Douglas White
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A life in motion: the many passions of Oliver Sacks

Sacks has written of showing “extreme immoderation” in his passions. His new book, On the Move: a Life, reveals them.

There is a photograph in Oliver Sacks’s new memoir of the author wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Welcome squid overlords”, a ­giant squid hovering like an alien behind the lettering. When I interviewed him at his New York office in 2001 (his first memoir, Uncle Tungsten, had just been published), he seemed a little diffident despite my keen regard for him – until I mentioned a friend of mine, Richard Ellis, a marine artist and authority on cephalopods, a subject in which I knew Sacks was interested. At that point he lit up. He knew Ellis’s work well and admired it. He pressed into my palm a plastic model of a giant squid and we were off.

This moving book confirms that it is Sacks’s expansive passions for learning and for experience that have made his such a vigorous, fascinating and influential life. “I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests – volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever – then I am instantly drawn into animated conversation,” he writes. Volcanoes! Jellyfish! Gravitational waves! No need even to mention the medical field in which he has made his name, neurology, for that is what underpins all the rest.

Sacks was born in London in 1933, the youngest of four sons. Both of his parents were doctors; his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England. He recalls here how, at the age of 27, travelling through Canada (this is a book spanning thousands of miles of travel), he repudiated the notion that medicine was “his chosen profession”. “Others chose it for me,” he writes, noting the bitterness he felt at the time. And so he had to find his own way into medical practice. On the Move, more than any of his other books, shows the trajectory of that journey, what it cost him and what he gained.

This is by no means a “greatest hits” book, though it touches on all of the works that made his name in the world outside the medical fraternity: Awakenings, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices and Hallucinations, to name a few. Those were books that helped transform narrative non-fiction and revealed lives and personalities that most of us could never have imagined otherwise. Sacks’s work has always combined empathy with observation. “Neurologists, perhaps more than any other specialists, see tragic cases – people with incurable, relentless diseases which can cause great suffering. There has to be, along with fellow feeling and sympathy and compassion, a sort of detachment so that one is not drawn into a too-close identification with patients,” he writes here. That is a pithy reflection on his life’s work.

On the Move is written with energy but with the consciousness of mortality. Sacks is 81. For years now, he has struggled with poor health and in February he revealed, in a frank and moving piece for the New York Times, that he has terminal cancer. In that article, he reflected that he was not a man of mild temperament but rather one “of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions”.

This book gives a vivid sense of many of those passions. One of the most striking is the author’s youthful love of motorcycles. He left England for the US in 1960 and worked for a time in California before finally settling in New York five years later. Leaving the UCLA clinic on a Friday night, he would get on his bike “and ride through the night, lying flat on the tank; the bike had only 30 horsepower, but if I lay flat I could get it to a little over 100 miles per hour, and crouched like this, I would hold the bike flat out for hour after hour”. He would get as far as the Grand Canyon – a thousand miles in a weekend – and show up for work bright and early on Monday morning. The photo­graphs of him in his leathers are something of a revelation, too. As someone has remarked on Twitter, the young Sacks was a stone cold fox – that’s the plain truth.

It almost reads as if the speed of the bike allowed Sacks to leave himself behind. He also sought oblivion in drugs and weightlifting (he once held the California record for a full squat: 600 pounds) and swimming. He doesn’t speculate here on the reasons why he might have wanted to disappear but when just before he went up to Oxford his mother learned that he was gay (from his father; Sacks had asked him not to tell her but he had), she showed “a face of thunder” and said to her beloved youngest child, “You are an abomination,” and added, “I wish you had never been born.” He never stopped loving his parents and his relationship with his mother was repaired but such an encounter can only exact a heavy price.

In medicine, too, he was the odd one out. He fought against many of the conventions of his profession. He spent time in Guam among people afflicted by a syndrome similar to the sleeping sickness that had affected the patients in Awakenings, the difference being that in Guam the sufferers were fully integrated into the community. “This drove home to me how barbaric our own medicine and our own customs are in the ‘civilised’ world, where we put ill or demented people away and try to forget them.”

There is little that Sacks forgets. This book is a delight and a fine prompt to return to his earlier work. When he was 12, a schoolmaster noted: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It’s our good fortune that he nearly did, flat out on the ride of his life, yet returned home to his notebook and pen.

On the Move: a Life by Oliver Sacks is published by Picador, 399pp, £20

Editor's note: on 30 August 2015, it was announced that Oliver Sacks had died at his home in New York. He was 82.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser