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September 2018

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Read an Extract from Erebus: The Story of a Ship
21st September 2018

Read an Extract from Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Erebus: The Story of a Ship

Michael Palin, the exceptionally well-travelled Python and national treasure, has turned his attention to the extraordinary tale of HMS Erebus—from its launch in 1826, through epic voyages exploring the world's oceans and to the catastrophe that lead to the ship being lost to history for over 170 years.

Read on, below, to find out more about Michael Palin's passion for the sea and how he became determined to tell Erebus' story.

 


I’ve always been fascinated by sea stories. I discovered C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels when I was eleven or twelve, and scoured Sheffield city libraries for any I might have missed. For harder stuff, I moved on to The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat – one of the most powerful books of my childhood, even though I was only allowed to read the ‘Cadet’ edition, with all the sex removed. In the 1950s there was a spate of films about the Navy and war: The Sea Shall Not Have Them, Above Us the Waves, Cockleshell Heroes. They were stories of heroism, pluck and survival against all the odds. Unless you were in the engine room, of course.

 

As luck would have it, much later in life I ended up spending a lot of time on ships, usually far from home, with only a BBC camera crew and one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels for company. I found myself, at different times, on an Italian cruise ship, frantically thumbing through Get By in Arabic as we approached the Egyptian coast, and in the Persian Gulf, dealing with an attack of diarrhoea on a boat whose only toilet facility was a barrel slung over the stern. I’ve been white-water rafting below the Victoria Falls, and marlin-fishing (though not catching) on the Gulf Stream – what Hemingway called ‘the great blue river’. I’ve been driven straight at a canyon wall by a jet boat in New Zealand, and have swabbed the decks of a Yugoslav freighter on the Bay of Bengal. None of this has put me off. There’s something about the contact between boat and water that I find very natural and very comforting. After all, we emerged from the sea and, as President Kennedy once said, ‘we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea . . . we are going back to whence we came’.

 

In 2013 I was asked to give a talk at the Athenaeum Club in London. The brief was to choose a member of the club, dead or alive, and tell their story in an hour. I chose Joseph Hooker, who ran the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for much of the nineteenth century. I had been filming in Brazil and heard stories of how he had pursued a policy of ‘botanical imperialism’, encouraging plant-hunters to bring exotic, and commercially exploitable, specimens back to London. Hooker acquired rubber-tree seeds from the Amazon, germinated them at Kew and exported the young shoots to Britain’s Far Eastern colonies. Within two or three decades the Brazilian rubber industry was dead, and the British rubber industry was flourishing.

 

I didn’t get far into my research before I stumbled across an aspect of Hooker’s life that was something of a revelation. In 1839, at the unripe age of twenty-two, the bearded and bespectacled gentleman that I knew from faded Victorian photographs had been taken on as assistant surgeon and botanist on a four-year Royal Naval expedition to the Antarctic. The ship that took him to the unexplored ends of the earth was called HMS Erebus. The more I researched the journey, the more astonished I became that I had previously known so little about it. For a sailing ship to have spent eighteen months at the furthest end of the earth, to have survived the treacheries of weather and icebergs, and to have returned to tell the tale was the sort of extraordinary achievement that one would assume we would still be celebrating. It was an epic success for HMS Erebus .

 

Pride, however, came before a fall. In 1846 this same ship, along with her sister ship Terror and 129 men, vanished off the face of the earth whilst trying to find a way through the Northwest Passage. It was the greatest single loss of life in the history of British polar exploration.

 

I wrote and delivered my talk on Hooker, but I couldn’t get the adventures of Erebus out of my mind. They were still lurking there in the summer of 2014, when I spent ten nights at the O2 Arena in Greenwich with a group of fellow geriatrics, including John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, but sadly not Graham Chapman, in a show called Monty Python Live – One Down Five to Go. These were extraordinary shows in front of extraordinary audiences, but after I had sold the last dead parrot and sung the last lumberjack song, I was left with a profound sense of anticlimax. How do you follow something like that? One thing was for sure: I couldn’t go over the same ground again. Whatever I did next, it would have to be something completely different.

 

Two weeks later, I had my answer. On the evening news on 9th September I saw an item that stopped me in my tracks. At a press conference in Ottawa, the Prime Minister of Canada announced to the world that a Canadian underwater archaeology team had discovered what they believed to be HMS Erebus, lost for almost 170 years, on the seabed somewhere in the Arctic. Her hull was virtually intact, its contents preserved by the ice. From the moment I heard that, I knew there was a story to be told. Not just a story of life and death, but a story of life, death and a sort of resurrection.

 

What really happened to the Erebus? What was she like? What did she achieve? How did she survive so much, only to disappear so mysteriously?

 

I’m not a naval historian, but I have a sense of history. I’m not a seafarer, but I’m drawn to the sea. With only the light of my own enthusiasm to guide me, I wondered where on earth I should start such an adventure. An obvious candidate was the institution that had been the prime mover of so many Arctic and Antarctic expeditions from the 1830s onwards. And one that I knew something about, having for three years been its President.

 

So I headed to the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington and put to the Head of Enterprises and Resources, Alasdair MacLeod, the nature of my obsession and the presumption of my task. Any leads on HMS Erebus?

 

He furrowed his brow and thought for a bit: ‘Erebus  . . . hmm . . . Erebus ?’ Then his eyes lit up. ‘Yes,’ he said triumphantly, ‘yes, of course! We’ve got Hooker’s stockings.’

 

Actually they had quite a bit more, but this was my first dip into the waters of maritime research, and ever since then I’ve regarded Hooker’s stockings as a kind of spiritual talisman. They were nothing special: cream-coloured, knee-length, thickly knitted and rather crusty. But over the last year, as I’ve travelled the world in the company of Erebus, and come close to overwhelming myself with books, letters, plans, drawings, photographs, maps, novels, diaries, captains’ logs and stokers’ journals and everything else about her, I thank Hooker’s stockings for setting me off on this remarkable journey.

 


 

Michael Palin has written and starred in numerous TV programmes and films, from Monty Python and Ripping Yarns to The Missionary and American Friends. He has also made several much-acclaimed travel documentaries, his journeys taking him to the North and South Poles, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, Eastern Europe and Brazil. His books include accounts of his journeys, novels (Hemingway’s Chair and The Truth) and several volumes of diaries. From 2009 to 2012 he was president of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 2013 he was made a BAFTA fellow. He lives in London.

 

 

Man Booker Shortlist 2018 Announced
20th September 2018

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2018

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2018 

It's here! This year's Man Booker shortlist has been announced: cue the Oohs, Aahs and Wows as we look over the finalists and start guessing the winner in earnest. 2018's Booker dozen longlist spanned genre, format and theme, giving the judges plenty to choose from; they've whittled their way down to six books guaranteed to stimulate conversation and debate.

 

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman by Anna Burns

Set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Orange Prize shortlisted-author Anna Burns explores the tribalism and oppression of the time through a young narrator happier deep in 19th-century fiction than facing reality. We can't put it better than The Guardian:

'The narrator of Milkman disrupts the status quo not through being political, heroic or violently opposed, but because she is original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique: different. The same can be said of this book.'

 

 

 

Everything Under by Daisy JohnsonEverything Under by Daisy Johnson

Daisy Johnson's collection of short stories, Fen, was one of our debuts of the year back in 2016. Everything Under is her first full-length novel and is an atmospheric delve into the meanings of family, language and memory. Its mystical edge and mythology framing make it an absorbing read. Here's Matt from our Web Team:

'It's a murky fairytale traversing the real and imagined that unwinds like a slow-running river to reveal a family secret.'

 

 

 

The Overstory by Richard PowersThe Overstory by Richard Powers

A ‘Moby-Dick for trees’ is how we've been describing this monumental, intertwining American epic of interconnected characters and lives. Wide-ranging in time and space, and with a fablelike quality, The Overstory is a magnificent and captivating work of imagination. Powers has a purpose in his writing too, to raise awareness of the delicate balance of the eco-system and our place in it; as The Atlantic says he 'has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma.'

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

We've been Esi Edugyan fans since her Man Booker and Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues first hit the shelves. Washington Black is a young slave whose life is irrevocably and radically changed by an inventor in a flying machine, whose beguiling adventures take in a multitude of disparate landscapes. Kirsty from our Buying Team says it's a book 

'full of vividly-drawn, lovable (and detestable) characters, this is a compulsively readable adventure set amid the world of 19th century slavery and science.'

 

 

The Mars Room by Rachel KushnerThe Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room deals with a challenging topic, one that Rachel Kushner handles brilliantly to produce a panoramic, unsentimental novel of life in a women's prison and lives on the margins of society. She pulls out the human stories amid a system designed to dehumanise and destroy without flinching from the violent and shocking realities.

Jenny, from our Design Team, found it a 'brutally honest and exposes the shattering reality of life within the American justice system.'

 

 

The Long Take by Robin RobertsonThe Long Take by Robin Robertson

Verse and prose collide in this epic noir of fragmentation in post-war America, from prize-winning Scottish poet Robin Robertson. He charts the collapse of the American Dream in a roaming, haunting and original work. Our Head of Fiction, Ben, is a huge fan:

'A gritty, hard boiled, long-form poem sweeping across noir New York and Los Angeles, which tells the tale of a soldier suffering with PTSD and its knock-on effects, the brutality of which the poem only slows down from to remind you of the beautiful redemption life can offer.'

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read an Extract from Living With the Gods
18th September 2018

Read an Extract from Living with the Gods

Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor's fascinating new book is a panoramic tour of 40,000 years of spiritual and religious beliefs, seen through objects, monuments and shared narratives. Beginning in the Ice Age, it explores how societies have understood their part and place in the universe. It’s sumptuously illustrated throughout and is a pleasure to dip into or read chapter by chapter. Read an extract below, introducing the enigmatic Lion Man statuette.

 


The Beginnings of Belief

 

On 25 August 1939 two men were excavating at the back of Stadel cave in the Hohlenstein cliff, not far from Ulm in south- west Germany. The area, just north of the Danube, was known to contain remarkable material from the Ice Age, and it was hoped that this cave might yield some new finds. It was the last day of the dig: as everybody knew, war was about to break out. Both men – the anatomist Robert Wetzel and the geologist Otto Völzing – had received their call-up papers for the German army.

 

As Wetzel and Völzing were preparing to pack away their tools, they made a discovery. Forty metres in, in a further, smaller cave, they found many tiny fragments of mammoth ivory which looked as though they had been worked by human hands. But there was no time to examine the fragments, or to begin to work out what they were or what they might mean. They were packed away with other material from the excavation, and put into temporary storage, and the two men went off to war.

 

Wetzel briefly noted in a local scientific journal in 1941 that he and Völzing had made a ‘sensational’ find, but for thirty years no one really knew what they had discovered. The finds from the dig lay in crates housed first at Tübingen University, then in an air raid shelter in Ulm, before finally reaching the city museum there. The task of sorting and publishing the material from the cave excavation of thirty years previously was eventually given to its curator, Joachim Hahn, in 1969.

 

The Lion Man

 

Within just a few days, something remarkable happened. Hahn and two colleagues realized that 200 or so of the mammoth ivory fragments could be put together to form a standing figure, around thirty centimetres in height. What was more, this figure was human – but not entirely so. In its incomplete state, Hahn thought it might be part bear. But with the incorporation of more fragments discovered some years later, the full pattern finally became clear. This was indeed a human body, but with the head of a lion. He quickly became known as der Löwenmensch, ‘the Lion Man’.

 

Legs apart, arms a little out from his sides, he stands upright, perhaps on tiptoe, leaning slightly forward: a macho, somewhat aggressive pose. The calves, carefully shaped, are clearly human, and the navel is just where it ought to be on a model of a man. The upper body is slender, more feline, but on top of it are strong shoulders and an extraordinary head.

 

Jill Cook is the British Museum’s expert in deep history:

This is the head of a cave lion, common in Ice Age Europe, and bigger than the modern African lion. The head is looking at us with a powerful, direct gaze. The mouth seems almost to smile. The ears are cocked, and inside them you can see the small opening for the auditory canal. When you look in detail at the back, you can see behind the ear little furrows, formed where the muscles contract to turn the ear in order to listen. This is not a human being wearing a mask. This is a creature, albeit a creature that cannot exist. And he is attentive, he is listening, he is watching.

 

Radiocarbon dating indicates that the Lion Man is around 40,000 years old, which means it was made towards the end of the last Ice Age, a dating supported by information gathered from other material found in the area. If that is indeed the case, as seems probable, then this small sculpture holds a unique place in human history. It is not just a supreme representation of two closely observed species: it is by some margin the oldest evidence yet found of the human mind giving physical form to something which can never have been seen. For the first time that we know of, a combination which could exist only in the imagination, an abstraction, has here been made physically graspable. Nature has been reimagined and reshaped, the boundary between human and animal dissolved. The Lion Man represents a cognitive leap to a world beyond nature, and beyond human experience.

 


 

Neil MacGregor was the Director of the British Museum 2002-2015. He was Director of the National Gallery in London from 1987 to 2002. His celebrated books include A History of the World in 100 Objects, now translated into more than a dozen languages and one of the top-selling titles ever published by Penguin Press, Shakespeare's Restless World and Germany: Memories of a Nation.

 

 

What Would Boudicca Do?
11th September 2018

What Would Boudicca Do?

What Would Boudicca Do?

Modern life is rubbish. It's time to stand up and take inspiration from some of history's greatest and fiercest women. Let the likes of Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker, Hypatia and Cleopatra, Coco Chanel and Empress Cixihe be your guide to killing it at work, figuring out who you are and conquering everyday life.

Read Dorothy Parker's advice on how to handle jerks, below.

 


Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks

 

Dorothy Parker credit Bijou KarmanIt is a truth universally acknowledged that, at the exact moment you fully invest in a relationship, the object of your affections turns out to be an emotionally immature sociopath.

Experience tells us that there is no point attempt­ing to change your beloved jerk’s behaviour if you make this distressing diagnosis. But just think of the material it gives you for bitching with your friends, moaning to your mother and penning venge­ful WhatsApp messages to your crew. And there’s one spiky sister from history who took her painful romantic experiences and transformed them into the most cracking copy. Dorothy Parker was a literary alchemist who turned her dejection into profession­al comedy gold. No one remembers her husbands or the names of her negligent paramours – but her words are etched onto our psyches as the best retorts ever committed to paper. How could one possibly better ‘It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard’ (about the man who knocked her up, resulting in an abortion), ‘Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both’, or ‘Ducking for apples – change one letter and it’s the story of my life.’

Dorothy Rothschild was the fourth child of a moder­ately prosperous couple who lived happily in Manhat­tan until Dorothy’s mother died. Her father remarried a devout Catholic whom Dotty did not take to, refus­ing to address her as Mother, Stepmother or even her given name, preferring instead ‘the housekeeper’. Ouch. Dot had a keen eye for turning personal tragedy into great stories, so it’s hard to know how much of her family myth is just that, but we do know that in 1917 she married Edwin Pond Parker II, a quietly alcohol­ic stockbroker. The marriage was unhappy, and it’s said she had several affairs, notably with the writer Charles MacArthur (he of the eggs and bastard). She also began to throw herself into work.

In 1918 Dorothy became the theatre critic of Van­ity Fair, replacing none other than P. G. Wodehouse, and she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most vicious voices in journalism. She was a regular at the daily lunch of the infamous ‘Algonquin Round Table’, where the most loquacious scribblers, actors and wits of the day would meet to verbally scrap it out. In 1920 she was fired and went freelance, pub­lishing poems and stories, and in 1927 landed a gig as a book reviewer for The New Yorker. She would be its ‘Constant Reader’ until the end of her life.

Dorothy lived at a time when the hedonism of the 1920s was revolutionising life for middle-class wom­en: they cut their hair short, smoked, drank, embraced the sexual revolution, took pride in backchat, drove cars, indulged in consumerism and listened to jazz. The respectable older generation viewed them as a dangerous, reckless force for evil. There was also plenty of handwringing from old-school feminists who had campaigned for political equality and questioned the flappers’ self-absorption and wondered if the pur­suit of having-it-all would in fact result in having-not-very-much – and a life that felt lonely, disappointed and bitter. Sound familiar, O woman of the twenty-first century? For Parker, though, the freedom to write the human condition – painful, heart-breaking, but often very, very funny – was paramount.

Her marriage to Edwin ended in divorce in the late 1920s, and in 1932 Parker met Alan Campbell, a much younger actor who had published a few short stories. They married in 1934, and soon after were approached by an agent who told them they could make it big in Hollywood, baby, and they did indeed become successful scriptwriters, even being nominat­ed for two Academy Awards. In LA, Dorothy became a political activist; she opposed the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain, and was investigated by the FBI. Her second marriage failed but her activism endured, and on her death she left everything in her will to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, with her estate even­tually going to the NAACP (see Rosa Parks on p. 25).

She had written her own epitaph, ‘Excuse my dust’, yet another masterclass in devastating brevity, but in a strange twist concerning an argument over her will, the urn containing her ashes languished in her attorney’s filing cabinet for seventeen years, until the NAACP insisted it be interred at their HQ in Balti­more.

So the next time you get ghosted after the third date, or find yourself baffled by the fact that your partner is incapable of expressing emotion, think of Dorothy Parker and her exceptional, unforgettable ability to turn even the most embarrassing romantic rejection into a pithy, polished putdown. Yes, there’s despair in her writing about the misery of a woman’s lot, but her defiance, vicious wit and superhuman cocktail-swilling capacity for partying shines through. She was the enemy of the boring and mundane, a sis­ter of sass with a razor-sharp mind.

Illustration by Bijou Karmen

 


E.Foley-and- B.Coates_credit_Noor Sufi

E. Foley and B Coates are editors based in London. Since working on this book they have begun to channel Elizabeth 1's famed public-speaking skills and taken tips from Mrs Beeton when battling imposter syndrome. Bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups and Shakespeare for Grown-Ups, they are anything but imposters when it comes to writing.

Bijou Karmen is an artist and illustrator from Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

Read an Extract from Liquid
6th September 2018

Read an Extract from Liquid

From the bestselling author of Stuff Matters comes a fascinating tour of the world of these surprising and sometimes sinister liquids - the droplets, heartbeats and ocean waves we encounter day-to-day. Structured around a plane journey that sees encounters with water, wine and oil, among others, Miodownik shows that liquids can be agents of death and destruction as well as substances of wonder and fascination. Read below an exclusive extract from Liquid.

 


Explosives

 

As soon as the aircraft doors closed, and we pushed back from the gate at Heathrow Airport, a voice announced the beginning of the pre-flight safety briefing.

 

‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this British Airways flight to San Francisco. Before our departure, may we have your attention while the cabin crew point out the safety features aboard this aeroplane.’

 

I always find this a disconcerting way to start a flight. I am convinced that it’s a fake: that the safety briefing isn’t really about safety at all. For a start, they fail to mention the tens of thousands of litres of aviation fuel on board. It is the enormous amount of energy contained in this liquid that allows us to fly at all; its fiery nature is what powers the jet engines so that they’re capable of taking, in our case, 400 passengers in a 250-ton aircraft from a standing start on the runway to a cruising speed of 500 mph, and to a height of 40,000 feet, in a matter of minutes. The sheer awesome power of this liquid fuels our wildest dreams. It allows us to soar above the clouds and travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. It’s the same stuff that took the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space in his rocket, and that fuels the latest generation of SpaceX rockets, which fire satellites into the atmosphere. It is called kerosene.

 

Kerosene is a transparent, colourless fluid that, confusingly, looks exactly like water. So where is all that hidden energy stored, all that hidden power? Why doesn’t the storage of all that raw energy inside the liquid make it appear, well, more syrupy and dangerous? And why is it not mentioned in the pre-flight safety briefing?

 

If you were to zoom in and have a look at kerosene on the atomic scale, you would see that its structure is like spaghetti. The backbone of each strand is made of carbon atoms, with each one bonded to the next. Every carbon is attached to two hydrogen atoms, except at the ends of the molecule, which have three hydrogen atoms. At this scale you can easily tell the difference between kerosene and water. In water there isn’t a spaghetti structure, but rather a chaotic jumble of small V- shaped molecules (one oxygen atom attached to two hydrogen atoms, H2 O). No, at this scale kerosene more closely resembles olive oil, which is also comprised of carbon-based molecules all jumbled up together. But where the strands in kerosene are more like spaghetti, in olive oil they’re branched and twirled. Because the molecules in olive oil are a more complex shape than the ones in kerosene, it’s harder for them to wiggle past each other, and so the liquid flows less easily – in other words, olive oil is more viscous than kerosene. They’re both oils, and on an atomic level they look relatively similar, but, because of their structural differences, olive oil is gloopy while kerosene pours more like water. This difference doesn’t just determine how viscous these oils are, but also how flammable.

 


A Financial Times Master of Science and chosen by The Times as one of the 100 most influential scientists in the UK, Mark Miodownik is Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, where he is also Director of the Institute of Making. He is the author of the book Stuff Matters, a New York Times bestseller which won the Royal Society Winton Prize. Mark has also received the Michael Faraday Prize for his expertise in science communication. He presents BBC TV and Radio programmes on science and engineering such as Everyday Miracles, How It Works, Chefs vs Science, Secrets of the Super Elements and recently made a three-part BBC Radio 4 documentary called Plastic Fantastic.

 

 

Read an Extract From Into the Grey Zone
3rd September 2018 - Adrian Owen

 Read an Extract from Into the Grey Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death

 

Cover of Into the Grey Zone 

A world-renowned neuroscientist, ​in 2006 Adrian, together with his team, made medical history. Through their groundbreaking work with patients whose brains were thought to be vegetative or non-responsive, they discovered a new realm of consciousness, a twilight zone somewhere between life and death, which they called the Grey Zone. In up to 20 percent of cases, patients whose brains were considered vegetative were in fact found ​to be vibrantly alive, existing in the​'Gre​y Zone', an intact mind trapped deep inside a broken body and brain. Not quite living, and not quite gone, they have existed silently in these shadowlands. But now, through Dr Owen’s pioneering techniques and MRI scanning technology, we can talk to them – and they can talk back. Through unsettling and miraculous stories, Owen challenges us to think about the difference between a brain and a mind, a body and a person. In probing the borderlands between life and death, Owen begins to unravel the mystery of what makes us us - and what it truly means to be alive. 

 

Read an extract from this remarkable book below.

 

 


PROLOGUE

 

I’d been watching Amy for almost an hour when she finally moved. She had been sleeping when I arrived at her bedside in a small Canadian hospital a few miles from Niagara Falls. It seemed unnecessary, even a little rude, to wake her. I knew there was little point in trying to assess vegetative-state patients when they are half-asleep.

 

It wasn’t much of a movement. Amy’s eyes flicked open; her head came up off the pillow. She stayed that way, rigid and un­blinking, her eyes roving around the ceiling. Her thick dark hair was cropped short, but perfectly styled, as though someone had been working on it only moments earlier. Was this sudden move­ment simply the result of automatic firing of the neural circuitry in her brain?

 

I peered into Amy’s eyes. All I saw was emptiness. That same deep well of emptiness that I had seen countless times before in people who, like Amy, were thought to be 'awake but unaware'. Amy gave nothing back. She yawned. A big openmouthed yawn, followed by an almost mournful sigh as her head collapsed back onto the pillow.

 

Seven months after her accident, it was hard to imagine the per­son Amy must once have been — a smart college-varsity basketball player with everything to live for. She’d left a bar late one night with a group of friends. The boyfriend she’d walked out on ear­lier that evening was waiting. He shoved her and she toppled, slamming her head on a concrete curb. Another person might have walked away with a few stitches or a concussion, but Amy was not so lucky. Her brain hit the inside of her skull. It pulled from its moorings. Axons stretched and blood vessels tore as ripples of shock waves lacerated and bruised critical regions far from the point of impact. Now Amy had a feeding tube surgically inserted into her stomach that supplied her with essential fluids and nutrients. A catheter drained her urine. She had no control over her bowels, and she was in diapers.

 

Two male doctors breezed into the room. 'What do you think?' said the more senior of the two, looking straight at me.

'I won’t know unless we do the scans,' I replied.

'Well, I’m not a betting man, but I’d say she’s in a vegetative state!' He was upbeat, almost jovial.

 

I didn’t respond.

 

The two doctors turned to Amy’s parents, Bill and Agnes, who’d been patiently sitting while I observed her. A good-looking couple in their late forties, they were clearly exhausted. Agnes gripped Bill’s hand as the doctors explained that Amy didn’t understand speech or have memories, thoughts or feelings, and that she couldn’t feel pleasure or pain. They gently reminded Bill and Agnes that she would require round-the-clock care for as long as she lived. In the absence of an advanced directive stating otherwise, shouldn’t they consider taking Amy off life support and allowing her to die? After all, isn’t that what she would have wanted?

 

Amy’s parents weren’t ready to take that step and signed a con­sent form to allow me to put her in an fMRI scanner and search for signs that some part of the Amy they loved was still there. An ambulance shuttled Amy to Western University in London, Ontario, where I run a lab that specialises in the assessment ofpatients who have sustained acute brain injuries or suffer from the ravages of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Through incredible new scanning technology, we connect with these brains, visualising their function and mapping their inner universe. In return, they reveal to us how we think and feel, the scaffolding of our consciousness, and the architecture of our sense of self — they illuminate the essence of what it means to be alive and human.

 

Five days later I walked back into Amy’s room, where I found Bill and Agnes by her bedside. They looked up at me expectantly. I paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and then gave them the news that they hadn’t allowed themselves to hope for:

 

'The scans have shown us that Amy is not in a vegetative state after all. In fact, she’s aware of everything.'

 

After five days of intensive investigation we had found that Amy was more than just alive — she was entirely conscious. She had heard every conversation, recognised every visitor, and listened intently to every decision being made on her behalf. Yet she had been unable to move a muscle to tell the world, 'I’m still here. I’m not dead yet!'

 

***

Into the Grey Zone is the story of how we figured out how to make contact with people such as Amy, and the profound effects for science, medicine, philosophy, and law of what has become a new and rapidly evolving field of inquiry. Perhaps most important, we have discovered that 15 to 20 per cent of people in the vegetative state who are assumed to have no more awareness than a head of broccoli are fully conscious, although they never respond to any form of external stimulation. They may open their eyes, grunt and groan, occasionally utter isolated words. Like zombies, they appear to live entirely in their own world, devoid of thoughts or feelings. Many really are as oblivious and incapable of thought as their doctors believe. But a sizable number are experiencing something quite different: intact minds adrift deep within dam­aged bodies and brains.

 

The vegetative state is one realm in the shadowlands of the grey zone. Coma is another. Comatose people do not open their eyes and look completely unaware. In the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty (which most parents know all too well), Aurora’s condition resembles coma, akin to a bewitched slumber. In real life, the picture is far less romantic: disfiguring head injuries, contorted limbs, broken bones, and wasting illnesses are the norm.

 

Some people in the grey zone can signal that they’re aware. Referred to as minimally conscious, they occasionally respond to requests to move a finger or track an object with their eyes. They seem to fade in and out of awareness, occasionally emerging from some deep pool of oblivion, breaking the surface and signalling their presence before sinking back into the murky depths.

 

Locked-in syndrome is not technically a grey-zone state, but it is close enough to give us insight into what life might be like for some of the people we scan. Locked-in people are fully conscious and can typically blink or move their eyes. Jean-Dominique Bauby, French editor of Elle magazine, was a famous example of someone locked in. A massive stroke left him permanently paralysed except for the ability to blink his left eye. With the help of an assistant and a writing board, he composed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir, which took two hundred thousand blinks to complete.

 

Bauby vividly recounted his experience: 'My mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. . . . You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realise your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.' Of course, this is Bauby’s 'butterfly': the mind unbound, unconstrained by physicality or responsibility, free to flit here and there. But Bauby was also locked inside the 'diving bell', an iron chamber from which there is no escape and which sinks ever deeper into the abyss.

 

Back at Amy’s bedside a few days after her MRI scans, I again sat watching her closely, desperately wanting to know what she was thinking and feeling. All of those convulsive movements and spasmodic gurgles. Was her experience like Bauby’s? Had she entered Bauby’s imaginative realm of freedom and possibility? Or was her inner world an excruciating prison from which there was no escape?

 

Following our scans, Amy’s life changed beyond recognition. Agnes would barely leave her bedside, reading to her more or less constantly. Bill popped in each morning, delivering the daily papers and updating Amy on the latest family gossip. A constant stream of friends and relatives visited. Amy went home on week­ends, and parties were held on her birthdays. She was taken to the movies. The care staff always introduced themselves to her, explaining that they were going to wash or change her before approaching her bedside. Every intervention, every drug, every change of routine, was carefully explained. After seven months in the grey zone, Amy became a person again.

 

I didn’t delve into this new field of science with anything resem­bling a clear idea in mind of what I wanted to do. The beginning felt like a fluke, an offhand coincidence. Yet as I look back, it’s clear that what set this story in motion points to the inner fabric that binds all of us together in ways that are monstrously complex and impossible to anticipate. My explorations into the grey zone emerged out of something dark and strange that happened in a leafy, genteel suburb of south London on a warm July day twenty years ago. . .

 


 

 

 

 

© W&G Foyle Ltd
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