved even more of a boon. I am surrounded by fields and woodland with their sparsely populated network of footpaths and trails to explore. The quiet lanes that meander between small towns and villages are ideal for bike rides. When people were still mostly staying home even the major roads were pleasant to cycle along. Blessed by many days of dry weather I have been able to make the most of my daily exercise and thereby keep my mental health in balance.

One thing that can be a challenge in rural living is the internet access. My home is on the far edge of a village and on the edge of its digital connectivity. We regularly find ourselves cut off, even if only for short periods of time. Mobile reception can also be sporadic.

With husband working from home – when work has been available – and our two students trying to continue their courses remotely, we are pushing our available internet access to its limit. Add to this the gaming my sons enjoy and we are regularly frustrated by lack of bandwidth. My own use is largely browsing so I am affected less than the rest of my family. I have long avoided activities that require a better connection.

I have no wish to: Skype, Facetime, Zoom, WattsApp video call. I don’t even enjoy voice calls as I too often find myself talking over the person on the other end of the line. Real time communications remove my ability to consider and edit. I have in the past regretted words written. They have caused me less anxiety than my regret at words spoken clumsily.

Social media, carefully managed, is my friend. I choose not to watch the small video clips posted or even play attached GIFs. I do not click on YouTube links and have no interest in vlogs. Podcasts are rarely listened to despite what could be interesting content. I enjoyed certain podcasts when in the gym going nowhere on cardio machines. With that option currently removed, the podcasts I subscribe to are piling up unheard. What I want is to read – articles, interviews, book reviews. And, of course, my books.

When exercising outside over the past few weeks I have been listening to: birdsong, the wind in the trees, lambs bleating, the sounds of my surrounds. I watch the changing view as I pass – nature unfolding. I feel no need of further distraction. Unlike many I don’t  listen to music when I run. In these changed times I have found I am rarely in the mood for music even when at home. It would seem I require an element of mental relaxation – not currently available – to enjoy such a soundtrack.

So forgive me if I do not get excited by the measures being taken to put people live on line. I know many are enjoying this content – a good thing but not for me. My glitchy connectivity adds a layer of irritation I choose to avoid despite missing out on many interesting conversations. I am storing away links to those who put an audio recording of their videos in a podcast (thank you Influx Press) for future days when we are granted access to gyms.

I do wonder, when the option is returned to us, how many will choose to: move their exercise regime indoors, attend events with strangers, travel on crowded transport if not necessary for work. Will the process of going on holiday feel too much of a risk for some? Will cinema and theatre find audiences willing to sit for long periods in enclosed spaces? For those comfortable with digital communication and with access to a reliable internet connection, will they still choose to work from home?

Some are missing the camaraderie of their working environment. I read on social media that many are missing contact with wider family. Perhaps the move to freedom will be as swift as the move to lockdown proved. Such a thought seems to anger a vociferous and frustrated online community.

I will miss: the lightly traffic’d roads, the sight of families out walking together locally, other runners pounding tarmac as we pass at a distance, the deep blue skies due to lack of contrails. I will not miss: the growing concern over ongoing income, the challenges young people are facing as they cope with online learning and exams, the fracture in society as views on necessary steps differ.

Let me just park here that, of course, I recognise and acknowledge my many privileges, including: a garden, food in my fridge, unpopulated space to roam. I have though been personally affected by the deaths of close family members. It is not my intention to downplay what is happening.

Although worried by many aspects of our situation – including the increased police powers – I can manage remote living and poor connectivity as it has long been my normal. Social events are a rarity in my calendar.

For those whose lives have been radically altered by recent diktats and whose income – current and potential – has been decimated, the scars they will carry forward are as much a concern as this plague.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by JK Rowling, is the fourth installment in the popular children’s series that follows the eponymous wizard through his years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is a review of the 20th Anniversary edition, published in the four Hogwarts House colours that each include distinct content. Pottermore sorted me into Ravenclaw so it is this book that I purchased. As my daughter is in Slytherin I also mention the additional content that varies between these two house editions.

The original Goblet of Fire was the first Harry Potter book that I read. It impressed me enough to purchase the previous three books in the series – and to pre-order each subsequent release. My review is therefore a reread after many years and having watched the film adaptation on numerous occasions. Being familiar with the story will have impacted my reaction to the writing.

The book opens with an introduction to Ravenclaw. It summarises key plot points in the following story, from the House perspective. If reading for the first time it may be wise to leave this section until the end in order to avoid spoilers.

There is then a map of the grounds of Hogwarts drawn as an ink sketch. Illustrations in this style enhance other sections.

The story proper starts with a chapter titled ‘The Riddle House’. An elderly gardener spots a light in the empty house he has long worked at. On investigating this suspected break-in he encounters his first wizard. He is not treated well.

From the second chapter the reader follows Harry Potter and his friends. As with previous books in the series, the timeline opens in the summer holidays. Harry is whisked away from his unhappy home where he lives with his uncle, aunt and cousin. The family of his best friend from school, Ron Weasley, invite Harry to join them at the Quidditch World Cup. The third member of the children’s friendship group, Hermione Granger, is also invited. These early chapters serve to bring the reader up to speed with previous plot developments and key elements of the wizarding world. Such detail may be necessary, and I recognise this is a story aimed at children, but it did come across somewhat as an info-dump.

As well as the excitement of attending a magical, world ranking, sporting event, including enjoying the match itself, dastardly deeds occur involving dark wizards. The Weasleys and their guests return home subdued and concerned. There is little time for the youngsters to reflect on what happened as the new school term is imminent. Within days they must travel to London and board the Hogwarts Express.

The school year is enlivened by the announcement of an historic tournament to take place over the coming year, hosted by Hogwarts. Students from two other witchcraft and wizardry schools in Europe will visit to compete. As part of the traditions surrounding this event there will be a Yule Ball for students from the more senior years. All of this adds colour to a plot line that still revolves around more normal school activities.

House rivalries play out, exacerbated by the interest of a tabloid reporter, Rita Skeeter, who has somehow breached the Hogwarts defences. Harry is favoured by the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. The boy is again picked on by the Potions professor, Severus Snape. Care of Magical Creatures teacher, Rubeus Hagrid, has found yet more dangerous animals for his pupils to care for, injecting welcome humour into the tale. The tasks set for the Tri-Wizard Tournament provide challenge and peril, giving the three friends much to work on. House elves play a role, especially when Hermione decides they should be freed. The visiting students allow the reader to learn of additional magical powers, previously unmentioned, including historic prejudices and allegiances.

Despite the length of the book – some 600 pages – the pace, action and development retain reader engagement. The climax is well balanced to portray the horror of where the series thus far has been leading. Clues dropped along the way are pulled together in a lengthy dialogue – another info-dump but a useful explanation.

A subdued end to the academic year sets the scene for the series arc to continue in a more focused direction. With the cast aging there has been a shift in character development to appeal to a slightly older readership than previously.

The book concludes with three additional sections: a brief reminder of key moments in the life of a Ravenclaw alumnus, Garrick Ollivander; a look at some of the magical paintings that hang in Hogwarts; a quiz on what has just been read (I scored 9/10).

The Slytherin edition opens with an introduction focusing on this house. In the concluding, additional sections the alumnus is Lord Voldemort. The magical paintings section surprised me by mentioning events that happen in later books in the series. It is revealed that characters in paintings may move beyond Hogwarts, not just within the school as was suggested in the Ravenclaw edition. The quiz that concludes the book is the same.

I am a fan of the Harry Potter books and this reread has not changed that opinion. What it has done is to highlight certain flaws in the style of writing. Nevertheless, the popularity of the series, and the young people it has brought to book reading, make such quibbles appear pernickety. I am not the target audience but still thoroughly enjoyed the tale.

I purchase the 20th Anniversary editions as they become available. It is pleasing to see how well my growing collection looks on my shelves.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is published by Bloomsbury.

 

Book Review: The Idea of the Brain

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“This is the story of our quest to understand the most mysterious object in the universe.”

Those who pay attention to the various interests of contributors to this site may have noticed that I review a fair few books that offer insight into how and why people behave as they do from the point of view of properly researched science. I am, however, a casual reader on the subject, not an academic with a background in, for example, psychology or neuroscience. I suspect The Idea of the Brain would be better appreciated by those with a stronger scientific grounding than I possess.

I insert here the caveat that I read the majority of this book during an escalating novel pandemic when the country was required to live under unprecedented lockdown conditions. I found the text dense at a time when my attention was wont to wander. I hoped to enjoy the copious information conveyed more than I could manage.

Following a brief introduction, the book is structured in three parts: Past, Present, and Future. As may be expected, Past covers centuries of study. The author selects those researchers he feels significantly progressed man’s understanding of the brain and describes each of their accomplishments in some detail. It is this detail that challenged my ability to retain focus. There were nuggets to be gleaned. The sections covering areas I already had knowledge of retained my attention the most.

The more researchers learned about the workings of the brain, the more they came to realise how complex it is and how little it is understood.

“To argue that there are things we can never understand is to undermine the whole point of science, which is to explain what is currently unexplainable.”

Many false premises were posited and blind alleys followed. Sometimes these led to the unexpected uncovering of useful knowledge.

The second section, Present, covers progress made in the last century. This includes the invention of various imaging techniques that allow scientists to observe an active brain without removing portions of skull – as had been done previously. The leap forward this offered laid bare how little it helped in understanding how brain activity affects consciousness – the mind, thought.

“There are many scientists who feel we are drowning in a tide of data about the structure of brains, while what we really need are some clearer theories and ideas about how it all fits together.”

“in and of itself knowledge of structure provides no direct understanding of dynamic function. Where is not how.”

Examples are provided of the benefits that became available to patients thanks to the ongoing research – at the cost of a great many creatures sacrificed in labs. Ethical considerations are mentioned along with economic reality. One patient briefly benefited greatly from an item of supportive technology until the company that provided it went bust. Her loss, after glimpsing what could have vastly improved her quality of life, had a distressing impact.

Chemical treatments for depression, schizophrenia and the like were often discovered accidently. These led to the increasing medicalisation of illnesses linked to the brain. As side effects became apparent and few effective new treatments were added after decades of research, pharmaceutical companies lost interest.

“Our understanding of the origins of mental health problems, and how to treat them, remains profoundly unsatisfactory.”

“It is hard to know what to say. We do not understand how a healthy brain and mind work, so it is hardly surprising that we do not know how to fix things when problems arise.”

Brain activity can now be monitored in real time but it remains hard to pin down, from the many parallel processes observed, correlation or causation. On what or where consciousness may reside, even less is known. There remains

“complete ignorance of how neural activity is turned into thought”

The final short section, Future, is perhaps the most bleak in terms of considering progress. Great leaps forward in terms of observation have demonstrated how little is yet understood. The limitations in where to go next with current research are acknowledged.

“’The Brain Has a Body’. And the body has an environment, and both affect how the brain does what it does. This might seem trivially obvious, but neither the body nor the environment feature in modelling approaches that seek to understand the brain.”

“the brain does not represent information: it constructs it”

The author includes an extensive list of notes at the end of the book for those who wish to read further on the research that underpins what he has written.

Any Cop?: My interest in the topic enabled me to plough my way through but this was a challenging read for a lay person. What I take away though is greater comprehension of where the science is now. The increase and development in my knowledge makes me glad to have read the book. It offers a candid and in-depth exploration of a complex topic, skilfully rendered but perhaps recommended only for those who have prior understanding of the basics of brain science.

“The four most important words in science are ‘We do not know’.”

 

Jackie Law