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Adventures in Human Being is an entrancing roadmap of the flesh

For Gavin Francis, medicine is “a skeleton key to open doors ordinarily closed”, and his latest book is as illuminating as it is enjoyable.

What do victims of domestic violence and the heroes of Homer’s Iliad have in common? The answer is just one of an avalanche of thought-provoking, sometimes quite startling facts and observations to be found in Gavin Francis’s new book, in which he abandons his usual turf (his two previous books explored the cold regions of the planet and how we and other animals survive in them) for the geography of the human body.

Adventures in Human Being could be described as a road map to the flesh, written by a guide who is scrupulously attentive to the details of how we work and exquisitely aware of the glimpses of the soul behind the machinery. Francis is not only an experienced doctor but also steeped in both the classics and contemporary literature. His breadth is not just impressive but entirely convincing, as he moves easily from a 1977 essay by the military historian P B Adamson (“A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Weapons in the Effectiveness of Producing Battle Casualties”) to a close and illuminating reading of “The Halving”, Robin Robertson’s poem about heart disease.

Adventures in Human Being is a set of essays organised “from head to toe, like certain anatomy texts, though they can be read in any order” – which, at first sight, seems a risky approach. Surely, for most of us, the most interesting parts of the human body (with perhaps one exception) are located in the head and heart areas? It seems all too natural to assume that our abilities to reason, imagine and feel are more engaging than digestion or the processing of toxins. This, however, is to forget how far we have come in understanding the body as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts, and though Francis chooses “head to toe” as the most obvious way to navigate the terrain, his perspective is consistently holistic. So it is that his chapter on feet and toes turns out to be as engaging as anything he has written about the heart, or the senses, or the putative locus of the soul (which Descartes situates in the pineal body, a tiny gland, shaped like a pine cone, that regulates sleep and, so, by extension, our ability to dream).

Beyond the fine detail and the erudition of his medical investigations, what marks Francis out as a perfect guide to our physical selves is his sensitivity to metaphor, simile and analogy, his deftness with language. Here, he discusses a patient, named Claire, whose terrifying medical history has driven her into the operating theatre for dangerous brain surgery: “Her brain was structurally normal but functionally fragile, forever teetering on the edge of seizures. If normal cerebral activity – thought, speech, imagination, sensation – moves through the brain with the rhythms of music, seizures might be likened to a deafening blast of static. Claire had been so injured, frightened and handicapped by these seizures that she was prepared to risk her life with this surgery in order to be free of them.”

Describing a man named Edwards who has just emerged from profound depression after electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), Francis remarks: “After a while his facial expression, having previously been blank, would alter when I or one of the nurses went into his room to speak to him. He seemed startled by life, like a Lazarus unconvinced that he’d been done a favour.” Francis then proceeds seamlessly into a long passage in which the development of ECT and its uses is beautifully set out, in a combination of exact clinical terminology, humane observation and historical insight, from the ancient Greeks’ conception of seizures as a “sacred disease” to a period of “reckless experimentation with the brain” by Italian researchers under Mussolini.

That Adventures in Human Being is an astonishing, moving and enchanting book can be explained in part by Francis’s unique range of experience, his erudition and his enthusiasm; but his principal virtue might be the humility he brings to his task. We often think of medical professionals as arrogant, too remote from the people they treat. Francis gives the lie to that idea. Where we assume that most doctors see their work as something to be survived, emotionally and psychologically, by a calculated detachment, Francis sees his calling as a privilege. “My profession is like a passport or skeleton key to open doors ordinarily closed; to stand witness to private suffering and, where possible, ease it. Often even that modest goal is unreachable – for the most part it’s not about dramatically saving lives, but quietly, methodically, trying to postpone death.”

Gavin Francis will be in conversation with Suzanne O’Sullivan at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis is published by Profile Books (£14.99, 253pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game