Book Review: Gone

“Never underestimate mankind’s capacity for mindless destruction.”

In recent months I have read several articles in the mainstream media that suggest human fertility could make reproduction difficult within a generation (e.g. here). Having read Gone, by Michael Blencowe, it is hard to mourn this potential issue. Throughout his existence man has been a scourge on our amazing planet, wiping out entire populations of his fellow creatures seemingly without caring about the carnage and suffering thereby caused.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each focusing on a species that is now extinct, often because man discovered it existed. The creatures were slaughtered: for food, for wealth, for science. Where their natural habitat contained no predators, man’s arrival introduced them. Although often passing through – seeking food and trophies – if man stayed then his desire for settlement and agricultural land further destroyed ecosystems that had previously supported healthy populations of diverse wildlife. If money could be made this was regarded as reason enough for decimation.

The supposed great naturalists of past centuries, whose interest in science was lauded as a step forward in human understanding, were often culprits in destroying that which they studied.

“Like any great naturalist of his era, he carried with him the two qualities required for such an expedition: an enquiring mind and a big gun.”

Chapter One explains how thriving colonies of great auks were wiped out. The account is horrific and heartbreaking. Subsequent chapters continue in this vein proving that extinction was not a concern if riches and renown could be obtained. A good number of natural history museums around the world were founded on collections created by zoologists and other wealthy scientists, from specimens brought to them by bounty hunters. All that is left now of many magnificent species is skin and bones stored in drawers and display cases.

As well as travelling to the last known habitats of extinct species, the author visits the museums that hold what remains of them. He talks to the curators and is granted access to rare body parts, learning more about their history and the species’ demise.

“I look again to the animals whose lives I had followed and with whom I had felt an unexpected affinity. But all I see now are bones, feathers and fur, the sad remains of the worlds extinct creatures, taxidermy testaments to the havoc we have wreaked upon the world.”

The writing style makes this an easy book to read; the subject matter is harder to digest. Beautiful and evocative illustrations of the eleven creatures focused on – artwork by Jade They – help bring to life what has been lost. It is a cry to do better.

 “On 6 May 2019, scientists from the United Nations gathered in Paris to announce the findings of a global study on biodiversity, concluding that 1 million of the world’s estimated 8 million species now face extinction, many within decades.”

“The driving forces behind these extinctions are changes in land and sea use, hunting and poaching, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.”

It seems that man has learned nothing from his past wanton destruction – and continues apace.

Although upsetting to consider, if a book such as this can touch readers and drive a change of attitude it will have served its purpose. Sadly, I question if mankind is intelligent enough to fathom fully how this planet – our life support system – is being damaged by our actions. Unlike many of the creatures we have driven to extinction – peaceful and curious, unable to comprehend the danger posed by man – we have some awareness, yet continue.

Will we be willing to change how we behave when to do so may make our day to day lives less congenial? An evocative, disturbing, recommended read.

sea cow

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Leaping Hare Press.

Book Review: Spring Journal

“there is no joie de vivre,
None at all. It is absolutely banned.”

Spring Journal, by Jonathan Gibbs, was inspired by Louis MacNeice’s long poem, Autumn Journal, which he wrote in late 1938 in response to the impending world war. I am not familiar with this earlier work. Gibbs’ offering is divided into twenty-four cantos, written between March and August 2020. It provides a response to Covid 19, England’s first lockdown, and the summer release that was not the hoped for return to freedom.

I was eager to get hold of a copy of this book as a sort of memento of a time I felt would be a significant life event, however the future pans out. On reading I realised it offered even more than expected, mainly because it highlighted to me how all appeared to enter that first lockdown as a country united to fight an unknown threat, but quickly divided into angry, polarised units of righteously indignant opinion on how others should behave.

“And its March coming in as the last daffs are fading
And the first nasturtiums coming, blithely ignorant of the farce”

The early cantos beautifully capture the early weeks of lockdown – the strange silence of streets devoid of people and traffic; the pause that felt as though the world held its breath, even as nature continued to bring forth new life, as it has always done.

When the impact of both the pandemic and the country’s response became better understood, sides were quickly taken. Focus shifted to anger, with many blaming politicians, as happens when it is not ‘their’ people in charge.

The author acknowledges his privilege. He remained healthy, not alone, able to exercise outdoors.

There is a reminder of the protests that happened about non-Covid related issues (how quickly we forget that which does not directly affect us).

“And if the pubs and restaurants go under, what about the theatres
And galleries and concert halls?
Will we stay at home and mutter nostrums
For the benefit of our four bare walls?”

As I read this I pondered the plight of those who would never use such facilities, through lack of means or desire. A journal will obviously be deeply personal – a strength in the window it offers. The author’s response, at first so familiar, was diverging from my own.

My reaction to this divergence slammed home when Gibbs wrote of a holiday in Greece, taken when released from the first lockdown. I was reminded of the angry tweets at the time from those who still never left their homes and expected others to do the same. Even when laws are not broken there can be a form of moral outrage honing in on what matters most to each individual. I remembered those who attended raves regardless, and those who have chosen to remain under personal lockdown throughout.

“don’t ask why our spending’s more vital than our earning
Or why the economy depends
On us giving out more than we can gather back”

The underlying concern, the gnawing anxiety over future impact, comes through strongly. As summer progressed the author wrote of the young people whose future prospects became ever more uncertain. There were musings on who will bear the brunt of what will be lost.

“everything we’ve grown up to take for granted
And are losing now to toffs and spivs
Who dress like lawyers and act like thieves
And know not to waste a good crisis.”

The final canto reeled me back in as the author reflects on the future, that man’s concerns are insular, that climate continues to change.

The journal is elegantly written and offers much to reminisce over and reflect upon. I shall now put it aside to read in future months and years when what has happened may be put into context of fallout, when we have moved on to whatever must be dealt with beyond.

“it seems we have forgotten how to shout,
Or have lost our voices;
Will we get to forgive ourselves our weakness,
Our failure to act on our justified doubts?”

We are living through ever increasing state intervention on day to day behaviour. This long poem offers a reminder of how it started, how as a country we acquiesced. Worth reading for the literary quality. Recommended as an encouragement towards greater critical thinking.

Spring Journal is published by CB editions.

Book Review: The Future of You

“The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated.”

The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st Century Technology? is a timely exploration of the impact of moving more and more aspects of our lives into the digital realm. Relying on technology in order to function as we have come to expect is not without risk. The author approaches issues raised from a variety of directions, offering facts alongside considered opinion. Although there are obvious benefits to many of the innovations detailed, the potential for harming the individual is chilling. Advances are rarely made available to every member of society. This exacerbates the differences between those who benefit and everyone else.

Follows is a futurist – someone who systematically explores predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present. She writes here about: social media, data mining, privacy, legal rights, digital ownership, artificial intelligence, required behaviour, healthcare, enhancing humans, bots, transhumanism. Many of the technologies discussed exist already, with Covid-19 enabling governments to bring forward change that many western civilisations would not previously have countenanced. Places such as China offer a window into how this could play out, their society being more familiar with blatant state coercion ‘for the common good’.

Early chapters look at how identities are created, controlled and authenticated in a digital society. There are, for example, many problems with attempting to create a globally useful ID for an individual, not least who owns and controls the data and how it is used. Interconnectivity can be difficult to achieve – agreeing protocols and standardisations. There is always a security risk when data is shared. Covid-19 has brought to the fore the concept of health passports, bringing with it the prospect of enforced health treatments – or suffering pariah status. Coercing citizens to behave in a certain way is regarded as an acceptable means to an end by many, with neighbours willing to police behaviours, however much others may disagree for valid reasons. Described as ‘social credit’, digital records could be used in a wide array of applications to encourage government mandated practices.

“Once governments know they have the power to ‘correct’ people’s behaviour in this way, it’s all too tempting for them to implement such draconian measures more and more widely.”

For those who believe this would never be accepted in a democracy, surveys have shown there is a mutual distrust between citizens – a desire to control ‘undesirables’, to keep them separate until they ‘behave’.

Taiwan is held up as an example of a different approach. Rather than trying to turn its citizens into ‘obedient zombies’, it uses technology to listen to a variety of opinions and implement change only for the true good of all.

“Taiwanese children are not taught to all give the same answer or even to seek the answers to the same questions; they are taught to follow their own interests, set their own projects and find their own solutions. And they are not set up in competition with each other; they are set up to pool their individual talents and to collaborate”

Raised to think for themselves and accept differences in opinion, people are more able to think critically and listen considerately. Technology is not used here to encourage conformity – and therefore predictability – in the population. Participation in debate is encouraged and dissent accepted. Individual liberty is valued, as it should be.

The author then turns her attention to the digital identity individuals create for themselves in such spaces a social media. Social media may indeed be social but it is also tribal.

“liking what our friends post, muting those who disagree with us, clicking to be seen to support the right causes, and excluding anyone who is not part of our tribe or does not conform to the established narrative of our group.”

On line sharing becomes a performance, self-presentation filtered to create an idealised version. This comes with many risks: feelings of inadequacy or jealousy when comparing to others in the group, the fallout from an ill-judged remark deemed unacceptable or inauthentic.

“one false move and we could be shamed forever”

The creation of ‘perfect’ avatars has led to bots becoming influencers.

Of course, digital connectivity has many benefits. This has become ever more apparent during the Covid-19 lockdown. Lockdown has also, however, sparked a pandemic of loneliness. Into this void has stepped the potential for robot ‘companions’. AI is becoming ever more sophisticated. Already widely accepted as assistants, social aspects are now being developed. For those who struggle to form relationships with people, a digital friend to talk to and seek advice from – one who doesn’t judge, mock or bully – can be beneficial.

AI robots are obviously digital but what of people who present themselves to the digital world in an altered state? The author writes of the Proteus Effect – how individuals are treated and behave based on how they look. If an avatar is created that is a favoured height, hair colour, race or gender, will some perceived ideal become more acceptable than individuality?

Another benefit of improved technology is in public health. Upgrading humans – fitting a pacemaker or quality prosthesis, replacing a vital organ, cosmetic surgery to right damage rather than for vanity – is usually only available to the wealthier nations, and sometimes only to wealthy citizens. This creates elites and ordinaries with very different potentials. There is a suggestion that this could be further developed to enable dictators to implement breeding programs – or introduce viruses that kill those not protected…

Moving on to mortality, there are thoughts on slowing the aging process and transhumanism. Technology has also been harnessed to memorialise the dead by recording: voice, mannerisms, facial expression. These may be used to create a bot of the deceased, in some cases projected as a hologram. Listening to histories recorded during interviews may be fascinating but the idea of the dead being enabled to interact with the living felt creepy. There is also the question of who owns ‘you’ when you are dead.

This book offers a wide-ranging study of many aspects of identity in the digital age, only a few aspects of which I have highlighted here. The writing is accessible, the subject interesting if somewhat disturbing. Choice appears to be a casualty of increasingly required connectivity. Form of government is key in how much individuals benefit. Only briefly mentioned are those living in countries lacking the infrastructure and economic ability to join in.

Well worth reading to raise understanding of what we lose and gain when our personal data is taken. A warning not to accept new technologies without question, whatever benefits they appear to offer. A reminder of the repercussive damage when choice to not participate is removed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Trauma

“The older one gets, the more we’re inclined to try to make sense of where we are and how we got here. Looking back we see these lightning traces, these impossible threads that weave our lives together and give them meaning.”

Trauma is an anthology of thirty-two essays from an impressive roster of contemporary writers who publish in the English language. They share their thoughts on a diverse array of mental health issues caused by, to name just a few examples included: physical, sexual and emotional abuse; drug, alcohol and pornography addiction; illness, including depression; sleep deprivation. The essays are deeply personal and skilfully written. They deal with hard-hitting subjects that demand time for reflection. The traumas suffered have been life-changing in myriad ways.

Jenn Ashworth writes in the introduction that she read the essays during the first lockdown of 2020. She suggests:

“It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time for an anthology like this, when even those of us cushioned from illness, bereavement and financial disaster are learning the hard lessons of impermanence and dependence. Of having the truth of our precarity revealed to us suddenly, harshly and relentlessly.”

The wide variety of subjects explored adds strength to a book that could have been dispiriting but somehow comes across as affirming. The authors live daily with the impact of various mental health issues – theirs or a loved one’s – but write of how they have found ways to recognise the damage caused and – mostly, somehow – push through. There are few treatments or cures suggested. Rather, the stories shared are an acknowledgement of how widespread and lingering trauma is. Brushing it under the carpet – a conspiracy of silence that has long been pervasive – results in longer term misery, sometimes across generations.

With so many fine essays included, I will only highlight those few that resonated particularly with me. All in the anthology are worth reading.

James Miller’s The Madness of the Real focuses on the relentlessness of the news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphone connectivity. He starts with social media – particularly as used by Donald Trump – and its assault on:

“truth, decency, tolerance and democratic values. The world’s biggest troll playing the world’s biggest victim, gaslighting supporters and enemies alike.”

Miller writes succinctly of a world on fire, fuelled by toxic leadership. The anger this engenders alongside the impotence many feel at the vastness of damage wreaked eats into our ability to trust the society in which we must live. He suggests that, in such times, literature can reflect back concerns and offer:

“inspiration, strength and solidarity. Old tools to build new weapons, elixirs to cultivate forbidden dreams.”

Where Miller writes plainly, Anna Vaught employs language richly flavoured in her essay, In Order to Live. A childhood characterised by emotional abuse led her to seek sanctuary in books – an escape ‘to new words and worlds.’ Having battled through years of mental health problems caused by toxic parenting, Vaught then suffered two nervous breakdowns while a young mother herself. She unpicked the origins of her illness by writing her autobiography – a cathartic process that enabled her to confront her family’s psychiatric history. She writes that she still reads at a furious pace, ‘in order to live’.

In Madness As Such, Neil Griffiths provides fragments written during a period shadowed by severe and extended episodes of depression. Although not always easy to read, this peals back the veneer of coping to expose a window into his mind at the time. It is raw and visceral.

“Overwhelm. I’m suffering ‘overwhelm’. (There is no more space left in this emptiness)”

In Quite Collected… Meanwhile… Rowena MacDonald employs a narrative presented in two columns to highlight how inner thoughts are masked to the extent that the bearer appears to be holding together despite help being needed. She escapes to private or anonymous spaces rather than risk being seen to break.

Naomi Frisby describes the damage caused by a toxic relationship in A Recipe for Madness. Believing her new partner to be the man of her dreams, she surrenders job and friends to be with him. On attaining control, he then changes tack, manipulating to ensure Frisby blames herself. In the aftermath, she feels humiliated that she was taken in, not recognising his narcissism.

“I prided myself on being independent, educated, strong, but my response to J pushing me away was to cling harder, to give more and more of myself to him. By doing everything I could think of to try and stop J abandoning me, I abandoned myself.
Finding myself again takes time. I have to learn who I’ve become and why.”

The Fish Bowl or, Some Notes on Everyday Sexual Trauma, by Monique Roffey, lays bare the pervasiveness of sexual abuse amongst adolescents and beyond, so much so that any fuss made is discouraged, damage internalised.

Although focusing on her own experiences, the point is made that men suffer too:

“of always being measured against alpha males, of not being able to reach out to other men, of having few male friends, of lonely marriages and of erectile dysfunction, and of wives and partners who didn’t know what they wanted in bed and didn’t seem to want sex from them”

Tamin Sadikali writes of addiction to pornography – how he grew to loath himself but, for many years, couldn’t look away. Azad Ashim Sharma writes of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. After a year of clean sobriety, he then chose to return to his old ways. These essays are eye-opening. The authors understand how their habits will be regarded but also that they are more common than many may think.

“Waste water analysis shows that 1/50 people use [cocaine] every day in London.
In May 2019, Kings College London and the University of Suffolk collaborated and found that 100 per cent of freshwater shrimp tested positive for traces of cocaine.”

There is no advocacy for greater acceptability but rather acknowledgement of self-inflicted damage and the difficulties caused by a culture of denial and condemnation.

In The Art of Lost Sleep, Venetia Welby writes of the problem of severe insomnia, a problem she has battled since her teenage years.

“people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension.”

As with many of these essays, this is a request for recognition of a serious problem that is too often belittled.

Throughout the anthology the writers present fearlessly articulate descriptions of the causes and effects of their mental health issues. These provide educative yet always engaging insight into widespread problems that deserve sympathetic treatment. It is a candid and illuminating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.

Book Review: Kika and Me

“Changing attitudes about disability is mainly about education. That’s why I do my best to talk about my life.”

Amit Patel grew up in the town of Guildford, England. As the son of local corner shop owners, he was well known in his neighbourhood. A livewire, he liked nothing better than to try any new sport, especially those offering some risk. He was supported in all his endeavours by his close-knit family.

As someone who was not privately educated, attaining a place at Cambridge to read medicine was a notable achievement. It was during his university years that Amit learned he had an eye condition – one that should be correctable with surgery. Treatment was not as straightforward as expected. He underwent numerous procedures, although these did enable him to finish his training and enter his specialism as an A&E doctor, working at a busy London hospital. He married the girl of his dreams – Seema – at a lavish wedding attended by 600 friends and relations. They settled down to enjoy married life in a house close to Amit’s parents.

Kika & Me is Amit’s memoir. Although opening with a prologue describing an episode of disturbing human cruelty, the chapters covering his early life paint a picture of perfect happiness. Perhaps that is how he remembers those years given what happened next. In November 2013 he woke up with blurred vision, quickly and unexpectedly losing his sight altogether. Not only was he plunged into a world of darkness, this was accompanied by constant pain. Drugged and depressed, grieving for an expected future he had been anticipating with relish, he pushed Seema away.

Thankfully for Amit, his wife is a determined individual. At the end of the book she provides a brief account of how she too suffered, but at the time she became the rock on which Amit could rebuild his life. Gradually he refocused on new achievements: learning braille, walking with the aid of a white stick, attending therapy sessions run by organisations supporting the visually impaired. He learned to ask for help and attained a degree of independence. Seema encouraged him to apply for a guide dog – a move that would transform their lives for the better.

The writing style is simple and unchallenging but provides fascinating insight into the process of learning to live with blindness. It is horrifying to consider how some people treat the visually impaired – selfish thoughtlessness, attempts at taking advantage, and worse. This is perhaps why a book such as this, bringing such issues to light, matters. The more that is understood about the difficulties faced, the more can be changed to help. Amit proved himself a fine advocate, unafraid to challenge when needed.

Social Media, particularly Twitter, showed him how he could raise awareness. After learning that, unbeknown to him, a fellow traveller on the underground had attacked his guide dog, Kika, he fitted her with a camera. He posted a short video clip of a subsequent attack that went viral. When people know what is happening and find it unacceptable, they may be more willing to help prevent a next time.

Amit was raised a Hindu and writes of his work trying to persuade Temple hierarchy to allow guide dogs admittance. Some have been more accommodating than others. Through responses to tweets, he garners the attention of the mainstream media. He has forged a role for himself as an advisor and speaker, working towards enhancing rights and fostering better understanding of difficulties the visually impaired must navigate.

The attention Amit now commands has granted him the attention of those with influence, as well as earning him awards that help raise his profile further. In gaining a new career, he has regained his self-esteem. His work has the potential to make life better for others.

In his personal life Amit has proved that a blind man can be a hands-on father, even when his efforts have not always met with support from other parents. He writes of his determination never to let his impairment hold his children back.

The book concludes with an ‘Ask Amit’ section that offers suggestions on how to treat those like the author – a useful guide for any who may wish to offer help without offending.

Although an easy, at times sugared, read, the story told fulfils its aim of raising awareness. Given all that Amit has achieved – including driving the ‘reasonably-fast car’ for an episode of Top Gear (!) – it is also an inspiring reminder that disabled does not equate to incapable.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, PanMacMillan, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Golem Girl

“Ableism is the belief that in an ideal world, all bodies should be flawless, or that they should at least try to be cured.”

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958 with the inner layer of her mother’s placental wall adhered to her skin swathing the lower half of her body like a mummy’s bandages. She had a red sac protruding from her back. She had spina bifida. At the time only 90% of babies born with this condition lived to see their second birthday. Prevailing medical opinion was that they should be left alone – only those who survived proving themselves worthy of the medical resources necessary to treat them. Riva’s mother, Carole, had already suffered two distressing miscarriages. She was determined to fight for her living child and found an ally in a surgeon freshly trained in the latest techniques for treating spina bifida. Newborn Riva was operated on – the start of decades of surgery in which doctors would try to make her body more ‘normal’.

Golem Girl is a memoir that tells the personal story of an accomplished artist and teacher whose life has been built on the belief that she is a monster – an aberration. Throughout her childhood she was expected to submit to painful surgeries and treatments that her mother sought in an effort to, if not ‘cure’ her daughter, at least enable her to function and fit more smoothly into a society that would cruelly comment and stare with impunity. Thankfully, attitudes changed over the years, although in her epilogue – written in May 2020 – Riva questions the underlying truth of this.

The first half of the book covers the author’s childhood, during which she would have little agency over her treatment and education. Carole was a formidable advocate, supported by her fiercely Jewish wider family. She did not consider that Riva could want anything other than to be made less obviously disabled. She also took life changing decisions for her daughter because, as she bluntly stated, she did not believe Riva would ever find a loving husband, looking as she did. She wished to protect her child yet could never see her as anything other than someone in need of fixing.

Not all the surgeries Riva underwent resulted in the outcomes aimed for, yet still her mother persisted in her search for treatment that would change how her daughter looked and moved. As she grew older, Riva started to question their necessity, angered that she was not consulted.

Riva was in her late teens before she gained any sort of autonomy – and this was under difficult circumstances for the family. It would be many more years before she would question the orthodoxy that surgery was necessary, not to save her life but to make her look more acceptable. She was a talented artist still trying to find her niche in a world that could not see her and her work except through their blinkers of what others considered the bounds of femininity and disability.

Riva did find love, and also came to question why society struggled to regard people like her as acceptable as they were.

“Disability was natural, as was queerness, and neither were in need of correction or eradication.”

The timeline of the second half of the book jumps back and forth through several decades as the author explores a variety of issues she faced as an adult. There were a number of significant love affairs. There were friendships that resulted in impressive bodies of artwork. Throughout the book are illustrations of some of Riva’s art – many of them portraits that study the lives of other disabled people. These are reproduced in a section at the end which describes them more fully.

I use the term disabled aware that such a term may not be acceptable to some. Riva discusses this as she tells her story – how descriptors have changed in her lifetime. As a child she would be subjected to abuse regularly – neighbourhood children calling her ‘retard’ and pelting her with missiles. As an adult she was approached by a stranger intent on telling her: if I looked like you I’d kill myself. All of this has shaped Riva’s perception of herself, and her self-confidence. That she used her experiences to get to the stage she is at now is remarkable – or maybe that view is also reductive and I should listen more carefully.

This is an eminently readable and important work, depicting as it does life through the lens of a woman who has been both othered and dehumanised. Thanks to her own efforts and the ongoing support of her family, Riva has been able to carve an independent life for herself. She points out that financial constraints prevent many disabled adults from ever leaving their parents – infantilising them in a cocoon of well-meaning autocracy.

A poignant and moving tale but also one that is anger inducing when one considers how the disabled continue to be treated. The artwork within these pages speaks as powerfully as the words – of bodies that are beautiful and have achieved and are various. This is a story that deserves to be heard and then heeded. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Chauvo-Feminism

“How complex the nuances of consent can be”

Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo, by Sam Mills, is a long-form essay exploring attitudes and behaviour in a society where men can gain kudos from being regarded as feminists. In public they are perceived as empathetic and supportive of gender equality. In private there are still those who surreptitiously exert toxic power over women they choose to be involved with. The foundation of the author’s deliberations is her personal relationship with a gaslighter – the term is defined for those unclear as to its meaning. She explains how even an empowered woman can lose agency, and how difficult dealing with this can be when a man’s word can negatively impact one’s career.

Alongside the author’s own experiences, she includes research and interviews with those who have suffered physical as well as psychological abuse. The criminal justice system has proved itself inadequate when dealing with serious issues such as rape. How much, then, can it offer those who seek legal protection from abuse that is harder to define. Recognition is required for prevention. High profile cases are cited that shine a light on the significant costs to those who seek retribution for damage caused. Outing abusers on social media is not the answer, bringing as it does serious fallout for all involved.

The essay is both detailed and balanced. The author writes of how difficult it was to know how to best deal with a man she had willingly slept with before realising how manipulative and destabilising his behaviour towards her could be. There was a degree of shame and also loneliness in not knowing if he treated other women – some of them friends – in the same way. A conspiracy of silence added to the man’s power. His public persona remained that of the popular nice guy.

No easy answers are offered but, in highlighting these issues, Mills proves that women are not alone in having to deal with such men. One of the more depressing aspects discussed was how often other women downplay the suffering caused – blaming those who complain for making a fuss over nothing. Also mentioned is the argument that some women use the threat of false accusation as a weapon. They too can cause lasting damage.

The essay takes salient aspects of this important topic and presents them clearly, backing up points made with references to other publications – sources are listed. While these serve to provide further detail for those wishing to engage, I was personally familiar with what was presented. It is as stated ‘not all men’, but enough exist, to a greater or lesser degree, that all women will recognise conduct described.

What is perhaps most dispiriting is the lack of seriousness with which such behaviour is often regarded – some even claim it is natural and therefore unavoidable. Many men appear to consider the risk of being castigated for ‘minor indiscretions’ too high a price to pay for women’s safety and wellbeing. The author includes the recent phenomenon of employers eschewing attractive young women to avoid the risk of accusation, as if men are incapable of treating female colleagues as people rather than a sex object.

This book is writing with the potential to provoke discussion, lifting the lid on questions around interactions between men and women – on blame and impact. It provides a clear and prescient argument for all to behave better when complaints are aired – to listen and respond with care and consideration. A compelling and worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Indigo Press.

Book Review: The Pleasure of Regret

I first came across Scott Manley Hadley when I read his poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet. This intrigued me so I started to follow his blog, Triumph of the Now, where he posts his thoughts on books alongside how he is feeling. There is an honesty in his writing that can be shocking at times but is mostly refreshing given how caged most writers – and others – remain about what would be considered their private life.

The Pleasure of Regret is a memoir written in a mix of poetry and prose. It opens with a poem that encapsulates how certain adults try to pass on what they consider wisdom to their children as they reach adulthood – an endeavour that is unlikely to achieve the intended result.

“I think this man
Was not a man
Used to ignoring himself
And here
He confused
Arrogance
With wisdom.”

The advice giver is the father of a valued friend. Manley Hadley has a challenging relationship with his own parents who he grew to despise while attending grammar school, for reasons explained. He writes of the bullying endured at this place, and then the friends he made in sixth form. This section captures the magic of a period in life when everything seems possible – the intensity of friendships made in late teens.

“Nudity and poetry and music and liquor. Cigarettes and dinner jackets and-
I miss it.
I miss it most because I know it, and nothing like it, can ever happen again.”

“It felt magical because it felt like it would never end. It felt magical because I thought life would keep getting better.
It didn’t.”

The author goes to university – an establishment chosen for potential fun rather than academic rigour. Following graduation, he enters a toxic relationship with an older woman that will last a decade. The woman is wealthy and destructive – self-centred and manipulative. This period in Manley Hadley’s life is shaped by substance abuse and depression.

“When I began learning Spanish,
She disapproved.

She said,
“I already speak Spanish.”

She said,
“How is that going to help me?”

my favourite lines
are the lines of poems
her favourite lines
are not”

The breakdown of the relationship is followed by a severe mental health breakdown. As the author writes, not all wounds heal.

There follow sections in which Manley Hadley writes about his parents, both now suffering chronic health conditions that will likely bring forward their deaths. He acknowledges that they are not bad people, but that they didn’t give him what he needed from parents. Again, there is a rare honesty – few would openly admit to such feelings despite their omnipresence.

Footnotes in the book occasionally send the reader to the author’s earlier blog posts. I made sure to read these entries as they offer further understanding of how Manley Hadley’s life has been shaped.

Another thread explored is academia – a career choice considered when the author was trying to claw his way out of impending mental breakdown. The veneer is stripped from the hallowed spires, revealing a truth about how academics exist within their bubbles, revered by peers and detached from those unlike them.

“The academics, the readers, the thinkers… some professional, some – like me – amateur, were all linked by class and intellectual interest.”

The memoir closes with a timeline and then a diagnosis for the disorder the author suffers. While this leads to effective treatment it also eats into how he regards himself – defined, predictable, medically “wrong”.

How much truth can any memoir contain? The author is a poet and writes with laconic intensity. He shares shocking details yet leaves many blank spaces. He longs for love and seeks it in sex that leaves him empty. He harbours regrets and struggles to live with what he is.

This is poignant, powerful writing that offers insights both dark and exquisite. It is intoxicating and searching. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Fragments of my Father

“Being a carer can sometimes mean that you end up being an emotional punchbag. You have to remind yourself that it’s often your loved one’s illness speaking, not them.”

In the summer of 2010, Sam Mills’ mother, Glesney, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in her kidney. Sam’s father, Edward, had suffered from schizophrenia since she was a young child and Glesney had dedicated her married life to caring for him. Now she would need help. Their daughter agreed to move back to the family home in London, from a village outside Manchester where she had felt happily settled, to become her parents’ carer. Her two brothers had full time jobs whereas Sam’s work was mostly freelance. Nevertheless, she was unaware at the time the toll this role would take on her life and health.

The Fragments of my Father is a memoir chronicling the costs of caring for loved ones. Alongside her own experiences, Sam writes of other authors who were carers for many years – Leonard Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald. The former she regards in a positive light, unlike the latter. Although shocking at times, the details of these men’s treatment of their wives are explored with the caveat that carers are human whose own desires risk being subsumed by the needs of their mentally ill relative.

Edward suffers episodes of catatonia that result in him being sectioned and placed in care homes for the mentally unstable. His anti-psychotic medication is designed to prevent this – to provide scaffolding – but leaves him a shadow of the man he could otherwise have been.

 “It seemed such a waste, his life. If only he had been born in a different era, when his voice might have been accepted rather than labelled a sickness he had to fight. The medications he’d taken were not cures, just compromises, putting him in purgatory, half-awake, half-alive.”

Of course, this is not the whole story. When his drugs didn’t work Edward would become agitated and upset by the voices in his head. Unable to repress his emotions, he would express them in ways deemed unacceptable. Society couldn’t cope with his erratic behaviour – such as his choice to wander naked. Medication made him acceptable.

“his symptoms subdued into a sad, quiet existence”

Sam writes of her childhood – of her father’s absences and the impact his inability to hold down a job had on his family. She was a teenager before she understood his behaviour was a named illness – it took years to reach acceptance and look into what schizophrenia meant. When caring for him, she tried to work out what could have caused his mental breakdown. She muses on the balance between madness and the inspiration of artistic creatives.

Glesney married Edward with expectations of a fulfilling life that were repeatedly stymied. Sam reflects on what her mother lost, and on how she herself will cope with the ongoing situation and the pressures it brings. Caring demands more than action. It brings with it an emotional burden. Difficult decisions must be made for patient and carer.

I read this book as someone who chose the more selfish route. When my increasingly frail parents required hands-on support in their old age, I refused to leave my husband and children to move country – as requested by my sister – and share with her the burden of caring for them. As a result, she shouldered this alone for close to a decade until their deaths last year. The fraught and at times angry updates she would give me came to mind as I followed the experiences the author reflects on – her mental and physical exhaustion and need for breaks she couldn’t take.

Sam was unsure about writing this memoir but was encouraged by a friend to do so.

“I was worried being a carer might be seen as a boring topic to explore. Unglamorous. I said that perhaps I ought to choose a sexier subject. He replied that this was exactly why I ought to write it, because there are numerous books out there about doctors and high-flying surgeons and so few about those for whom caring is an unpaid, everyday duty. There are currently 6.5 million carers in the UK, which means that 1 in 8 of us are carers; the number is set to rise”

What comes to the fore in these reflections is the difficulty of providing for those in need when society has little interest in illness – regarding it as something to be managed stoically, or institutionalised. Family carers find their lives and choices revolving around the needs of their loved ones, their own requirements and ambitions slotted into whatever crevices they can carve out in terms of time and energy. There is love but also a strong sense of duty – ties that bind.

The book is structured in a fragmented timeline, jumping between: Sam’s life, the years spent caring for her mother, the effects of her father’s illness, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The language employed is direct, with just the occasional use of words I had to look up: inanition, quiddity. These help emphasise the author’s obvious intelligence, something carers must worry they lose recognition for when they take on a role that is largely undervalued.

This is a story that packs a punch and will resonate with all who have loved ones in need of care, or who face the prospect of need themselves. Sam does not hold herself up for admiration but rather presents this memoir as a cry for better support for all those who, like her, suffer emotionally and financially in order to keep loved ones well. It is also a reminder that mental health issues deserve more empathy and attention.

“psychiatry should not ask the question ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’

A poignant and timely read from a skilled writer. Recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Sanatorium

Abi Palmer is an artist and writer who has suffered from a disabling chronic illness since childhood. In this, her first book, she writes of the treatments she received and the effects they had on her body while attending a thermal water-based rehabilitation programme in Budapest, Hungary. Her visit was funded as part of a research project. Many of her fellow attendees pay for their own, annual visits. The sanitorium reminds the author of a hotel, with comparable private accommodation. This differs from her previous rehab experience, provided by the NHS, in which she shared a ward with 17 other patients.

Entries jump between Budapest, London and Chertsey.

The author lived in adapted accommodation in Chertsey, visited daily by time-stretched carers, to enable her to attend college. Some of the anecdotes she shares of this time, how she was treated, are horrific.

In London she lives with her partner, Hans. When no bathtub is provided in their flat – such provision goes against regulations in case she falls climbing in or out – she purchases an inflatable one from China. Its gradual deterioration is mined for metaphors of her body’s struggle to function adequately.

The stories are presented as short episodes of treatment, interactions and complications. The language used is poetic with much use of imagery.

The author has occasional out of body experiences and vivid dreams. She muses on Saint Teresa of Ávila, a Carmelite nun and mystic who claimed healing through instances of religious ecstasy. The author muses on this and her own sexual escapism.

The pain Palmer suffers is described in succinct yet vivid detail. She also has digestive issues and regular skin complications. Having lived with her condition for so long, she is wary of being pushed too hard at the sanatorium and suffering consequences. Nevertheless, she wishes to give the treatments offered in Budapest a chance before refusing them.

Occasional sketches, drawn by Nick Murray, enhance the text – as does the generous use of white space.

The theme of floating – in water, air and mind – is made more salient due to Palmer’s inability to physically support her body easily. Walking unaided for just a few minutes is a challenge – movement requires mobility aids. Those offering treatment are not always sympathetic to the recurrent pain the author lives with. All this is presented through action and consequence alongside graphic description.

Back in London, Palmer feels well enough to attend a party with friends.

“It felt really nice to be included. I also didn’t have the usual feeling that haunts me: I wish I’d been able to stay longer, I wish I fitted in, I wish I felt part of things.”

I hesitate to describe this as a beautiful book given its sometimes devastating subject matter, yet there is an exquisite quality to the writing that brings it alive. The visionary prose does not shy away from bodily functions and their occasionally gross aspects. What lingers is more rarefied.

Living with pain is shown to be exhausting and consuming but there is more to the author’s life than survival. She retains her appreciation for that which she finds comforting or aesthetically rewarding. An eye-opening but still life affirming read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.