Monday night to the theatre for Derren Brown‘s Svengali show. The man is amazing. Best for me this time was him doing something extraordinary at an easel, painting or drawing with one hand, while taking his cue from the arm of a randomly selected audience member (blindfolded?) whose arm he is grasping with his other hand as she thinks about a famous face, though that is but a small part of the show. The audience is spellbound for well over two hours. And yet. The trouble is, the last show, Enigma, was so good it’s difficult to be have one’s flabber quite so gasted, though I’ve still absolutely no doubt that anyone coming to this with no experience of the man live would be more than impressed. One is still charmed by the wit and in awe at his ability to hold and work a large audience so effectively. Apparently he’s gone without his usual co-writer for Svengali; maybe there’s a bit of edge lost – a feeling maybe just be brought on by familiarity – but this is far from an exercise in Tony Hancockian hubris.
The stage set is steam punk, 1900s futuristic. The centre piece segment of the show, the title piece, features an automaton doll called Svengali, a furtherance of Brown’s mission to replicate and demystify (even though he doesn’t explain how it’s done) Victorian era (and some) supposed occult phenomena. The creepy – only word – automaton doll is given a back story with its origins in the late eighteenth century, including a tale of Catholic exorcism, for which, I can only say, I can find no concurrence on Wikipedia … but no matter. The magician blogosphere suggests that much of the show is technically unexceptional misdirection and suggestion played out skillfully and at length, but again, no matter. Long may Derren Brown thrive. Attitude!
Andrea Gillies‘ book Keeper: a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake (Short Books, 2009) is about Alzheimer’s, a condition I knew a bit about but had no direct or indirect – through friends or relatives – contact with. I know a lot more about it now and it’s worrying, scary and, as Gillies says in her forward, a growing problem for society as a whole. Keeper won the Wellcome Prize for lay science writing; I wouldn’t have been reading it but for the Reading Group, but I’m glad I did. It’s well written and nicely paced, the story – as it unfolds – interlaced with medical and scientific explanation and discussion as to what’s going on in the Alzheimer’s sufferers’ brain.
Andrea and her husband decide to live the three generational model of family care. Nancy, her mother-in-law has early to middle stage Alzheimer’s and Nancy’s invalided husband Morris has his own problems, so they can’t cope on their own. Andrea and Chris have three children. They decide the only way to buy a house they can afford to accommodate them all is to move into a Victorian semi-ruin on a remote Scottish headland. Chris is the main breadwinner so most of it – the caring, though note the book’s title is Keeper – falls on Andrea. In the end it can’t be sustained. And the extreme weather is far worse than they’d ever expected. You do have to wonder quite how they thought it could ever work. There was also the notion of touching the Wordsworthian Sublime (capital S), being closer to the elemental and all that. Leading to:
A baby seal dead on the beach, and then a dolphin, part eaten before it was washed ashore. I begin to feel an overwhelming, disproportionate pity for the sheep and the bullocks that watch me from their pasture as I pass. It’s all suffering and cruelty out there, I think, stomping along the beach in a summer dress and raincoat and wellingtons; it’s cruelty disguised by landscape, by our fetish for views. I blame Wordsworth for that.
Nancy’s disintegration – the deterioration of self (“What am I doing here”? when most cogent), her loss of memory and routines of even simple hygiene, the return to a state of toddlerdom but with all the retained physical adult strength of anger and temper, her uncomprehending rants – and the effect this disintegration has on Andrea and the family dynamics, is devastatingly, compassionately and honestly – she almost cracks – described. Nancy doesn’t recognise her husband, nor son or daughter in law; grandchildren are hit. It is harrowing. Never mind the dealings with Social Services. Sad, but what relief to discover that sufferers fare better in an environment away from their family, free of the frustrations of the residue of vaguely remembered details of a forgotten life with no coherence, and with all the tensions reflected back by the travails of their once nearest and dearest distant.
As the sub-title of Keepers suggest, there’s a lot more to the book than that. For all that the quote above suggests there is some wonderful descriptive writing about the land and clime. There is humour and a more general contemplation of existence, a sense of wonder of what an amazing thing the brain is, what it can do (eh, Darren?), what we take for granted. What becomes clear is that our identities are our memories.
I can hear her ranting about me next door, but she is in rant mode most of the time now anyway, so it doesn’t matter. None of it matters in the least, I say to myself, turning the radio up louder. The radio is on in the kitchen all day now, the radio or the CD player. Hendrix turns out to be an excellent granny repellent. Mozart brings Nancy in asking questions and Sinatra sparks something that has the tone of reminiscence, but is a random putting-together of words and ideas, presented as urgently true.
There are questions that linger at the back of one’s mind, unsatisfied: there is very little back story (though with that it would not have been the same book, a certain crucial element of neutrality lost) and you do sometimes wonder about the part Chris plays in all this. The book has done its job, though; part-therapy it may have been, but we get the picture.
I was intrigued by one aspect of Nancy’s decline; strange to say, reassuringly so. She retains the capacity – can one even say necessity? – to rhyme. Long after the memory of the proper words of her favourite song – When Irish eyes are smiling – are gone, her own made-up substitutes, even when no longer actual words, still rhyme. Maybe a good time then, to give a nod to Mike Scott‘s band The Waterboys and their setting of some of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats‘s works to music. I’ve been listening to the CD lately and it works much better – for all that (because) I’m a fan of the Waterboys and Yeats – than I’d ever expected. The track that has been sticking in my mind? – Mad as the mist and snow.