Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Sue Gerhardt, Aminatta Forna and the Chris Morris biography, though not in t

Lucian Randall, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris

Sameer Rahim in the Telegraph finds that this biography of the man behind Brass Eye and Jam "cites many examples of Morris's personal kindness and generosity", while conceding that he is "not a crowd-pleaser", and his "uncompromising comic vision ... has often landed him in trouble". Elizabeth Day in the Observer notes that Chris Morris "trades on his anonymity", and "the first quarter of Disgusting Bliss is thus hampered by a lack of interesting information." She concludes: "impeccably researched and fluently written, Disgusting Bliss paints Morris as a frantic-minded perfectionist, a visionary unwilling to cede control of his projects. He emerges from this biography as someone maniacally convinced of the rightness of his vision, who steamrollers opposition and approaches controversy with relish." For Arifa Akbar in the Independent, the book is "illuminating, if all too admiring" and an "inspiring read for budding anarchists". Sophie Elmhirst in the New Statesman finds that "Randall offers a feast of anecdotes. It feels as if he has interviewed everyone Morris has ever worked with, a method that can read heavily at times", and restates the critical consensus: "Randall confirms the portrait of Morris as an uncompromising creator."

Susan Gerhardt, The Selfish Society

Phil Hogan in the Observer begins by this describing this book, inauspiciously, as "quite inspiring" and "the latest to join the clamour against consumerism revived in recent times". Gerhardt is "is more understanding than condemning" compared to other commentators on the subject, but "the diagnosis - that acquiring a lot of stuff doesn't make you happy - is the same". Lesley McDowell in the Independent on Sunday is impressed that "Sue Gerhardt's polemic is an unusual thing: it not only pinpoints what is wrong, but also suggests ways to put it right"; she also "knows that she is taking on long-cherished beliefs". McDowell sums up Gerhardt's approach thus: "If we don't change the way we bring up children, beginning from the moment that they are born, we will stay depressed and in debt", and concludes: "I believe her." David Evans in the Financial Times writes that "The idea that broken Britain might be mended with cuddles will attract cynicism, but Gerhardt has the neuroscience to back it up." He also notes that Gerhardt "quotes everyone from Engels to David Cameron along the way".

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love

For Tim Adams in the Observer, Aminatta Forna's second novel is "ambitious and deeply researched", in which "Freudian archetypes are everyday reality" within its setting in Sierra Leone circa 2001. Adams quibbles that "There is a neatness and a coincidence to this plotting that at times seems strained but serves Forna's wider point that everything is connected if you look hard enough", while praising Forna's depiction of "Sierra Leone's monstrous recent history": "As Forna's forensic reinhabiting of the aftermath of the conflict reveals, these wounds may have vivid physical realities, but it is always behind the eyes that they are felt most keenly." Lucy Atkins in the Sunday Times agrees about the plotting: "This is delicately and skilfully done, and although sometimes the coincidences seem distinctly unlikely, they somehow work." She concludes that "This is a slow novel that occasionally feels as if Forna could have pared things back a little. But then, the steady pace makes the awful revelations all the more disturbing." Jane Shilling in the Telegraph declares that "This is an ambitious project", but finds that in this novel "Forna weaves an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tragedy and loss". Although she agrees that Forna's plot "has something too much of artifice - almost mechanical - about it", she decides that "Forna understands that it is only by making patterns out of chaos that humans find the courage to continue living."

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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution