- Waterstones children’s book prize goes to ‘mesmerising’ debut adventure story
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars praised for ‘good, old-fashioned storytelling’ that recalls Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
A novel inspired by childhood travels to the volcanic island of La Gomera and the traditional stories of the Canary Islands has scooped the Waterstones children’s book prize for a 27-year-old poet and playwright.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut The Girl of Ink and Stars was named overall winner of the prestigious award by children’s laureate Chris Riddell at a ceremony in the bookselling chain’s flagship store in London’s Piccadilly.
Influenced by Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, the book was described by Waterstones managing director James Daunt as “wonderful”. “It’s a story that’s quite timeless, and I expect people will be reading it in years to come,” he said.
The book tells the story of cartographer’s daughter Isabella Riosse. She lives on the island of Joya, which is reigned over by a strict governor. When her best friend Lupa disappears into a forbidden forest, she volunteers to find her using the island’s myths and the maps given to her by her father.
An award-winning poet, Millwood Hargrave is a graduate of Cambridge and Oxford and was a Barbican Young Poet. Daunt said The Girl of Ink and Stars represented the “heart” of the chain’s mission, which is to promote “good, old-fashioned storytelling”.
Judge Florentyna Martin, who is Waterstones’ buyer for children’s books, described the novel as a joy to read. “It is always exciting when we see this level of outstanding talent in a new writer, and Kiran has crafted a mesmerising world full of myths, magic and adventure that evokes an atmosphere akin to Pullman’s His Dark Materials,” she said.
The £5,000 prize champions new and emerging talent in children’s writing and is unique in that it is voted for solely by booksellers. The Girl of Ink and Stars beat strong competition for the overall award from Lizzy Stewart’s There’s a Tiger in the Garden, which won the category for illustrated books, and Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, which took the prize for older fiction.
Stewart’s book was praised by Martin as “bold, bright and beautiful” picture book that “leaps off the page”. Lawrence’s debut Orangeboy was praised for its truthful and gripping storytelling, as well as its “rounded, believable teen characters”.
Daunt said the three books showed that the trend for children’s books by celebrities had not pushed other writers out of the market. He was relaxed about the use of ghostwriters to produce books branded under the names of TV, sports and reality stars. “Ultimately the quality of the book will out,” he said. “If a celebrity brings people into a bookshop and brings people into reading books, it is all for the good.”
He did add a caveat, however. “If a celebrity is producing tosh, then readers won’t come back for another one. It’s like bad TV, bad films or bad anything. The only thing that really works is quality.”
2. Elan Mastai: ‘I wrote about my mother’s death, but I used time machines to do it
When Elan Mastai was 26, his mother died. “I think about where I am right now in my life, and it’s hard to imagine it the way it is had my mother not died,” says the Canadian screenwriter, now 43. “I started writing because of that. I started going from wanting to be a writer to actually writing. The last gift my mother gave me was the awareness that I don’t have unlimited time. When you’re young, it’s very easy to be your own worst enemy. It’s very easy to create a lot of obstacles that keep you from going after the things you want to do. It’s very easy to convince yourself that if you don’t try you won’t fail. Losing my mom changed that for me.”
Over the next decade, Mastai built a successful Hollywood career, with writing credits including Alone in the Dark, The Samaritan (released as Fury in the UK) and the Daniel Radcliffe-Zoe Kazan romcom What If. But in 2013, when he started thinking about a story where a man strands himself in an alternate reality, Mastai realised that it wouldn’t be a screenplay, but a novel – a revelation he describes as “a little bit intimidating”.
Sitting in Penguin Random House’s imposing building on the Strand, Mastai has an air of confidence that suggests nothing would intimidate him for very long. After more than a decade in the film industry, he was ready for a new challenge. “I had never really written too much about that experience of losing my mom. I didn’t want to write some sort of grim and depressing memoir about it either … So on one level I was writing about my mother’s death, but I used time machines and flying cars to do it.”
Landing Mastai an astronomical $1.25m (£1m) advance, All Our Wrong Todays is a mind-bending time-travel caper that follows Tom, a voyager from an alternate 21st century who is marooned in our contemporary world. As he casts a jaundiced eye over our drab reality, Tom tries to return to his own – but his journey has altered more than the advanced technology he’s grown used to. It has also changed the people he knew. Having fled a world in which his mother was recently killed and where he’s a perpetual disappointment to his domineering father, Tom arrives in our world to find a sister he never had, his father a changed man, and his mother still alive. The course of world history may have flipped – but the disorientation in his personal life feels just as acute.
As the press tour for What If loomed, Mastai tapped out an opening for All Our Wrong Todays on his phone and found he’d discovered the novel’s voice. He carried on writing it on the road, snatching 15 minutes here and there between events, writing a couple of hundred words at a time. When he returned to his day job, he decided to “just squirrel away a little time to get the first draft done. And when it was done I felt like: ‘OK, this is not totally embarrassing. There’s something here.’”
Freed from the constraints of cinema, Mastai found himself experimenting with purely literary effects: in one chapter the text runs backwards, while another is constructed entirely out of the words “shit” and “fuck”.
“If I was going to write a book, I wanted it to do all the things that books can do, but you can’t do in any other form,” he says. “I wanted to embrace the form.” Now he’s signed a contract to write a screenplay of his book, Mastai admits his experimentation is proving to be a challenge. “On the very first meeting with the studio, I said: ‘These are the five big changes we need to make, and if I don’t say them, we’re going to be dancing around it.’ And I could see that everybody was … relieved. Not because they want to change it, but they also recognise that there are certain things that we just can’t do. I think they were concerned that I didn’t know that.”
Mastai, now working on his second novel, likens screenwriting to playing football or wrestling – with writing a novel more like going for a swim: “You feel like you’re effortlessly gliding, but then you can also drown.” He enjoys the freedom being a novelist allows him compared with screenwriting, where he says his work is “filtered through multiple layers – you’re not getting a chance to express yourself cleanly and purely”.
“As a writer that’s what you fundamentally want,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a screenwriter, a novelist, a journalist – with any kind of writing you’re trying to use words to express yourself as clearly and compellingly as possible. In screenwriting, you’re stymied systemically. So that’s what’s rewarding for me: for better or for worse, however somebody interprets the book, I got to express myself as clearly as I could.”
3.The Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue – review
Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.
The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.
The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform. The narrative takes us through Napoleonic Egypt, Tanzimât Istanbul and Tehran in the 19th century, and the swirl of nationalism and counter-enlightenment beyond. De Bellaigue makes it clear that in the Islamic east, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a lot happened – in some cases reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution – in very little time. The telegraph appeared within a heartbeat of the movable-type printing press; trains arrived at the same time as independent newspapers. Many of the challenging concepts being gingerly embraced by Islamic pioneers were also being given a name for the first time in the west – “human rights” in the 1830s, feminism in the 1890s. The tsunami of modernity was both thrilling and fearful.
On occasion, as with the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, the enlighteners were “both modernisers and martinets”. Often they died for their ideas. The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani, who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told. As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details. Egyptians, for instance, were horrified to discover that Napoleon’s troops trod on carpets with their boots and didn’t shave their pubic hair – at a time when Egypt was instituting such hygiene reforms as the fumigation of letters before delivery.
Economic, political and military intervention following the first world war is frequently blamed for current friction between east and west. De Bellaigue’s assured opinion is that we need to push the explanation back to when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 and western banking systems encouraged the Ottoman empire to borrow – and then called in those debts. With “enlightenment” came a forced lightening of the purses of the east; Egypt’s debt soared from £3m in 1865 to £91m just over a decade later. What’s more, as early as 1832, Muhammad Ali’s Egyptian army routed Ottoman troops at Homs in Syria using textbook Franco-British military strategy.
I would move the globalisation marker even further down the timeline. The presence of industrial quantities of Byzantine pottery dating from the sixth century AD on the headland at Tintagel, Chinese silk in the tombs around Mecca and “Arabic” numerals in the 13th-century beams of Salisbury Cathedral tell us we have been interdependent not for decades but across millennia. Whereas 13% of the world’s population are currently migrants, bone analysis now suggests that following the Roman period the figure was closer to 30%.
On the other hand, cosmopolitan, cross-border influence cannot be the only explanation for the rise of the rule of law and representative government in nearly all Islamic societies. People seek change not only when threats and opportunities appear, but when we get tired of the ways things are. De Bellaigue lionises the innovations of men such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi who, finding Islamic dependence on tradition stultifying, made it his life’s work to prove that reason and Islam were compatible.
This book also elegantly offers a reminder that we are the stories that we tell about ourselves. The Islamic world did not feel itself a “victim” compared with the west. Muslims saw Islam not as the Johnny-come-lately of the Abrahamic faiths but as its zenith. Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and transubstantiation were seen as superstitious and baffling. The word “America” probably didn’t appear in the Persian language until the end of the 18th century – but then with a documented past stretching back at least 5,000 years, the east had riches of its own.
Yet De Bellaigue’s story also heads in another direction: thanks to demonisation by ulemas and conservatives, modernisation was often deliberately slowed. While 19th-century Istanbullu women could read liberating articles that promoted education, questioned polygamy and campaigned against inferior, women-only berths on the ferries across the Bosphorus, other commentators declared that the independent newspapers of Ottoman Turkey were part of a European plot to “destroy Islam and destabilise the country”. One wonders whether President Trump is aware of this Islamic manifestation of “fake news”.
One popular Arabic proverb declared that “men’s exertions uproot mountains”, and yes, Muhammad Ali Pasha transformed and modernised Alexandria in the early 19th century – but he was in many ways returning it to its cosmopolitan splendour in the fourth century BC. Yes, a government report under Sultan Mahmud II in 1850s Istanbul read “religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, but science serves perfection of man in this world”, but I know old men in Istanbul who still believe djinns inhabit the damp corners of the city. Recent research has identified 4,000 named women who taught and indeed preached at mosques in Cairo, Jerusalem and Medina within 150 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad – so 1,300 years ago there seems to have been no gender separation in these sacred spaces. One question this book doesn’t fully answer – and it is a crucial one – is why this kind of liberality was followed by centuries of retrenchment.
De Bellaigue has lived in and reported from the Middle East, and this study seems to be a personal mission to rescue lambent examples from a drab procession of sameness. Adding to its pleasures are smart concepts crisply delivered (“Progress is its own propaganda”). The fact that some of his chosen protagonists were celebrities in their own lifetimes (the Times reported on Fatemeh’s execution, describing her as “the fair prophetess of Qazvin”) might provoke the query that these reformists whom he extols were exceptional rather than representative figures. Yet De Bellaigue has written a (beautifully illustrated) book that prompts an important conversation, and is extremely useful for our times. As well as introducing neglected histories and characters about which and whom we need to care, the work itself incarnates the essence of enlightenment.
4.Sarah Wilson on living with anxiety: there’s no sugarcoating mental illness
If you’ve visited a bookshop in the last few years, you would have found it hard to avoid a tanned and lean Sarah Wilson beaming out at you from the covers on the front shelves. Her cookbooks, I Quit Sugar and Simplicious, have been bestsellers, and her name is synonymous with terms such as “clean living” and “vitality”.
Wilson’s latest book couldn’t be more different. The cover is dark blue, with an illustration of a gloomy octopus – even the title itself seems like something from a poetry collection with a small print run.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is the story of Wilson’s struggle with anxiety – and it is a harrowing, sometimes claustrophobic read. The writing has an intensity reminiscent of journal entries, and the reader, brought close to Wilson’s pain, is liable to feel slightly anxious too.
Anxiety is not a new thing in Wilson’s life. In the book, we shuttle back and forth between time periods: there’s Wilson at 13, taken to see a counsellor for insomnia; there she is as a teenager, discovered in a shopping centre and encouraged to model but feeling different and separate from other girls; there she is in Santa Cruz as a university exchange student having a breakdown and returning home, only to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. There are the fast, high-pressure years editing Cosmopolitan magazine and self-medicating with a bottle of wine a night, followed by her time on MasterChef, when she was trying to cope with an increasingly debilitating autoimmune disease.
Now, aged 43 and a successful entrepreneur with her I Quit Sugar program (it’s not just a program but a mini-industry), the anxiety has come along for the ride. But lately she has been thinking differently about it, wondering if it can actually be a force for good – if she has found success because of, not in spite of, her anxiety. This is the act of “making the beast beautiful”, a departure from the usual positive-thinking literature, which encourages people to overcome adversity, rather than Wilson’s tactic of embracing it.
“There have been a lot of successful people throughout history who have had anxiety – including people like Churchill,” Wilson tells Guardian Australia. “If you look at the history of writers and entrepreneurs, many have some sort of anxiety disorder. I thought it was time that we [had] a new conversation around it.”
The idea for a book about anxiety came to Wilson a couple of years ago when she was on a panel at the Melbourne writers’ festival: “I was talking about sugar but all the questions were about anxiety. People are desperate to have a deep and proper and real conversation about anxiety.”
She admits wanted to tell her own story, “because I am sick of feeling lonely”.
“Anxiety is a very lonely condition but I feel like there’s a yearning out there to connect over it,” Wilson says.
Since the book was published at the end of February, Wilson has been swamped with people writing to her about their own issues with anxiety, or the anxiety of loved ones.
“The feedback and engagement has indeed been overwhelming. I’m receiving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of emails, tweets, letters, texts and calls every day,” she wrote this week on her blog.
The number of people reporting anxiety-related problems has risen sharply in Australia over the past few years, from 3.8% of the total population in 2011–2012 to 11.2% in 2014–2015, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Wilson divides the experience of anxiety into a couple of camps. “You have this thing I call ‘fair enough’ anxiety, which a lot of people experience. It comes from things like public speaking or going through a divorce. Then you have disordered anxiety – and that can overtake your life. There’s not a rational trigger – it’s in your cells, it’s in your bones.
“Everyday anxiety is on the increase and the things that are part of modern life drive it. We are in a permanent state of frenetic, highly agitated states of being; not getting enough sleep, rushing, too much work, not enough balance – stressful conditions. We’re emulating anxious conditions in our everyday living. It’s in how we applaud A-type behaviour.”
Wilson is still rolling with the punches. The book doesn’t sugarcoat life with anxiety, and its final chapters deal with Wilson suffering a miscarriage and a relationship breakup. She even notes, almost casually, that during the time she wrote the book, she attempted suicide twice.
Readers, particularly those who only knew the beaming, sugar-free Wilson from her cookbooks, might feel quite concerned for her.
“I was very honest about detailing self-harm,” Wilson says. “Nobody talks about the really ugly stuff.”
Is she going to be OK?
“I do have anxiety and I have a good life,” says Wilson. “I would not have my business if I did not have these [anxious] episodes. In terms of my business, I have a GM in place and I have a team and I set it up so they don’t rely on me. And each year that passes my hands-on operational work reduces and reduces. In order to manage my anxiety I have to put in place healthy practices. It has enabled me to disappear and live in an Airbnb at the beach, or to travel or take off hiking whenever I need to.”
Anxiety can be managed, says Wilson. “You just have to find your path with it.”
5. David Jones by Thomas Dilworth review – the lost great modernist
It is rare to read a major biography of a minor figure, but then David Jones, an artist who produced outstanding and original work in several media, primarily poetry and painting, is minor by mistake. To prove it, Thomas Dilworth, who has written two other books on Jones’s life and work in the 30 years since he was commissioned to write this one, begins with an enfilade of praise from TS Eliot, WH Auden, Kenneth Clark, Graham Greene, Seamus Heaney, Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. The effect is to make the reader wonder how someone possessed of such genius could become so obscure. “If Beckett was the last great modernist,” he writes, “Jones was the lost great modernist.”
In his introduction to In Parenthesis, one of Jones’s two brilliant long poems, TS Eliot put him at the heart of Anglophone modernism by including him in a quartet with “Joyce and Pound and myself”. He was born into a working-class family in Brockley, south London, in 1895, his father Welsh and mother English. Artistically precocious, he was studying art at Camberwell when the first world war began, and enlisted in January 1915 with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He described himself as “a parade’s despair”, but was, Dilworth notes, not a bad soldier: “canny, efficient” and “adept at survival”. In 1916, he was shot in the leg at Mametz Wood, an engagement in the battle of the Somme, and didn’t return to the front.
Jones went back to art school for a few years, suffered a minor breakdown in 1921, and in 1922 joined Eric Gill’s community of Catholic craftsmen in Sussex. Raised Anglican and always serious about religion, he had converted to Catholicism in 1921. The centrality of religion to Jones’s work offers a clue to his obscurity: one of his greatest influences is the Catholic mass, which he saw as the highest achievement of western culture. As Basil Bunting said of The Anathemata – the 1952 book-length poem that most hardcore Jonesians consider his masterpiece, as did Jones himself – he “made the mass a complex of symbols capable of ordering and interpreting pretty well the whole history of the world and the whole order of nature”. This, added to the line-by-line complexity of the poem – William Carlos Williams described it to Pound as “tough, but rewarding”, while Auden thought it required many rereadings and “a great deal of trouble” – is bound to discourage a significant number of modern readers. As Donald Carne-Ross put it in a 1980 essay, the problem is that the beliefs Jones “lived and wrote from are to many people now so remote as to be little more than nonsense. And yet you are probably not going to get far with his work, except for the formal interest of his technique, without taking his beliefs seriously and perhaps even allowing that he might just be right, at least some of the way”.
In Parenthesis is more approachable, although still essentially sacramental in conception. It blends infantryman demotic with a Shakespearean register, Christianity, Welsh legend, chivalric romance, a Joycean collapsing of past into present, Spenglerian cultural theory and the linguistic compactness of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dense with allusion, the text is sometimes a maze, but for all its darkness and difficulty it is also an extraordinarily beautiful, unforgettable reading experience. He began writing it in 1928, originally as text to accompany engravings depicting the war, but it kept growing, and his desire to turn it into a full-blown book was fed by his dissatisfaction with literary accounts of the conflict (“Bugger it, I can do better than that,” he exclaimed on finishing Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front). In these years, the early 1930s, Jones was “super productive”, producing a large number of extraordinary watercolours, which seem to writhe and shimmer on the paper, and filling hundreds of pages as he revised and added to In Parenthesis. This frenzy was interrupted in 1932 by his most serious breakdown. When a concerned friend asked him how he was, he murmured, “he’s really sending them over”, as if his depression were an enemy shelling his position.
Always prepared to look to the past, Jones hunted unsuccessfully for a diagnosis in Robert Burton’s 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy. Today his illness would almost certainly be considered PTSD. He experienced the daily horrors of frontline trench life, heavy shelling and terrifying night combat at Mametz Wood. After the 1932 breakdown, he moved back to his parents’ house, and for a year was almost completely incapacitated. He never fully recovered, writing in 1968 of this breakdown that “it has persisted”.
Jones’s depression – he christened it “Rosey” – would afflict him when he carried out any significant amount of artistic work, but he found ways around this psychological obstruction. First, he had a network of caring friends, who greatly valued his kindness, gentleness and the brilliance of his conversation. They stopped his perennial poverty becoming abject by buying his art, subscribing to a fund to provide him with an allowance, and often putting him up for long spells. Second, Doctor Stevenson, a psychiatrist who treated him from 1947, overturned previous medical advice that Jones should avoid creative work. His treatment, initially psychoanalytical, became largely pharmacological over time. By the early 1960s, Jones was taking a staggering amount of barbiturates and antidepressants, a blanket of drugs that, Dilworth convincingly asserts, smothered his creativity. After The Anathemata (1952) the next poetry collection didn’t appear until 1974, the year he died. What should have taken “at most” seven years, Dilworth mourns, took 20.
Jones’s painting was impeded too, although it came more easily than writing: “the ‘ideas’ in a painting are not so damned nailed down as in writing – words are buggers for that”. But in his case, the two disciplines were intertwined and inextricable. Writing about a 1940 painting, Guenever, Dilworth comments: “If, in the vividness of its images, In Parenthesis is a painter’s poem, this is a writer’s painting, bristling with explicit cultural referents and specific symbols.” Dilworth is a brilliant describer and analyst of the art; his descriptions would make individual works vivid to the reader even if they weren’t reproduced in this richly illustrated book. On Jones’s writing, however, he is less successful. He sedulously notes technical details and identifies influences, but fails to bring the poems to life, or even back up his assertions about them. We are told a section from The Anathemata that Jones worried was purple is in fact “a lyrical high-point in modern literature”, and that “The Hunt” (1965) is one of the great modern English lyric poems, “lyrically musical and highly visual”, but without supporting quotations the praise feels empty.
This is the only serious flaw in a biography that compresses Dilworth’s encyclopedic knowledge of his subject into a fascinating narrative. It is a heroic attempt to salvage Jones for a new audience, reclaiming him from a past in which a critic in this paper felt able to call him “an eccentric figure on the periphery of English poetry”.
Will he succeed? I am doubtful. I have another book about Jones, written in 1988, whose editor felt confident that “we are now approaching a stage in the criticism of his writings and his visual art when it will no longer be necessary to rehearse the opinions of canonised authorities to gain attention for an uncanonised master whose works begin to appear, with time, the equal of their own”. Thirty years later, Dilworth still feels the need to begin his biography with Eliot, Auden and Heaney’s proclamations of Jones’s genius. If it doesn’t work this time, he might well remain the lost great modernist for ever.
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism?
Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.
For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.
Then came use of elements of the mythos in drama and opera, free adaptations for modern readers, and the appearance of increasingly familiar tropes in books for young children, cartoons, graphic presentations, animated films, and so on. A luxuriant growth indeed from the few, fragile stems of medieval manuscripts, one of which lay hidden for several centuries in a barn in Iceland.
Their survival is remarkable, for the Norse tales are about as un-Christian as you can get: no all-powerful creator deity, no human virtue rewarded but courage in battle, and on the Last Day, no salvation for anybody. Their fascination for us may be this near-nihilism: a world created essentially by nobody out of nothing, an existence of endless warfare and the rivalry of brutal, dishonest powers, ending in defeat for all. In contrast, the classical myths retold to us through centuries of splendid verbal and visual art can seem pallid. The stark cruelty and essential hopelessness of the Norse stories suits the artistic taste of the last century, our hunger for darkness.
Neil Gaiman tells us that he first met the Norse tales in the graphic narratives that we go on calling comics or comic books, a stupid name considering the breadth of their subject matter. It is a medium well suited to the material: vivid, sparing of words, long on action, short on reflection though given to pithy wisdom. Heroes, shape-changers, battles, superpowers and superweapons – a half-blind wizard, an eight-legged horse, the battlements of Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge – all are perfectly at home in the world of comics.
Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.
The language of books loved in childhood retains an authority it is useless to question even when impossible to justify. I grew up with Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, published in 1920, and the stories exist for me in the fine cadences of his prose. Gaiman’s version is certainly a worthy shelf-partner to Colum’s, and perhaps a better choice for a contemporary child reader, used to a familiar tone and a “friendly” approach.
Gaiman plays down the extreme strangeness of some of the material and defuses its bleakness by a degree of self-satire. There is a good deal of humour in the stories, the kind most children like – seeing a braggart take a pratfall, watching the cunning little fellow outwit the big dumb bully. Gaiman handles this splendidly. Yet I wonder if he tries too hard to tame something intractably feral, to domesticate a troll.
It all comes back to the matter of interpretation. In her 2011 book Ragnarok, AS Byatt used the Norse mythos to express her own childhood experience of world war and as a parable of the irrational human behaviours that result in mass ruin and destruction. Such interpretations are perfectly valid in themselves but don’t serve well as a retelling of the myths. They are more of the order of meditations on a religious text, sermons on the meaning of biblical stories. Gaiman does not use the Norse material this way; he simply tells us the story, and tells it well.
What finally left me feeling dissatisfied is, paradoxically, the pleasant, ingratiating way in which he tells it. These gods are not only mortal, they’re a bit banal. They talk a great deal, in a conversational tone that descends sometimes to smart-ass repartee. This chattiness will be familiar to an audience accustomed to animated film and graphic narrative, which have grown heavy with dialogue, and in which disrespect is generally treated as a virtue. But it trivialises, and I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.
The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.
7. Robots v experts: are any human professions safe from automation?
The main themes of our book, The Future of the Professions, can be put simply: machines are becoming increasingly capable and so are taking on more and more tasks.
Many of these tasks were once the exclusive preserve of human professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. While new tasks will certainly emerge in years to come, it is probable that machines will, over time, take on many of these as well. In the 2020s, we say, this will not mean unemployment, but rather a need for widespread retraining and redeployment. In the long run though, we find it hard to avoid the conclusion that there will be a steady decline in the need for traditional professional workers.
During the year after the book’s hardback publication in October 2015, we tested this line of argument on audiences of professionals in more than 20 countries, speaking to around 15,000 people at over 100 events. The response, frankly, was mixed. Our work seems to polarise people into those who agree zealously with our thesis, and those who reject it unreservedly. Both sides argue their views passionately.
This divide corresponds largely with current views on AI: some argue that we are entering an entirely new epoch, while others dismiss this as hype, maintaining that we have been through similar transitions before. We have found that accountants are usually receptive, lawyers are largely conservative and journalists seem to be resigned. Teachers are either sceptical or evangelical, doctors tend to dismiss the idea of non-doctors having a view on their future, architects express considerable interest in new ways of working, management consultants see more scope for change in other professions than in their own, and the clergy have been more or less silent.
In light of feedback and our more recent research, do we still really think that one day we will no longer need our trusted advisers? Is it not obvious, we are often asked to admit, that human beings will always want a face-to-face, that we will surely crave the reassurance that a warm, empathetic person can afford a fellow human being?
We have never denied the significance of the great comfort that one person can give another. Indeed, we go further – in our book, we explicitly identify the “empathiser” as an important role in the future. Nonetheless, our experience – as researchers and advisers to the professions – suggests that many recipients of professional service are actually looking for a reliable solution or outcome, rather than a trusted adviser per se.
Fast-forward a few years, to a time when the level of output of, for example, an online medical or legal service is very high and its branding is beyond reproach. This of itself will offer its own level of comfort and reassurance. In many circumstances, this will be enough for patients and clients, and will be consistently more affordable than the empathetic adviser. Understandably, many professionals remain deeply sceptical, and want to insist that there will always be tasks for which humans are better suited than machines.
But there is a danger of being excessively human-centric. In contemplating the potential of future machines to outperform professionals, what really matters is not how the systems operate but whether, in terms of the outcome, the end product is superior. In other words, whether or not machines will replace human professionals is not down to the capacity of systems to perform tasks as people do. It is whether systems can out-perform human beings. And in many fields, they already can.
Scepticism about the role of machines is perhaps most compelling when expressed in human terms – when, for example, it is asserted that, “of course, machines will never actually think or have feelings or have a craftsman’s sense of touch, or decide what is the right thing to do”. Framed in this way, this sort of claim appears convincing. It is indeed hard to imagine a machine thinking with the clarity of a judge, empathising in the manner of a psychoanalyst, extracting a molar with the dexterity of a dental surgeon, or taking a view on the ethics of a tax-avoidance scheme.
8. Decline and Fall on TV – would Evelyn Waugh have approved?
The prospect of a new BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall, starring Jack Whitehall and Eva Longoria, is stirring mixed feelings – will Waugh’s wit be sold short once again?
The new BBC1 adaptation of Decline and Fall, with Jack Whitehall as Paul Pennyfeather and Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, has already stirred the usual mixed emotions among Evelyn Waugh fans. On the one hand, warm satisfaction at the prospect of a 20th-century classic brought to a TV channel otherwise graced by Mrs Brown’s Boys; on the other, a faint but congenital wariness, born of the fact that so many dramatisations of the Waugh oeuvre have defied the best intentions of director and cast alike to produce films that, for all their enthusiasm, have sold their onlie begetter woefully short.
Waugh, it turns out, had the same mixed feelings about adaptations. His early novels – notably Vile Bodies (1930), with its tantalising dialogue and artful cross-cuts – display a moviegoer’s relish for cinematic techniques. But by mid-career, Hollywood’s designs on the bestselling Brideshead Revisited (1945) had plunged him into gloom: Christopher Sykes, his first biographer, records an anguished conversation from early 1947 in which, having advised his friend not to worry about the end product and settle for cash over cachet, Sykes received a terrific lecture to the effect that: “You have no notion of what these people might want to do with my book.”
In the event, Waugh decided to take Burbank for a ride, accepting a lavish, all-expenses-paid month-long stay in California while quietly assuring himself that no deal would ever be inked. Come the early 60s, when money was tight, his attitude softened and the last years of his life – he died in 1966 – brought film option sales for Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust and The Loved One. The latter, directed by Tony Richardson, with Rod Steiger as Mr Joyboy and supporting roles for John Gielgud, Roddy McDowall and Liberace, appeared in his lifetime under the shout-line “The motion picture with something to offend everyone”.
One of those offended was Waugh, who refused to see it, complaining that he preferred the original choice of director (Luis Buñuel) and leading man (Alec Guinness). Thereafter, screen adaptations came thick and fast: late 60s BBC versions of Decline and Fall, with a pre-Rumpole Leo McKern as the pederastic Captain Grimes, and the Sword of Honour trilogy; Granada’s 11-episode take on Brideshead with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews; a small-screen Scoop (1987), scripted by William Boyd; a film A Handful of Dust (1988); and a second TV version of Sword of Honour, also written by Boyd and starring a pre‑Bond Daniel Craig, in the early 2000s.
It is difficult to go completely adrift with Waugh: dialogue alone is enough to carry a certain amount of weak casting or confusion over the precise satirical point. Even Richardson’s The Loved One, as Leslie Halliwell concedes, has its share of “waspish moments”, while the widescreen framing of Bright Young Things (2003), Stephen Fry’s version of Vile Bodies, is nicely irradiated by its attention to detail. Watching Fenella Woolgar playing the part of the Hon Agatha Runcible, Waugh purists could rejoice in the fact that she was the dead spit of her original, the Hon Elizabeth Ponsonby: the scene in which the Hon Agatha takes to the circuit in a torpedo-shaped racing car faithfully reproduces a photograph in the Ponsonby archive.
Of course, attention to detail can bring its own challenges. What about Waugh’s mocking reference to Mrs Beste-Chetwynd’s black courtier, Mr Sebastian Cholmondeley (which, to be fair to Waugh, is a joke about fashionable society women rather than casual racism)?
But in the end, anyone who wants to adapt Waugh for film will be pulled up sharp by a single procedural dilemma. Ominously, the book of his brought most faithfully to television was Brideshead – arguably the least comic, and the most adorned with big roles that can be played by well-known actors. Treatments of the early novels have somehow to address the fact that so much of the humour is verbal rather than visual. When Waugh remarks of the sexy walk affected by one of the evacuees in Put Out More Flags (1942) that “her gait, derived from the cinematograph, was designed to be alluring”, the joke is in the text. A real-live woman doing a sexy walk would not be as funny as the way he describes it.
It is the same with the two‑word signoff appended to Grimes’s marriage to the headmaster’s daughter at the debased Welsh school where he and Pennyfeather affect to teach: “Nothing happened.” If James Wood, late of Rev, can convey something of this verbal dexterity, he will have triumphed on a battlefield piled with the bones of aspiring screenwriters who, like so many interviewing journalists, went to Waugh and lost.
9.What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower?
All buildings are temporary, said the great architectural thinker Cedric Price, but some are more temporary than others. In other words, even something as enduring as the Parthenon and the pyramids will one day go. And even before they disappear, these seemingly fixed and eternal objects are in constant flux. Not only do they weather, decay and get altered, but they change in public perception. An eyesore can become a landmark, a pagan temple can become a church, a symbol of tyranny can become a popular icon.
These paradoxical truths have allowed Jonathan Glancey, formerly architecture critic of the Guardian, to have a bit of fun. In What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? he finds 70 examples of buildings whose backstories are not as you might imagine. The title refers to Exhibit A in the case of the changeability of architectural perception, the fact that what is now one of the world’s most popular structures was originally opposed by 300 members of the French cultural elite.
There are other famous examples – the controversies of cost and design that went into the Sydney Opera House or the fact that the Parthenon, celebrated in modern times for its chaste white marble, was originally painted in bright colours. He explores the way that history gets faked, in the 19th-century rebuilding of the medieval walls of Carcassonne, for example, or in the making of Chartres Cathedral, in a recent over-restoration, into a “venal playpen for passing coach parties”.
The book tweaks the tails of a few sacred cows. It shows what an impure and sometimes mucky affair architecture can be, its aspirations to beauty emerging out of greed, conflict and politics. It reminds that Sinan, revered architect of many of Istanbul’s most conspicuous mosques, was essentially a government bureaucrat, and that some famous architects flirted opportunistically with Nazism and Stalinism. Or, in the case of the Austrian Adolf Loos, with paedophilia.
This is a book of snacks. It doesn’t bear the marks of deep research and for those in the business many of its examples will be well worn. It’s more engaging when it takes the paths slightly less well trodden, when looking at a beautiful church by the Uruguayan engineer Eladio Dieste or at the extraordinarily prolific architect to both Henry Ford and the Soviet state, Albert Kahn. It’s not a bad introduction to a discipline that sometimes suffers from self-importance and it’s a useful reminder that things are not usually what they seem.
10.My life with Oliver Sacks: ‘He was the most unusual person I had ever known’
He wrote me a letter. That’s how we met. He had read my book, The Anatomist, in proof, and enjoyed it. (“I meant to provide a blurb,” but “got distracted and forgot.”) This was when I was still in San Francisco – early 2008. This was when people still wrote letters regularly and when one got a letter, sat down and wrote a letter back.
“Dear Mr Hayes – ”
“ – Dear Dr Sacks…”
Thus, a correspondence between O and me began.
A month later, I happened to be in New York and, at Oliver’s invitation, paid a visit. We had lunch at a cafe across the street from his office: mussels, fries, and several rounds of dark Belgian beer. We lingered at the table, talking, well into the afternoon. We found we had something other than writing in common: he, too, was a lifelong insomniac – indeed, from a family of insomniacs. (“It was understood at an early age that one could not sleep without sedation,” he told me wryly.)
I had not known – had never considered – whether he was hetero- or homosexual, single or in a relationship. By the end of our lunch, I hadn’t come to any firm conclusions on either matter, as he was both very shy and quite formal – qualities I do not possess. But I did know that I was intrigued and attracted. How could one not be? He was brilliant, sweet, modest, handsome, and prone to sudden, ebullient outbursts of boyish enthusiasm. I remember how O got quite carried away talking about 19th-century medical literature, “its novelistic qualities” – an enthusiasm I shared.
We stayed in touch. I sent him photographs I had taken in Central Park of bare tree limbs. I thought they looked like vascular capillaries. With his neurologist’s eye, he felt they looked like neurons.
“I am reminded of how Nabokov compared winter trees to the nervous systems of giants,” he wrote back.
I was sort of smitten, I had to admit.
Even so, that was that – for then. There was an entire country between us, not to mention 30 years’ age difference. My decision to move to New York more than a year later had nothing to do with Oliver, and I certainly did not have a relationship in mind. I had simply reached a point in my life where I had to get away from San Francisco – and all the memories it held – and start fresh.
But once I moved, O and I started spending time together and quickly got better and better acquainted.
Not long after I moved to New York, Michael Jackson died. O had no idea who Michael Jackson was. “What is Michael Jackson?” he asked me the day after the news – not who but what – which seemed both a very odd and a very apt way of putting it, given how much the brilliant singer had transmuted from a human into an alien being. O often said he had no knowledge of popular culture after 1955, and this was not an exaggeration. He did not know popular music, rarely watched anything on TV but the news, did not enjoy contemporary fiction, and had zero interest in celebrities or fame (including his own). He didn’t possess a computer, had never used email or texted; he wrote with a fountain pen. This wasn’t pretentiousness; he wasn’t proud of it; indeed, this feeling of “not being with it” contributed to his extreme shyness. But there was no denying that his tastes, his habits, his ways – all were irreversibly, fixedly, not of our time.
“Do I seem like I am from another century?” he would sometimes ask me, almost poignantly. “Do I seem like I am from another age?”
“You do, yes, you do.”
For me, this was part of the fascination with him. I was seeing a few other men during my first summer in New York, but dates with O were completely different. We didn’t go to movies or to MoMA or to new restaurants or Broadway shows. We took long walks in the botanical garden in the Bronx, where he could expatiate on every species of fern. We visited the Museum of Natural History – not for the dinosaurs or special exhibitions but to spend time in the often empty, chapel-like room of gems, minerals, and, especially, the elements – O knew the stories behind the discoveries of every single one. At night, we might walk from the
West Village to the East, O talking excitedly nonstop, to have a beer and burger at McSorley’s Old Ale House.
I learned that not only had he never been in a relationship, he had also never come out publicly as a gay man. But in a way, he’d had no reason to do so – he hadn’t had sex in three-and-a-half decades, he told me. At first, I did not believe him; such a monk-like existence – devoted solely to work, reading, writing, thinking – seemed at once awe-inspiring and inconceivable. He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.
26 August 2012
I, listening to Björk on my iPod; O, reading and writing in his travel journal; We: drinking champagne on a flight to Reykjavík. I look over and see O making a list in his journal. He tells me he is writing out all the elements that are NOT present in the human body:
He ,U ,B ,Be ,Al ,Si ,Ar .Sg ,Ti ,V ,Ni ,Ga ,Ge ,As ,Br ,Kr ,Rb ,Sr ,Y,Z
When I ask, he names each of them, following my finger as I go down the list. He interrupts himself at one point: “They like to be remembered and recited like this.” “They?” O nods. He could not look more delighted, and it’s not because of the alcohol. Listed separately, under the heading “No or infinitesimal”, are the exceptions. He goes on to explain the difference between organic and nonorganic chemistry. I do not – and expect I never will – understand half of what he is saying.
28 August 2012
Björk invited us to her home in Reykjavík for lunch – a remarkable afternoon; O said it best: “Everything was unexpected.” The two met a couple of years ago when Björk asked Oliver to appear in a BBC documentary about music, but they had never spent time together socially. And in fact, O knew very little about her work up until shortly before we made this trip. I got a DVD compilation of her music videos and conducted a crash course in Björk for him. O sat on the edge of his bed, inches from the TV screen, as he needs to in order to hear properly, and watched without stirring, mesmerised especially by the visuals, for 90 minutes. Because of his face blindness, which makes it difficult for O to recognise people not only on the street but also in movies and on TV, he’d sometimes ask, “Is that Björk?” or, “Which one is Björk?” A swan dress one minute, robotic gear the next, her constant changing of costumes and hairstyles utterly confounded him, but he was deeply impressed by her artistry.
We pulled into the driveway at the back of Björk’s home and I saw her through the kitchen window. She looked to be in the middle of a task, concentrating. A simple hedge fenced the house. There was a child-sized table and chairs in the front yard, the setting for a tea party. We didn’t see a path, so we parted a hedge awkwardly and made our way to the front door. She answered. In my memory, she curtsied. Of course she didn’t, but her air of modesty and respect in greeting O had that feeling. She ushered us into the dining room, where a table was set.
Björk’s hair was up, held by a barrette with blue feathers. She wore a simple tunic made from several different kinds of coloured and patterned fabric; she may have made it herself. She wore white pants under the tunic and wedge sandals. Her face: unlined, no makeup, pretty; eyes the color of jade; lush, jet-black eyebrows, shaped like two feathers.
Björk urged us to sit and eat. The chairs were carved from tree stumps. The tablecloth was embroidered with seashells. On the table: warm, salted mixed nuts in tiny dishes. Almost immediately, she brought out a steaming pan of baked trout, a salad and a bowl of boiled potatoes – “I like it with the skins left on,” she said, almost apologetically, “don’t you?” O and I nodded.
Conversation was lively. We talked about Iceland, about Oliver’s new book, Hallucinations; about her CD, Biophilia, and her new projects. She told us that she’d recorded Biophilia (its name inspired by Oliver’s Musicophilia) in the lighthouse I’d spotted the night before when I was chasing down the sunset. Björk said she had a calendar in the kitchen with the time for the tide going in and out, so they would know when they could get to the lighthouse – and how long they would be “stuck” there while the tide was in. She laughed. “It was really, really good, because it forced me to work; I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.”
After eating, Björk led us from the table, through a little door, and to the stairs. These were not stairs in any conventional way. Oliver – ever the naturalist – knew exactly: “Why, these are basalt stones! This looks like a stairway carved out of a wall of basalt!” Björk nodded. Adding to this remarkable sight: the railing in the winding stairway was made of whale rib bones. Björk smiled and helped Oliver up. “And this,” – she pointed to the shimmering lamp hanging overhead, dropping into the stairwell – “actually my daughter and I made it out of mussel shells. It wasn’t supposed to be permanent, but… we like it.”
She wandered into an upper room, and we followed. There, she showed us two custom-made instruments, a celeste and what looked like a harpsichord. Both had been modified somehow through instructions from a programme on her Mac. I could tell that O was completely lost as she explained how this worked. Yet it was then, right then, that I realised how much she and O were alike – fellow geniuses, incredibly, intuitively brilliant – while being at the same time such an unlikely pair of friends.
Back downstairs, Björk brought out a gooseberry pie, with berries picked from her own trees. She’d made it with her daughter the night before. “As she was the cook, of course she had to have the first piece,” she said, pointing out the missing wedge. She served it topped with fresh, plain skyr, which has a sour bite to it – along with coffee and tea. The tea set was out of Alice in Wonderland – each cup literally half a cup, sliced in half. “I’ve learned that these are for right-handed people, these teacups,” she says, “or I learn who is left-handed by watching them try to drink from them.” She giggled.
We finished the pie. I looked at Oliver’s watch and saw that it was almost 3.30; we’d been here three hours. Oliver signed an advance copy of Hallucinations –“You will be the only person in all of Iceland with this book” – and I gave her a copy of one of mine. “For Björk, with gratitude,” I signed it.
30 December 2012
On a red-eye to Reykjavík for New Year’s Eve: Leaving New York, the city looked embroidered in gold thread. Now, clouds and stars, and what sounds like a hymn: “Craving miracles…” Björk sings.
1 January 2013
Supper of skyr, biscuits and tea in our tiny hotel room. Recovering. Snow falling. Last night, a New Year’s Eve dinner at Björk’s, was like being safely in the middle of a very happy war; a huge bonfire on the beach across the street from her home encircled by people singing; fireworks going off in every direction, from every home, all night long, and culminating in a chaotically beautiful, or beautifully chaotic, fireworks display at midnight in the town square. As if the sky were full of shooting stars. As the church bells pealed 12 times. As the ground was snow-covered, white, the floor of a cloud. As everyone kissed and hugged one another. Bottles of champagne and brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps – clear and strong.
17 February 2013
Oliver and I went to a small chamber orchestra concert at the American Irish Historical Society, a jewel box of a building directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum. He knows the Irish gentleman who organises these concerts, Kevin. They feature students from Juilliard. Very intimate. Unpretentious. Free of charge. A handful of people in folding chairs – maybe 40. Kevin had saved seats for O and me in the front row. Just as he was making his introductions, a woman rushed in by herself and plopped on to the cushy rose-coloured sofa right next to our seats: Lauren Hutton, the model from the 70s: I recognised her instantly by her gap-toothed smile and slightly crossed eyes. Now in her late 60s, still beautiful, her face naturally lined. And, one couldn’t help but notice, she had a big bruiser of a black eye.
The concert began with no further ado, and we all sat back and enjoyed the programme – Brahms, Haydn, Ravel – by these enchanting musicians.
With the final note, Lauren Hutton was the first to pop up and give the trio a standing ovation. “Do you have a fan club?” she yelled above the clapping; it was a little startling, like someone yelling in a church. “I’m starting your fan club. You’re fantastic, you’re going places!” The musicians bowed shyly and departed.
There was a small reception afterwards. Nothing fancy – two bottles of San Pellegrino and a couple bottles of wine – but no bottle-opener. O and I were talking with Kevin when Lauren Hutton walked up to us: “Do one of you kind gentlemen have an opener? Even a knife would do – I could pry it open with a penknife.”
“Why don’t you use your teeth?” I said to her.
She laughed and smiled that famous gap-toothed smile. “I could. I could have once, but…” she wandered off. The bottle got opened somehow. Eventually she circled back and poured water for everyone. She overheard Oliver talking to Kevin about his new book, Hallucinations, which was coming out in a couple weeks. Lauren leaned across the table and listened intently.
“Hey doc, you ever done belladonna?” she asked. “Now there’s a drug!”
“Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I have,” and he proceeded to tell her about his hallucinations on belladonna. They traded stories. Eventually she began to figure out that this wasn’t his first book.
“Are you – are you Oliver Sacks? The Oliver Sacks?” Oliver looked both pleased and stricken.
“Well, it is very good to meet you, sir.” She sounded like a southern barmaid in a 50s western. But it wasn’t an act. “I’ve been reading you since way back. Oliver Sacks – imagine that!”
Oliver, I should note, had absolutely no idea who she was, nor would he understand if I had pulled him aside and told him.
Fashion? Vogue magazine? No idea…
The two of them hit it off. She was fast-talking, bawdy, opinionated, a broad – the opposite of Oliver except for having in common that mysterious quality: charm.
Somewhere along the way, she explained the black eye: a few days earlier, she had walked out of a business meeting at which she’d learned that she had been “robbed” of a third of everything she’d ever earned, and in a daze walked smack into a scaffolding pipe at eye level on the sidewalk. She didn’t seem too bothered by it: shit happens.
I looked up and saw that the room was empty by now but for
Kevin and us.
“Well, gentlemen, I’m going downtown. Share a cab?”
“Uh, we have a car,” I said.
“Even better. Much more civilised. I’m downtown.”
How could one refuse? “Let’s go, shall we?” I said. Lauren Hutton offered Oliver an arm and we walked slowly to the parking garage. I pushed things out of the way in the back seat; she tossed in her handbag, and dove in. She immediately popped her head between our seats – the three of us were practically ear-to-ear.
Her incredible face blocked my rearview mirror. When O took out his wallet to give me a credit card for the parking, she spotted the copy of the periodic table he carries in lieu of a driver’s licence. This prompted a series of questions about the periodic table, the elements, the composition of the very air we were breathing. A dozen questions led to a dozen more, like a student soaking up knowledge. We talked about travels – Iceland, Africa – and Plato, Socrates, the pygmies, William Burroughs, poets… She was clearly intensely curious, life-loving, adventurous. In passing, she said something about having been a model – “The only reason I did it was so I could make enough dough to travel” – but otherwise didn’t say anything about that part of her life. Traffic was thick, so it took quite a while to get downtown.
Eventually, we reached her address, or close enough.
“Well, gentlemen, it has been a true pleasure. I cannot thank you enough. This is where I exit. Goodbye – for now.” And she was gone, as suddenly as she’d arrived. Oliver took a breath as we headed west and home. “I don’t know who that was, but she seems like a very remarkable person.”
12 January 2015
Got back last night from St Croix in the US Virgin Islands – a birthday trip. I turned 54 (equivalent to the atomic number for xenon, so O gave me four xenon flashlights). O did not feel well much of the time – nauseated, tired, slept a lot. We almost cancelled the trip, last minute. Two nights before we left, he told me he had “dark urine”. I was sceptical – he’s hypochondriacal even on good days, as he is the first to admit. But I could see he was worried, talked him into peeing into a clear glass so I could check, and was startled when he brought it into the kitchen; his urine was the colour of Coca-Cola. It seemed to clear up some while we were in St Croix. Even so, he had made a doctor’s appointment before leaving for the trip.
O just returned from his GP, who thinks he has some kind of gallbladder inflammation, maybe gallstones. Did an ultrasound, but they’re running more tests.
15 January 2015
O’s doctor phoned: “peculiar findings” re: Cat scan yesterday. So: am taking him to see a radiologist at Sloan Kettering. They want to see him this afternoon.
Sloan Kettering is a cancer hospital, but cancer had not entered my mind. I was still banking on the possibility of gallstones; I thought, at worst, Oliver might have to have his gallbladder removed. I remember the doctor entering the consulting room with a young medical fellow (he was from Italy, I think), and how nervous the young man looked. The doctor got right to it and told us that he had carefully reviewed the Cat scan and, although a confirmatory biopsy would have to be performed, he was 90% sure of the diagnosis and said he had some “tough” news. I remember that word, “tough”. He asked Oliver if he’d like to see the Cat scan. Oliver said yes, of course, and he flipped on the computer monitor.
Later he told me that he knew instantly what the scan said. I did not, and I was stunned when the radiologist explained that what we were looking at was a recurrence of the uveal melanoma Oliver had had nine years earlier – a cancer arising from the pigment cells in his right eye; over time, it had metastasised to his liver, which was now “riddled like Swiss cheese” with tumours. He enlarged the image on the monitor, so the white spots – the tumours – looked as large as those made by a hole punch. In cases like this, with a possibility of the cancer spreading, and at Oliver’s age, the doctor said, neither a liver resection nor a liver transplant would be possible. What has stuck with me so clearly is how calmly Oliver took this news. It was as if he was expecting it, as perhaps he was. He sort of tilted his head and stroked his beard and asked about the prognosis, and the doctor said: “Six to 18 months.”
“And there’s no effective treatment?”
The doctor didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes. He explained what could be done, that everything possible would be done, an oncology team was already in place, he’d just gotten off the phone with a specialist, and so on, but Oliver cut him off. He said he was not interested in “prolonging life just for the sake of prolonging life”. Two of his brothers had died of different forms of cancer, and both had regretted undergoing horrid chemotherapy treatments that had done nothing but ruin their last months.
“I want to be able to write, think, read, swim, be with Billy, see friends, and maybe travel a bit, if possible.” Oliver added that he hoped not to be in “ghastly pain” or for his condition to become “humiliating”, and then he fell silent.
The next day, we went swimming at noon, as we always did on Fridays, and then spent a quiet weekend together, taking walks, reading, listening to music, going to the open-air market at Abingdon Square, cooking, both of us trying to absorb the overwhelming news. Oliver consulted with a few colleagues, including the ophthalmologist who had treated his cancer years before; he had had a chance to look at the Cat scan, too. Recurrences such as this were considered extremely rare, yet the consensus seemed to be that the preliminary diagnosis was most likely correct and that treatment options were few.
Over the weekend, Oliver mentioned a few times that he was considering writing “a little piece” about receiving his diagnosis. And on Sunday night, after we had made dinner and cleared the dishes, he took up a small notepad and his fountain pen. “Well, let’s see…” He paused. “I suppose I want to begin by saying that a month ago, I felt that I was in good health. But… now my luck has run out…”
“Hold it,” I interrupted, “let me get a pen.” I did so, and a notepad, and I scribbled what he had just said. “OK, keep going.” From there, Oliver dictated the entire essay, nearly verbatim to the version that would eventually appear in the New York Times.
He spent several days tinkering with it but then he set it aside. Oliver worried that his feelings were perhaps too raw, and felt it was too soon to publish it, given that most of his friends and family members did not yet know his news.
In lieu of any experimental treatments, Oliver made the decision to go ahead with a surgical procedure called an embolisation, which would cut off blood supply to the tumours in his liver and therefore kill them off – temporarily (they would inevitably return, he was told). Dramatically lowering the “tumour burden” held the promise of offering him several more months of active life. As we waited in the hospital for him to be admitted for surgery, Oliver suddenly turned to Kate [Edgar, Sacks’s long-time friend and collaborator] and me and said he felt the time was right to send the piece over to the New York Times. Neither of us questioned him; we just said, OK. Kate emailed the essay to our mutual editor at the Times, and we heard back almost immediately: They wanted to run the piece the next day. We asked for one extra day – to get Oliver safely through the procedure first – and they agreed. Oliver’s essay My Own Life was scheduled for publication on 19 February 2015.
17 February 2015
In post-surgery recovery: cutting off blood supply to the tumours in the liver may sound somewhat benign, but the body revolts with full force against such an intrusion. O repeatedly tears off his hospital gown because he is in so much pain that even the thin cotton material causes discomfort. The young female nurses act scandalised by this and keep trying to cover him up. At one point, O yells out in exasperation: “If one can’t be naked in a hospital, where can one be naked?!” I hear a nurse in the hallway join me in laughter. I cover his genitals with a washcloth when the morphine finally kicks in and he falls asleep.
27 February 2015
I brought O a few of the letters and emails written in response to his New York Times essay. I: “How’d it feel to read those?” O: “Good!” I: “You have about 800 more to go.” O: “I’d like to see all of them.”
22 April 2015
O: “The most we can do is to write – intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
7 July 2015
O, proudly, playing a new Schubert piece, and with great flair demonstrating how it requires “crossed hands”. I am quite amazed and impressed, and I clap.
8 July 15
The day before O’s 82nd birthday, and we got bad news with his latest Cat scan – bad – much worse than expected. Not only have the tumours regrown, the cancer has spread: kidneys, lungs, skin. O wants to go ahead with his birthday party, and doesn’t want people to know. “Auden always said one must celebrate one’s birthday,” he says.
9 July 2015
O’s birthday: at his party – O asks me to go get the bottle of 1948 Calvados – a rare brandy given to him as a gift years ago and sealed in a wooden box. I open it for him. I: “Do you want a glass?” O: “No,” he says, and takes a swig, eyes closed. “Lovely,” he pronounces and looks around the room. “Who would like some?” Later, he tells me he’d forgotten that he had left the Calvados to a friend in his will.
13 July 2015
Very, very tired, I did the dinner dishes quickly, gathered my things, and earlier than usual, told Oliver I was heading to bed and said good night. But as I headed for the bedroom, O called to me from his desk, “Do you know why I love to read Nature and Science every week?” I turned. “No,” I shook my head. I was almost confused; this seemed such a non sequitur. “Surprise – I always read something that surprises me,” he said.
25 July 2015
In the country: O is finishing one essay, working on two others – at least two others. “How’s the writing going?” I ask, waking from a nap. He smiles mischievously. “I meant to stop, but I couldn’t.” And he goes back to it. I watch. He doesn’t have a fancy desk here; it’s just a folding table. All he needs is a pad and his fountain pen and a comfortable chair.
Later, we go for a swim. The water in the pool is a bright emerald green, caused by an excess of copper and iron in the well.
“You are swimming in the elements,” I tell O, “swimming in a pool of copper.”
“Lovely,” he murmurs, doing his backstroke.
1 August 2015
He plays Beethoven – he never used to – long, haunting pieces, complex pieces – whereas he used to only play Bach preludes, and in stops and starts.
10 August 2015
O is working on a new piece: Sabbath. Every now and then, a little request comes, always phrased politely: “If you would be so kind: look up something for me on your little box?” “Little box” is his name for an iPhone, a name he finds too ugly to pronounce, to speak. “It’s not even a word,” as he points out, “it’s a brand.” Sometimes he calls the phone my “communicator”, as if out of Star Trek. Today, he wants me to look up the meaning of the Latin “nunc dimittis”. As is almost always the case with O, it wasn’t necessary: he’d had the definition exactly right in the first place: nunc dimittis is “the final song in a religious service”.
16 August 2015
“I say I love writing, but really it is thinking I love – that rush of thoughts – new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue.” O smiled. “In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…”
23 August 2015
“What are your wishes, Dr Sacks?” said the hospice nurse. “How would you like to pass?” “At home,” answered O in a clear, steady voice, “with no pain or discomfort, and with my friends here.”
28 August 2015
O, who has had no appetite, suddenly asked to have smoked salmon and Ryvita for lunch. He insisted we get him out of bed, into his “dressing gown”, take him to his table, and “to see my piano”. We brought a plate to him: with incredible dignity, and slowness, he carefully cut a single piece at a time. He could only eat three bites. And when I suggested something sweet – some ice cream? He said: “No, a pear.” He had one slice then asked that we take him back to bed.
29 August 2015
I am at his side, in his bedroom, where Kate and I have been keeping a special watch since 5.30am. That’s when Maurine (our hospice nurse) woke me in the other room: “Billy, come now – his breathing has changed.” It has slowed to just three or four breaths per minute – long silences in between. He is no longer conscious. He is stretched out on his bed diagonally and looks comfortable. Maurine, who has been at the side of many patients as they die, tells us this is the last phase, but that it could go on for many hours, days maybe. A little while ago, I looked around the room, crowded with bedsheets, towels, pads, medications, an oxygen tank and other medical equipment, and I began clearing it out, all of it. First, I brought in stacks of all of O’s books, cleared a bedside table, and put them there. I brought in a cycad plant and a fern. Kate joined me, and we cleared more space, making room on another table for some of O’s beloved minerals and elements, his fountain pens, a ginkgo fossil, his pocket watch. Elsewhere, a few books by his heroes – Darwin, Freud, Luria, Edelman, Thom Gunn – and photos – his father, Auden, his mother as a girl with her 17 siblings, his aunts and uncles, his brothers. We brought in flowers, candles. I am heartbroken but at peace. Last night, before getting some sleep, I came in to see if he needed anything.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I said.
“No.” His eyes were closed. He was smiling, as if seeing beautiful things.
“Good,” O said, “very good.”
Bill Hayes Q&A: ‘Conversations and scenes jumped off the page’
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Oliver Sacks, left, and Bill Hayes in 2015. Photograph: Corbis
What made you publish your diaries? Some of the entries are very intimate and personal… why did you want to make them public?
I didn’t expect to. I had signed a contract to write a book about New York a long time before Oliver got his diagnosis and initially I had no expectation that I was even going to write about us. But things changed after his death and I began to think about how I would write about my life in New York, my relationship with New York City and my relationship with Oliver. It was then that I went back to my journal, which I had started at Oliver’s urging a few weeks after I moved here in 2009. Conversations and scenes just jumped off the page and I realised they could be much more effective at chronicling our lives than if I were to write a more traditional narrative.
The entries that follow the diagnosis of Oliver’s cancer are terribly affecting. How difficult were those days for you?
Extremely difficult, heartbreaking at times. But it wasn’t a first experience for me [Hayes cared for his previous partner through several Aids-related illnesses before losing him to a heart attack]. As a gay man living in San Francisco in the early 1990s, I had very deep and intimate experience of the Aids epidemic, caring for and losing friends and co-workers at the San Francisco Aids Foundation. That’s not to say it made it easier, exactly, caring for Oliver but dying was something I knew about.
How would Oliver have felt about Insomniac City?
I think he would have been delighted and proud. Oliver published his autobiography, On the Move, in May 2015, three months before his death. It’s very candid and open about his sexual identity and about our relationship. Prior to that, Oliver had never spoken or written at all about his private life and his decision to do so gently opened a door, allowing me to write about my life with him in a way I am not sure I would have or could have had he not done that.
How would you describe Oliver’s legacy to the world?
I think there are several legacies. I think he opened up for the world and for all of us conversations about neurodiversity and neurological conditions and how people adapt to them, everything from autism to Tourette syndrome to blindness. I think he also left an amazing legacy in his writing about mortal illness and facing death in his columns in the New York Times. That was, I think, a very generous and gracious act in his final year. And his final legacy is that, while on one level my book is about me reinventing myself in middle age, there’s another story there about Oliver Sacks reinventing himself, in his 70s. And I love that. At age 75, he opened his heart up and fell in love, started a new romantic and domestic life with another person – with me – and continued to work so productively – all of which made being old seem adventurous and fun.
What do you miss most about Oliver?
His companionship. I hope the reader gets a sense of what our relationship and conversations were like. We talked and laughed a lot. He was very funny and liked wordplay and puns. He could be very self-deprecating and eccentric. So most of all I miss the comfort of his company and the laughter.