By Bram Stoker Adapted by Liz Lochhead Directed by Mary Papadima Presented by Theatre by the Lake on 17 September 2014

Desire and terror abound in this spine-tingling, sensual dramatisation of Bram Stoker’s famed Gothic novel. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help a mysterious Count with the purchase of a new property, he makes horrifying discoveries about his client. Soon afterwards, disturbing incidents start to unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby, strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the looming arrival of his ‘Master’. Explore your darkest dreams with one of the greatest horror stories ever told.

A simple set design proved very effective in evoking the various locations: the black and grey stepped boxes curved across the stage became the cliffs at Whitby or the crenellations of Count Dracula’s castle or the steps to his front door; the rear white curtain served as a projection screen for shadowy effects or films of packs of wolves; a central slab could be raised to form a sick bed or an autopsy table or a sacrificial altar and lowered to form a grave. The story is itself of little interest and this adaptation does little to draw out the really interesting questions: What is it about our minds that makes us superstitious? What are the Darwinian forces that shape male and female mating strategies? Why do we find the idea of a non-material soul so powerful? And why do intellectual charlatans persist in reminding us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our psychology?

Mina is having to wait till she’s 25 to get married to Jonathan Harker. Lucy is jealous of her sister’s matrimonial plans and naturally wants a bite of the action herself. Part of her strategy is a “tighter waist” (if you’re female, the waist-to-hip ratio is one way of advertising your fertility). Of course, this being the Victorian age her energy can only be expressed in passive terms:I wish something was going to happen to me.She’s not the only one in a cage, although not literally like poor Renfield, who’s hanging upside down like a bat inside an enormous bird cage. He eats flies and has strange ideas:

My master that I worship.

A silhouette of Dracula flutters in the background, with elongated fingers cleverly created by the optics.

Dr Seward is the man of science and reason who believes madness is “a complex imbalance of chemicals in the brain.” No room for the soul or any of that nonsense. He’s right, pretty much, although the metaphor of “balance” is not always that helpful. A bit low on serotonin? Pop these pills to adjust the level and you’ll be right as rain. It’s rarely as simple as that, even for 21st-century medicine.

He also doesn’t always have the best nursing care on hand. The “boot-faced nurses with bad breath” are a world away
from the character of Terry in SL. Grice and Nisbett are a kind of Jeckyll and Hyde double act, played by Katie Hayes
(who is certainly not boot-faced and surely doesn’t have bad breath). I forget which is which, but one of the first
orders she gives is:Kick the crap out of him.

Renfield’s philosophy is:If it moves, eat it.We’ve already seen him hoovering up flies, and now he crunches the head of
a sparrow.

Like the two sisters in COE, Mina and Lucy (also played by Cate Cammack and Jennifer English) are like chalk and
cheese. Unlike the two sisters in Errors, however, any characterization tends to be lost beneath the layer of “girlish
hysteria” that is daubed across Lucy and is meant to account for her waywardness.

Harker embarks on his business trip to Romania. Dracula welcomes him to his “destiny” and Harker corrects his
English:You mean destination.Matthew Vaughan is a stooping figure and a swooping one with his big flowing cloak, and
manages to keep his thick accent just this side of parody. He informs Harker that the people of his country are very
superstitious, and that the land is a “whirlpool of blood” after centuries of war. The ever hopeful Harker looks
towards the 20th century, when war will be a thing of the past. The odd thing is that this is not all that laughable:
he was monumentally wrong about the first half of the 20th century, but the second half began an unprecedented era of
peace between the great powers.

Dracula really doesn’t like crucifixes, but then neither did Ian Paisley, nor the millions of Protestants who broke
away from Catholicism after the Reformation. Still, there is definitely something odd about his way of putting things.
He wants to talk with the upright young Harker, to improve his English:To drink in your every — word.

Renfield has his own playful way with words, repeating “screw loose” over and over until it begins to sound like
“screw Lucy.” Lucy is, meanwhile, coping with her own issues. She has what sounds like an out-of-body experience,
since she describes her soul floating outside of her body. Florrie tries to calm her:Bogeys are all kinds of things
except bogeys.She is admirably rational in recognizing that the mind is capable of creating all kinds of monsters. On a
more down-to-earth subject, Lucy wants to know:What’s it like?Florrie is momentarily nonplussed by such a direct,
intimate question, but she has an excellent reply:Very strange, and very ordinary.A conclusion that has recently been
scientifically verified by this DM report.

Nurse Grice (or is it Nurse Nisbett?) has no truck with the religious ones who come under her care (or boot):

I would rather have ten Napoleons or three Cleopatras than one Jesus Christ Almighty.

Van Helsing comes on the scene with his continental ways and with his pompous “I have wrestled with Arthur’s unbelief” line. Seward is still insisting — the silly rational man — that there’s no such thing as the soul. Harker knows better, since he’s seen things with his own eyes, and we all know that there’s nothing more reliable than personal eyewitness testimony (see Loftus 1996). Elizabeth Loftus would probably side with Seward over Van Helsing, especially when he gets out his pocket watch:

You will remember everything! I will take you back to a dark place…

He appears to have bought into hypnotic regression, without the slightest understanding of how memory really works, how false memories can be created unwittingly by therapists, and how the whole business of blood-sucking vampires is a load of old toss.

Poor Seward — a man of science “crawling among the cobwebs” — is of the opinion that vampires exist where men believe them to exist, and that they have no objective reality. Unfortunately, there’s enough reality to Dracula’s power that he ends up a sacrificial victim, so that Harker and Mina survive to enjoy their wedded bliss.

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Seeing the Lights

By Brendan Murray Directed by Stefan Escreet Presented by Theatre by the Lake on 16 September 2014

A brand new hilarious comedy about family relationships, rivalries and responsibilities. Terry is a nurse by day and full time carer for his mum by night. As her 75th birthday approaches, the family descends and the siblings start to bicker. Should mum be in a home? Who’s done the most for her and who knows best? Terry wants things to stay as they are, but his sister Marion has other ideas. And then there’s the will… As the pressure builds and her favourite son Kenneth still hasn’t arrived for the party, mum’s left wondering if she’ll ever get to see Blackpool Illuminations just one more time.

An extraordinary play and performances about a very ordinary family dilemma: what to do with an ageing parent? Brendan Murray shows that this question is, in fact, part of the problem: parents are not commodities to be disposed of after their best-before date, or shunted off into a hospital or a care home — old people are, believe it or not, human beings, often with ideas and desires (however batty) of their own. Again, believe it or not, they’re not perfect: they can be unreasonable and their past lives are rarely without blemish and fault, especially when it comes to their children. Towards the end of the play we see how difficult resolution may be when Terry reminds Muna:

You know what she’s like. Anything she can’t cope with is not happening.

Laura Cox is magnificent as Mum, a far more substantial role than her parts in The Comedy of Errors and Rookery Nook. She does nothing, almost literally, for the whole play (the title of the play provides a poignant — and passive — highlight), which sounds like a monumental slur on her acting talent! What she does do is create an absolutely convincing psychology: she has very distinct relationships with the four other characters on stage and with the fifth who is only ever on the end of a phone in Australia.

The play opens with Mum alone, asleep in an armchair — an image of the elderly that both contains some truth and conforms to our stereotyped idea of the old. Terry comes in with the shopping, sweating, and it’s soon apparent that he’s both her son and live-in carer, and that he’s a nurse. Their chat is cantankerous in a way that’s only possible against a backdrop of familiarity and affection. He’s angry but not surprised that she’s not eaten the meal he’d prepared. He’s had a cottage pie at the hospital:Someone died, so we had one left over.James Duke played Dromio of Syracuse with great comic timing in The Comedy of Errors. Here, there’s less call for physical clowning but he excels at this kind of repartee delivered in a dry Mancunian accent. Later, he’ll get a big laugh with an unpromising exchange about the subject of fatal heart attacks.

Duke brings far more to the role than the ability to deliver one-liners: there is a moment-by-moment tenderness that is possible to see dramatized before our eyes, but also the patience that we have to imagine extending over the past ten years, since his father died and since Mum began needing care.

The sharp question is raised almost immediately, as he’s putting the shopping away:

So you want to put me away?

He’s used to the accusation, and bats it away:

Who’d have you?

She reminisces about Blackpool, and forms a plan:

I’d like to see the lights.

For one last time, for the memories the trip will bring. The assumption at this stage is that those memories are exclusively positive. By the end, we will have been reminded that family life is rarely that simple — there are things that even your closest relatives don’t know about you.

In Muna Murray has created a striking and yet entirely convincing character, played to pious perfection by Rebecca Todd. She is Terry’s sister, and was christened Marion but converted to Islam and took the name Muna. She is self-centred and arrogant and bossy and presumes to waltz in with a grand plan over what to do with Mum. She boasts:

We come twice a year!

She doesn’t seem to realize how absurd this sounds to Terry, who is with Mum every day. She readily jumps to conclusions:

I wouldn’t want her to sleep on someone else’s mattress!

Terry patiently explains he bought a new one.

These are all faults we all have to some degree, but they are compounded by religious convictions that make them worse. Very quickly, most of us in the audience are jumping to our own conclusion that she is a horrible character, and I can remember thinking early on during the performance: it will be one hell of an achievement if the playwright can turn it around so that we have some sympathy for her.

The idea that converts tend to be the true believers is borne out by her more relaxed husband, Nasir, who was born a Muslim. There’s a marvellous moment (just after the gravy jug got a big laugh — I can’t remember what for!) when he joins in singing Away in a Manger with Mum (he’s been playing, and losing at, Scrabble with her). This surprises us, and astonishes Muna. Doesn’t he realize that’s the wrong religion? He cheerfully admits:

I was one of the three wise men.

Mum remembers that Muslims don’t really celebrate Christmas, and Muna tersely confirms this theological insight:

No we don’t.

Nasir may not be on firm ground when he asserts that it’s the same god worshipped by Christians and Muslims, but he would prefer doctrinal laxity than getting into a quarrel with someone he clearly loves.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with Muna and her mother. Left alone, the two of them are silent, and awkward in each other’s presence. When Ray comes in, Mum’s face lights up:

Hello Ray!

At last, someone she likes having around. The feeling is mutual, and Terry will later remind Muna. By then we are convinced that her not liking her mother is just another intrinsic aspect of her horrible character — it didn’t occur to me to wonder what kind of situation in this family’s past may have contributed to this dysfunction.

While all three blokes (Nasir, Ray and Terry) kiss Mum tenderly on the head, Muna keeps her distance, physically and emotionally. This is what makes her show of care — she goes on at Terry about “what’s best” for Mum — all the more hypocritical. Our view is worsened by how she reacts to a piece of common knowledge [spoiler alert]. When she finds out that Ray is gay (she can’t bring herself to even say the word) she is physically and morally repulsed. She demands his keys to the house, but can’t abide the thought of touching his hand, telling him to put the keys on the side. She refers to “common decency and the laws of God” — without of course the slightest appreciation of the irony of her words: where is her own common decency?

For those of us in the audience who seek out and highlight religious bigotry, there is a danger of tarring all believers with the same brush. In Nasir, Murray reminds that not everyone within such a vast grouping as “Muslim” is the same. Nasir himself knows all about “your Terry’s boyfriend” (in a funny preamble he thought she was surprised that Ray was an electrician, or a United fan). GBs.

To Nasir:

He’s gay.

To Muna:

He’s an adulterer.

He brushes it all aside with a northern cliché that happens to be true:

There’s nowt so queer as folk.

He’s pragmatic: Ray isn’t a Muslim, and since his wife knows it’s not really any of his business what he gets up to. For Muna, for the pious believer, other people’s sexual orientation is very much her business and she can’t help poking her nose in to the question of where other people’s body parts should and shouldn’t be poked.

The sound design for the show complemented the play: There May Be Trouble Ahead played through the next scene change.

Terry leaves messages on Kenneth’s answerphone, but he never rings back (except, possibly, right at the end). Given the increasing urgency of their need to contact him, the one implausibility is that no one rings his mobile or texts him.

Muna’s homophobia is bolstered by her interpretation of her religion (and for more examples see the homophobia category). For her, rules are important: she wears a headscarf and has to explain to her mother that she can’t even eat bacon. For the party Terry brings out first a plate piled high with pork products — scotch eggs, sausage rolls, pork pies — before a second plates of non-pork items. For Mum, the fact that it’s all from M&S makes it all right to eat, surely? Nothing winds up a believer more than the trivialization of their firmly held convictions. As Muna pompously exclaims:

It’s a matter of commitment.

Making fun of religion is also a big no-no (the gods who used to have fun have long since died). An awkward conversation turns to holiday plans:

I’d like to go to Mecca.

Terry leaps in:

For the bingo?

Muna not only want to be a good Muslim for its own sake, everyone else has to know that she’s doing the right thing.

There’s an excellent narrative thread linking Ray’s unfinished fixing of a light switch, Muna’s retrieval of his key due to her thinking him unsuitable to have around (mind you, she doesn’t think it’s “appropriate” that Terry wash and clean their mother — the fact that he’s male overrides the fact that he’s a nurse with 25 year’s experience), the lights blowing out (which triggers Mum’s final crisis), the ringing of the doorbell and Mum’s assumption that it must be Kenneth (because she doesn’t know that Ray no longer has his own key).

The final scene for anyone with half a heart will be viewed through a veil of tears mixed with laughter. We see that even Muna is capable of insight into her own character, and that there’s another reason — apart from Mum’s health — why it’s not a good idea to visit Blackpool to unearth family memories. Another revelation — involving a Suzie doll and a poker — gets both Muna and Terry laughing together for the first time, and also for the first time we think Mum’s request that she doesn’t want them falling out may not just be a mother’s sentimental dying wish, but may be possible.

Murray ends his programme essay with the modest hope that the play “rings a few bells and raises the odd smile.” It certainly did that, and more. There was plenty of laughter, and several bells were rung (my family sung Away in a Manger two weeks before Christmas to our dying mother), and I was in bits by the end.

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Rookery Nook

By Ben Travers Directed by Ian Forrest Presented by Theatre by the Lake on 15 September 2014

A very good production with an excellent cast and a superb set design. The house, Rookery Nook, is itself characterful. In the first scene, the Daily Woman, Mrs Leverett (whose existential catchphrase is: “Earlier than 8.30 I cannot be!”), gets to explain the layout to the visitors, where all the doors lead and who’s allowed in which rooms, etc., etc., all essential farcical information.

Mrs Leverett also tells Clive Popkiss that Chumpton-on-Sea is “a most respectable place — for the most part.” She pauses to let this vital information and its significance sink in, and then gives a peculiar emphasis to the word “most”. The caddish Clive Popkiss immediately wants directions to the least respectable part of Chumpton. She reveals that the neighbouring house has “an improper reputation” (the suspiciously named Malmaison Cottage): there’s a foreigner (who turns out to be German) living there, with a “stepdaughter” — whom she suspects of not really being a stepdaughter at all.

The relationship between Putz (the German) and Rhoda Marley (the stepdaughter) is not what Leverett insinuates, but it does provide the modest ingredients for the rather thin plot (at least compared with a masterpiece like The Comedy of Errors). To compensate for the pedestrian story, the actors have great fun taking their characters to the extreme. Katie Hayes is tremendous as the supercilious Gertrude Twine, a lean battleaxe who dominates all who enter her domain, starting with her put-upon husband and extending to her Prussian neighbour.

The really weird character is Cate Cammack’s Rhoda Marley: in some respects her behaviour and breathy vocalizations are pre-pubescent, and yet all the adults act as though she were capable of forming an improper sexual relationship with one (or more) of the men who are either passing through or hanging out in the hallway of Rookery Nook.

One of those men is Gerald Popkiss, married for six weeks (“marriage is a veil drawn over the past”), who is surprised by the unannounced appearance of Rhoda, in pajamas. She has, apparently, eaten of the forbidden fruit (Somerset worts), and has been “run out” by Putz and so is seeking some kind of sanctuary in Rookery Nook. The odd thing is why giving her shelter should be a problem, if she is a child (which is how she behaves, curling up on the sofa and talking in quite a girlish way). Anyway, it is a problem, and so the farce flows from this (and the later intrusion).


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Review of The Diary Of A Nobody

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


It’s certainly unusual, if not a theatrical first, for the appearance of mustard and cress to earn a warm round of applause. We’re pleased for Charles Pooter, we really are. He records in his diary that they were planted on April 9th (a day on which he “went to bed at nine”). Two days later (“a day of annoyances”), and periodically thereafter, he revisits the window box, and each time it’s the same, sad story: “not come up yet.” Since these herbs are among the easiest to grow, their reluctance to sprout could seem like wilful defiance, if he were superstitious (which he isn’t). It’s one thing the world being against a man. There’s no shame in that – the world is a big place. But cress?

This superb production illuminates the comic paradox at the heart of George and Weedon Grossmith’s classic: how to make the minuscule monumental, and monumentally hilarious, at the same time recognizing that nothing matters all that much, and certainly not the contents of the diary of a nobody.

Charles Pooter is that self-declared nobody, a character who is always withdrawing, deferring, coping with his own insignificance. Pooter is played by Jake Curran, a tall actor who can hardly help being the centre of attention. One self-effacing gesture he uses is to bend at the knees, as if he’s apologizing for his great height and doing his best to diminish his presence. Casting Jordan Mallory-Skinner as Carrie Pooter supplies another kind of visual comedy.

For the most part, both husband and wife are on their best behaviour, exemplary in their correct Victorian deportment except when they cackle uncontrollably at his punning. When she observes how the “fronts and cuffs are much frayed” he replies, without a moment’s hesitation: “I’m ’fraid they are frayed.” He writes: “I thought we should never stop laughing.”

The audience is buttered up for silliness from the outset. In a surreal touch, the actors are standing sentinel underneath identical lampshades as the audience enters. Throughout the performance, they return to their stations to take turns delivering diary entries. This is one of the many ways in which the humorous mood is established: the comic timing is impeccable, the silences are awkward, the asides to the audience are sincere, the sound effects are funny, and there are running gags, such as the posting of letters through a free-floating letterbox carried by the actor doing the posting.

Mary Franklin takes the credit for directing and for adapting the original for the stage, and Carin Nakanishi is responsible for creating a fabulous monochrome set and costumes (with illustrations by Carly Hounsell). While Weedon Grossmith’s drawings are predominantly black ink, the design principle for this production is: start with a white canvas and trace outlines in black to create an amazing cartoonish effect. Even Pooter’s tie and trousers get the treatment (and while the side stripe is rather formal, like a uniform, the black line around his flies blows a perfect raspberry to Victorian prudery).

In the spirit of the two brothers working to bring text and illustrations together, Rough Haired Pointer theatre company succeeds in combining a multiplicity of talents to create a very singular piece of theatre. The cast take on thirty-one characters (their achievement all the more impressive for being an actor down on press night) and conjure up a colourful entertainment in black and white. As Pooter reminds his low-spirited son, Lupin: “behind the clouds the sun is shining.”

(See also The Diary Of A Nobody.)

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The Comedy of Errors

By William Shakespeare Directed by ?? Presented by Theatre by the Lake on 13 September 2014

A wonderful production, with a complex, colourful set — the stage is one huge Moroccan bazaar, crammed with all the exotic goods and services of a busy port on the Mediterranean. All four locations — the mart, the Porpentine, the Phoenix and the Abbey — are present, and, odd as it may seem, their visibility adds to the moment-by-moment confusion while also clarifying the overall structure of the play, which is about “about the epistemic predicament of agents in the world” (Hurley et al. 2011:xii). That there are different levels of confusion and clarity is entirely appropriate: we know more than each of the characters, and the differences between each character’s store of knowledge become magnified into comedy. By the end of the play, just before the resolution, there is a magnificent sequence of corroborations and contradictions as witnesses come forward to support and to deny another’s testimony, leaving all agents thoroughly mired in their web of beliefs.

Unfortunately, in her programme essay Emily Rose echoes the view that Ephesus is “a city of magic and trickery” and emphasizes the occurrence of the word “mad” (which appears 19 times, more than in any other Shakespeare play). This is an understandable mistake, but it’s not a helpful way of approaching the play. In fact, it reduces us to the epistemic status of the characters — they are justified in reaching for the “mad” word, we are not.

One of the first things we learn about the city of Ephesus is that it is a place where the law is taken very seriously and held in high esteem: even the duke cannot ride roughshod over the legal code. Is such a circumstance likely in a city inhabited by madmen? Charges of madness are not the sole preserve of the visitors from Syracuse: Luciana herself thinks Antipholus of Syracuse mad when he proposes to her (having just had “dinner” with her sister).

There is, however, a deeper reason why no one in this play is mad: the characters all show normal rather than pathological reactions to their epistemic predicaments. Since they are products of natural selection, we can assume that most of their beliefs will be true and most of their belief-forming strategies will be rational (Dennett 1989:96). Dennett continues (96–97):

Herbert Simon is duly famous for maintaining that it is rational in many instances to satisfice—for example, to leap to possibly “invalid” conclusions when the costs of further calculations probably outweigh the costs of getting the wrong answer.

It seems that this is what both Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are doing when they decide to catch the first boat out of Ephesus (97):

Deductive logic might be held to advise that in the face of uncertainty or lack of information one should simply sit tight and infer nothing—bad advice for a creature in a busy world, but fine advice if avoiding falsehood at all costs is the goal.

Back to this production, which conveys a great deal of information before a word is spoken: there is laughter from within the Porpentine, the sound of waves breaking on the shore, and Antipholus of Syracuse looking perplexed at a map as he strolls onto the mart with Dromio — just missing his twin Antipholus of Ephesus, who has left his laughing companion at the Porpentine and is returning home.

A detail in Egeon’s speech I’d never noticed before is Shakespeare’s recognition that epistemic agency requires some maturity: the pretty babes “mourned for fashion, ignorant what to fear” (??).

One of the delightful aspects of this production was the mirroring of certain actions, entirely apt in a play that revolves around two pairs of twins. Antipholus of Syracuse is exasperated (??):

I am not in a sportive humour now;
Tell me, and dally not, where is the money?
We being strangers here, how dar’st thou trust
So great a charge from thine own custody?

Dromio of Ephesus pauses, look at his master, and then laughs at length, as if it’s just dawned on him that his master is playing an elaborate trick on him (when of course Antipholus thinks the situation is the exact reverse).


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Prayerful ingratitude

In A heavenly matchmaker, a woman testifies to the power of prayer to trigger a proposal of marriage, perhaps unaware that human beings have been coupling up without divine guidance for a couple of million years. Those who believe in prayer have a habit of attributing all kinds of things to the intercessory power of a supernatural agent. Associating prayer with proposals of marriage is a relatively harmless occupation. More detrimental to the good of society is the failure to properly attribute to our fellow humans those actions that actually save lives.

In an article in New Humanist (July/August 2013, pages 41–43) on the strange sub-genre of ex-atheist memoirs, Dale DeBakcsy draws upon Dave Schmelzer’s book, Not the Religious Type:

He tells of standing by the bed of his daughter, who is suffering from a potentially fatal heart problem, and describes Joy as the core of the entire experience because, in the midst of it all, he had some top-notch God conversations. Again and again in his memoir, he comes back to how deeply satisfying that experience was, and how grateful he is to those who prayed for his daughter’s recovery.

So, Schmelzer is now certainly the religious type when it comes to imagining the efficacy of prayer. Presumably, he’s a decent man who will also thank the doctors and nurses, even if only as instruments of God’s benevolence? If, while still an atheist or even later as a theist, he had read Daniel Dennett’s essay “Thank goodness!” (see Thank goodness!), he would realize just how widely our thanks must be spread beyond the doctors and nurses to the cleaners and porters and the support staff, and to the scientists and engineers who invented and built the life-saving equipment, and so on and so forth:

Not once does he thank the doctors or the nurses who worked for a year to save his daughter’s life. We never even hear their names…

Oh dear. Schmelzer is more interested in his own “journey towards Better God Chats” than in the people who actually make a difference in this world.

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A heavenly matchmaker

During one of the Q&As in Patient 39, a woman (who boasted of being a member of Mensa) contributed a strange comment about her personal life: after 18 months in a relationship she was sat next to her bloke when she sent a prayer up to God and the very next moment he proposed to her.

She thought this was highly significant and was aggressive in challenging the neuroscientists to explain how this could possibly have happened according to their theories of how the mind works and how consciousness is contained within the brain and so on and so forth.

The panel members quite sensibly moved on to saner topics as quickly as possible, although they could have offered one simple solution: it was a coincidence.

That length of time into a relationship between two people who both have marriage on their minds — how surprising is it that the question is popped? Assuming that both are Christians, their mate choice from the get go is immediately narrowed to the small subset of the population who are Christians, and the right sort of Christian from the same sect (people tend to marry those with similar beliefs and backgrounds), and they would be feeling the pressure of time ticking by and reproductive opportunities slipping away. It really isn’t surprising that the kind of moment in which she felt able to “send up a prayer” was the right kind of moment he felt able to propose.

It would be also interesting to know how many times she had prayed along similar lines in similar situations, or perhaps those unanswered prayers have been conveniently forgotten?

And if God did answer this prayer, why is this marriage a more important call on his time than curing a baby of AIDS or a young boy of Duchenne muscular dystrophy?

This woman clearly thinks her experience is a good reason to believe in God, while the rest of us will have our very reasonable doubts to the contrary. In fact, it seems to be an example of a very bad reason to believe in God, and so there are still no good reasons to believe in God.

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How not to handle rejection

In The Science of Love, Robin Dunbar’s main focus (from a scientific perspective) is on all the good things about being in love, but he also touches on what can happen when things go wrong and a relationship breaks down (2012:183–84):

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson analysed the pattern of spousal murders and found that in 80 per cent of cases where husbands murdered wives, it was because of known or suspected infidelity or the threat of leaving. Outright murder simply represents the extreme case of the more general phenomenon of coercion. Coercion often seems to be a male’s first response to both the threat of infidelity and the threat of being abandoned…

This is not merely a phenomenon of Western society. In fact, a woman’s right not to suffer any kind of domestic abuse recedes even further into the distance when we look at some traditional societies (184):

In the not so distant past, a Walbiri Australian Aboriginal man could beat, or even spear to death, his wife for the slightest complaint or neglect of duty, never mind the threat of leaving him, with complete impunity. Neither blood money nor even a public rebuke was due if a man killed his wife.

Asher Maslin might have wished he had been born in a different place and time when he pleaded guilty to killing Hollie Gazzard:

He murdered the 20-year-old hairdresser as she worked at Fringe Benefits and La Bella Beauty salon in Gloucester city centre on 18 February.

He was her ex-boyfriend and he didn’t like being her ex-boyfriend so much that he stabbed her fourteen times. The senior investigating officer, Steve Bean, said:

This was a spiteful and cowardly attack by a self-obsessed individual who couldn’t handle rejection.

Most men would get drunk down the pub with their mates, and move on, even if they did feel angry or humiliated or vengeful. As Dunbar notes, murder is way off the scale of responses to rejection, but it can still happen even in a society where it is utterly condemned rather than condoned.

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Patient 39

Patient 39: Memory, Consciousness and Our Sense of Self

Professor Andrew Lees, Professor Anil Seth and Dr Jon Simons at the Royal Institution on 9 September 2014

The evening began with the short film Patient 39, about a soldier who wakes from a coma with no idea of his identity or his past. The writer/director Dan Clifton gave a brief introduction, and revealed that the film is based on a William Boyd short story, The Ghost of a Bird. When Gault wakes, he seems to recover at least some memories (he recognizes his mother), and he makes a request:

I want to see Sylvie.

Dr Moran at first assumes Sylvie is a real person, someone who means a great deal to his patient, but it becomes apparent that she might be a figment of his imagination.

Andrew Lees on the History of Brain Injury Treatment

Identifying and localizing the lesion is only one part of the doctor–patient relationship. Empathy is replacing a reputation for cold, clinical austerity. W. H. Auden talks of a doctor needing to have a good character, of going the extra step when a patient is really ill.

Amnesa is usually a bit of both retrograde and anterograde memory loss (Jason Bourne suffers from only retrograde amnesia).

Doctors at the Oxford Military Hospital pioneered mobile neurophysiological surgery at the front, so speeding up treatment of brain injuries and increasing the chances of a good outcome.

The film is about a neurologist rather than a surgeon, and the real Dr Moran was probably William Ritchie Russell.

Although we deny it, we often have a special relationship with certain interesting patients.

Diffuse axonal injury results from shearing of the white matter, a type of injury common after blast.

The novel Saturday is based around his own hospital, where Ian McEwan shadowed Mr Neil Kitchen for a couple of years.

Garcia Marquez was very interested in memory and his last book was in part about how brain damage can lead to false memories.

Was Gault hallucinating?


The first comment was a strange one from a woman who claimed to be a member of Mensa: after 18 months in a relationship she was sat next to her bloke when she sent a prayer up to God and in the next moment he proposed. She was aggressive in asking the neuroscientists to explain that! Well, it’s very simple: it was a coincidence. That length of time into a relationship between two people who both have marriage on their minds — how surprising is it that the question is popped? It would be interesting to know how many times she had prayed along similar lines in similar situations, or perhaps those unanswered prayers have been conveniently forgotten? And if God did answer this prayer, why is this marriage a more important call on his time than curing a baby of AIDS or a young boy of Duchenne muscular dystrophy?

Anil Seth on Consciousness

Consciousness is the presence of the world for each of us now. How does the brain give rise to consciousness? It’s worth listening to the questions philosophers ask but not often to their answers.

The brain has 90 billion neurons and 1000 times more connections. The neuron is an intricate biological machine, and the pathways within white matter create a beautiful image.

Hippocrates thought that everything comes from our brain.

There’s a difference between conscious experience and what’s going on in the world, which can be illustrated by various illusions, such as the rotating magenta dots. After a while there appears to be only one green dot moving in a circle. There are four things going on, made even more peculiar because magenta exists even less than other colours.

Stimuli that we’re not aware off can still affect the brain, and the Glasgow coma scale rates behavioural responses to these stimuli. So-called “zap and zip” can give a quantitative measure of how conscious someone is. The conscious self is made up of several pieces:

  • The bodily self is the experience of being and having a body.
  • The phenomenal self is the experience of being someone, of having a first-person perspective.
  • The volitional self is the experience of intending and causing events.
  • The narrative self is the experience of having an “I”.
  • The social self is in relation to everyone else.

Clive Wearing’s diary contains repeated entries, since every moment is his first waking moment — there is no other moment for Clive.

By using tennis imagery we may be able to conclude that a patient is actually conscious [although could this be automatic and not necessarily volitional?].

Seth finished with the “wider than the sky” Emily Dickinson poem.


We don’t necessarily need a strict definition of what consciousness is before proceeding to try to understand it. There are plenty of folk ideas about what life is, but no hard-and-fast scientific definition, but this hasn’t stopped us from finding out a great deal about how living organisms work. We can look at what’s going on, and then feed back into a definition in an iterative process.

We cannot rule out alternatives (such as consciousness residing outside of the head) but we’re pretty sure that consciousness depends on the brain.

Dreaming is a beautiful natural experiment, but tension with Freud and his notions about the content of dreams keeps sensible scientists from going too far. That said, it would be very interesting to know what dreams are for.

One big difference is higher-order knowing — being conscious of being conscious — although it would be a mistake to use this as a criterion for being conscious.

Jon Simons on Brain Injury and Memory

Getting a grip on reality: how do we know that our memories are real, and how do we distinguish between real and imagined experiences?

Memory is vital to understanding ourselves, so how do we go about remembering the past? There is the subjective experience of remembering, e.g. Patient 39’s experience of meeting Sylvie. At the time of retrieval we construct the experience and think about its quality as a way of determining whether or not it’s a memory of a real experience.

There are multiple forms of memory: the Atkinson–Shiffrin model is a model of memory proposed in 1968 by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin. The model asserts that human memory has three separate components:

  1. A sensory register, where sensory information enters memory.
  2. A short-term store, also called working memory or short-term memory, which receives and holds input from both the sensory register and the long-term store.
  3. A long-term store, where information which has been rehearsed in the short-term store is held indefinitely.

Squire proposed that there are three kinds of long-term memory: episodic memory (personal events), semantic memory (facts and knowledge), procedural memory (how to ride a bicycle).

HM was one of the most important patients for our scientific understanding of memory. He was cured of epilepsy but unfortunately the surgery resulted in profound amnesia.

The parietal cortex is the most frequently activated area during memory tasks.

Three brain regions are important in episodic memory: the lateral parietal cortex, the anterior prefrontal cortex, and the medial temporal lobe.

The anterior prefrontal cortex distinguishes between real and imagined experiences. There is reality monitoring activity in this region while making decisions. Hallucinations involve the misattribution of imagined information as having occurred in the outside world.

The lateral parietal cortex enables the subjective experience of remembering.

The medial temporal lobe enables memories of recent events to be constructed.

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Big horse event

Alan Partridge is not the kind of man who succeeds with women. When he interviews showjumper Katrina Parfitt (played by Doon Mackichan), he complements her, completely inappropriately:

You look fantastic on a horse.

He’s not talking about her riding skills — it’s the “little wave” and the “little smile” she gave to the judges that melts his heart. She reminds him that the competition doesn’t depend on looks. He’s already out of his depth in sporting terms, and getting more and more flustered as a single man in close proximity to a real, live, adult woman:

If I’d have been a judge, I’d have been a complete mess.

By now, she’s taken off her shirt and we’re looking at an exquisitely discomfited Partridge over a shoulder with a prominent white bra strap:

If you ever have any more problems with him you can ride me round the paddock…

He tails off, just as her bra comes off, and, barely audible as he swallows his words, asks:

How do you ride a horse?

A brilliant comic sketch, which also illustrates the power of pretend. What are the chances of the real Alan Partridge attracting a beautiful, young lingerie model? Pretty close to zero. What are the chances for a fictional Alan Partridge? Actually, quite high, and in fact it has come to pass:

His current partner, 23-year-old Elle Basey, is a lingerie model he met while guest-editing an issue of Loaded magazine. He was dressed as Partridge and she was in her pants.

History is full of such stories that buck the usual trend, which is that, in mate choice, women go for slightly older men and men go for slightly younger women. A few men of high status and high wealth get to date much younger women, as in Steve Coogan’s case, and as in the case of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who married Jiang Qing, a Shanghai showgirl and popularly known as one of the three great beauties of Yan’an. He married for youth and beauty, and she was perhaps turning art into life: in one of her films she plays a determined woman who marries a much older man for status and security.

Alan Partridge is at least harmless. Far less sympathetic are those men whose failure with women drives them to extremes. In The Domesticated Brain, Bruce Hood referred to the multiple homicide carried out by Elliot Roger as the “ultimate act of spite.” Roger made a chilling video articulating the pain of rejection, and he clearly felt entitled to take revenge and to his “day of retribution” because of all he had had to endure:

Girls have never been attracted to me.

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