Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009


This fine book on evolution was well reviewed at the time and won the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books. Here is my review from Eurotimes . Or rather this is a draft, and readers will note one paragraph just trails off… I cannot find the final version online or in my email so I am not sure what followed! This review is focused on the ophthalmological aspects of the book, though not to the exclusion of the wider issues :

Life ascending.
Nick Lane

There are ten great inventions of evolution discussed in Nick Lane’s lucid, stimulating book – life’s origin,
DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Lane
makes it clear from the outset that invention does not mean a conscious agency purposefully steered the
process, rather he is referring to the ten great innovations that have transformed life that were created
through natural selection. Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the chapter on sight, which
I will therefore focus on in this review, but the whole book is superbly written and extremely enjoyable.

The eye has long been a favourite topic of anti-evolutionists. In 1802, the English utilitarian philosopher William Paley
argued in his Natural Theology that the eye is an organ of such complexity that it is absurd to suppose
that the purposeless blunderings of evolution (evolutionary ideas pre-dated Darwin, of course) could have
produced it. He used the analogy of a blind watchmaker producing a timepiece, which later gave Richard
Dawkins the title of one of his books. Darwin himself is frequently misquoted by creationists and affiliated
persons in this context – he seemed the admit that “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems
… absurd in the highest possible degree.” Darwin went on the write, however, that “if numerous
gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each being useful to its
possessor, can be shown to exist” the problem is solved.

In fact, we now have models of the evolution of the eye that exceed those of other organs in explanatory
power. The Swedish researchers Dans Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have modelled this succession
of steps, which is each generation is taken as one year, requires somewhat less than half a million years.

The eye does seem, at first glance, to pose a problem to evolutionary explanations of its origin. What’s
more the human eye, with its rods and cones located behind an array of nerves and with its blind spot
where the optic nerve leaves the orbit, does not at first, cynical glance to be especially well designed.
Furthermore, the cant charge of anti-evolutionists has been “what use is half an eye?”, and answering the
question of how a retina could have evolved, separate from the rest of the optic apparatus, is at first
glance difficult. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” is a famous dictum of the evolutionary biologist Leslie
Orgel, and Lane goes on to show not only that the eye is well adapted to its purpose, but that (I am not sure what I said subsequently)

His approach begins, entertainingly for readers of this publication, with the observation that “anyone who
has been to a conference of ophthalmologists will appreciate that they fall into two great tribes: those who
work at the front of the eye … and those who work at the back … the two tribes interact reluctantly, and at
times barely seem to speak the same language.” For this divide, ironically, reflects the half-an-eye
distinction and allows us to consider the evolution of both halves of the eye.

For the retinal part of the answer, Lane travels (literarily speaking – it was the marine biologist Cindy Lee
Van Dover who did the actual exploring) to the most hostile and extreme habitat on earth – black-smoker
vents on the deep ocean floor that support an ecosystem of hardy survivors. Among these is the
ironically named eyeless reef shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata), which as a larva has fully formed eyes.
These are not of use to the adult shrimp, so they are reabsorbed and replaced with a literal half an eye
– a naked retina.

Most doctors will remember rhodopsin, perhaps rather dimly. It is the light-sensitive protein at the heart of
the visual process, being involved in photoreceptor synthesis as well as the initial perception of light.
Rhodopsin evolved from an algal ancestor where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis.
Rhodopsin is used by some bacteria for a form of photosynthesis.
Lane synthesises the evolution of all the aspects of the eye, although one of the ophthalmological tribes
may feel their area of interest is dealt with in slightly less detail than their retinal brethren. The naked
retina was the first step on the journey. As different organisms’ sheets of light-sensitive were arrayed in
different ways, with some recessing into pits which allowed shadows to be cast and therefore an idea of
where light comes from to be assessed, the trade-off between resolving light and light sensitivity began to
tip the balance in favour of lens formation.

Writers in this field must be tired of having to handle the creationist/intelligent design issue. Lane’s book is
not aimed at this debate, although in the footnotes he refers the reader to “The Flagellum Unspun” by
Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller which attacks the creationist idea of irreducible complexity, as
exemplified by the development of a flagellum. Lane quotes Miller on intelligent design advocates as
double failures, “rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because
they think too little of God,” and discusses Pope John Paul II’s views of evolution and the mind (made in
the course of his 1996 pronouncement recognising that evolution was more than a hypothesis) with
respect and sensitivity. Lane is clearly that wonderful thing, an enthusiast able to explain and inform


“Mental health apps offer a head start on recovery” – Irish Times, 18/01/18

Over at my more medically focused blog A Medical Education, I have a link to a recent Irish Times story on apps in mental health in which my various pontifications feature….

A Medical Education

Here is a piece by Sylvia Thompson on a recent First Fortnight panel discussion I took part in on apps in mental health.

Dr Séamus Mac Suibhne, psychiatrist and member of the Health Service Executive research technology team says that while the task of vetting all apps for their clinical usefulness is virtually impossible, it would be helpful if the Cochrane Collaboration [a global independent network of researchers] had a specific e-health element so it could partner with internet companies to give a meaningful rubber stamp to specific mental health apps.

“There is potential for the use of mental health apps to engage people with diagnosed conditions – particularly younger patients who might stop going to their outpatients appointments,” says Dr Mac Suibhne. However, he cautions their use as a replacement to therapy. “A lot of apps claim to use a psychotherapeutic approach but psychotherapy is about a human encounter…

View original post 89 more words

The Granddaughter Paradox published in Sci Phi Journal

My story The Granddaughter Paradox has been published in Sci Phi Journal, an online journal of science fiction with a philosophical twist (or philosophical fiction with a science fiction twist?)

Reading the full story requires a subscription, or as the site says:

You need to be a Patron of the magazine to read all of this item. Jump over to our Patreon Page and sign up now. All pledges processed in 24 hours.

So obviously I will encourage anyone reading this to follow the above instructions… but here is a preview:

Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.

When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:

“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”

He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.

Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.

“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”

“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.

“Really? Whose daddy?”

“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”

“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.

It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.

“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”

“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”

“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”

“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”

“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”

She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”

“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”

“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”

“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”

“Do you remember being sick?”

“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“

“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”

“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.

Review of “Blockbuster”, Tom Shone, SAU Blog, February 2005


Here is the original. Tom Shone’s big idea seemed more radical in 2005 than it does now –  indeed now it is pretty much mainstream. The triumph of what is still sometimes called pop culture in taking over the commanding heights of cultural discourse has been remarkable. And yet, it has been at the cost of how genuinely popular it is.

Twelve years later, as a father of three, the point about children making their own toys inspired by, for instance, Star Wars – rather than being in thrall to whatever Official Product emerges  – still stands!



Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

by Tom Shone

Pp352. Simon and Schuster, 2004

Hardback, £18.99


There’s what must be a deep-rooted human need to frame history in terms of easily digestible narratives. For instance, the benighted Dark Ages gave way to the glories of the Renaissance and the freethinking inquiry of the Age of Enlightenment. Subtleties, nuances, inconvenient facts and interpretations – all discarded as we form a smooth narrative of the light overcoming the darkness.


Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has become a bestseller by articulating what has become the dominant narrative, to use a post-modernist-sounding phrase, of recent cinematic history. In this account the venal capitalist illusion factory that is Hollywood, was, for a brief glorious sunlit spell in the early seventies, taken over by visionaries who made individual, witty, personal films. Then Jaws and Star Wars happened, and the golden era ended. Vapid blockbusters and movies aimed at adolescents of all ages were churned out by the studios.


The book Blockbuster could be called Shone Contra Biskind – indeed the subtitle refers not only to Dr Strangelove but also to Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the 50s. For Tom Shone the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars was not the end of cinema, but the beginning. He is bracingly irreverent of the pretensions of the early Seventies, quoting with evident approval the young Robert Zemeckis’ appraisal of Death in Venice as “one of the most boring movies ever made” and filling his work with sideswipes at poseurs suffering through retrospectives of post war Hungarian cinema to achieve some kind of “cool” kudos. For those for whom the words “arthouse” and “independent” threaten boredom and promise pretension rather than any guarantee of quality, this will be an enjoyable read.


Shone begins with the young Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis and Cameron, growing up in the suburban sprawl that would be derided by any good Biskindite, beguiled not by films but by TV. Films had become pompous and ponderous, with studio executives believing that treacly, worthy spectacle was the only response to the growth of television. The future prophets of Blockbusterdom all made their own fun, with elaborate science experiments and inventions generally attracting the attention of the local fire department.


Shone’s own childhood also features in these early stages. He recalls the shattering impact of Star Wars, and pace the sundry bores who thought the merchandising of the film was the work of wicked manipulative capitalists, shows how it was simply a response to a massive public demand. Shone and his friends made their own Star Wars memorabilia while waiting for slow-footed toy companies to actually make the official toys. So often children are portrayed as passive consumers, tabulae rasae pliable to the suggestions of advertisers and therefore requiring protection from this noxious breed. Shone’s experience would suggest that children are more in control of the market than the market is in control of them.


Writing in a witty, conversational style, Shone is nevertheless a shrewd critic whose insights never fail to provoke some thought, some reconsideration of one’s own lazy pseudo-high brow prejudices. He writes on something I’ve often noticed – how there are no positive portrayals of capitalism in Hollywood movies, despite the fact that the studios are all owned by capitalist conglomerates. Here he is on why “quality” critics and academics are usually clueless in writing about genuinely popular movies:


It is a congenital defect of critics at the higher end of the brow when faced with appraising popular movies, whose very smoothly oiled efficiency can seem suspect, hence the perennial appearance of Vertigo on Sight and Sound’s list of best ever films: Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.

It turns out that Shone is as nostalgic as Biskind, but his nostalgia is for the early days of the blockbuster boom. Today Variety can blithely refer to a “failed blockbuster”, a phrase that would have been oxymoronic thirty years before. Once, a blockbuster was defined by its box office success. Now a blockbuster is a certain type of spectacle-driven, “event” movie.


An interesting feature of Easy Riders, Raging Bull was how little of it was about the films themselves, and how much about deals, about producers, about the business and politics of moviemaking rather than anything about them. This is a continuing strain in highbrow (or rather would-be highbrow) writing about Hollywood. Witness Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood, an initially very enjoyable anthology of writing about Tinseltown that gradually wears thin. There are only so many appalled anecdotes recounted by rather precious writers making mock of the philistinism of Hollywood folk that one can take. And any book ostensibly about Hollywood that contains one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain and pages and pages on Ishtar and the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra is certainly more interested in the attendant tittle-tattle than the films produced by the philistine studio executives et al.


Shone, unlike Biskind, actually discusses the movies he adores as movies. Or rather he does at the start of his tome. After E.T. there is a noticeable change in tone. We read more and more about the producers and their deals, and less about the end product of all this effort. Shone is as appalled as any Biskindite at a world in which widely hated films like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix Reloaded, disliked even by fanatics of the “franchise” they are part of, take enormous sums at the box office and ascend the ranks of all-time highest grossing movies.


For a place always portrayed as in thrall to profit at all costs, money doesn’t matter in Hollywood, or rather it matters hugely but not in the way one expects. Rob Long, one of the writing team of Cheers who later documented his absurd adventures in Tinseltown in Conversations With My Agent, wrote of the “Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics”, the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.


Following from that point, one can discern a more general point about artistic creation of any kind from this book. George Lucas griped that the original Star Wars featured only 50% of what he wanted to achieve, and was proud that his vastly increased clout allowed him The Phantom Menace to meet 90% this target.


Faced with the amazingly insipid films that were the recent instalments in the Star Wars “franchise”, who could claim that advances in technology or in the power of directors have improved filmmaking? Computers have made special effects so ubiquitous that there’s nothing special about them anymore. The Matrix sequels also support the contention that, contrary to the widespread prejudice against “the suits” cramping the creative vision of directors, directors need to have something or someone to rein in their extravagances.


Spielberg, too, later admitted that Jaws would have been far inferior with the technology of fifteen years later – the frankly ludicrous-looking shark was kept until the right dramatic moment. Shone contrasts this with the first sight of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – a resounding anti-climax as the wonderful technology allows Spielberg to show the creatures in their glory, munching passively in a field. Again and again, bigger does not mean better. Jaws – sprightly, irreverent, even gritty at times – seems closer to Taxi Driver than Jurassic Park, more successful at the box office but much less a part of any collective cultural consciousness (think of the theme from Jaws, and now try to think of the one from Jurassic Park).


Jurassic Park’s release coincided with the round of GATT talks that considered European quotas limiting the release of American movies. Shone is strong on the irony of all this, as Hollywood itself was increasingly a trans-national identity. “American movies” were never less American than in the 1990s, as German and Dutch directors, Canadian locations, and money from all over the globe combined to produce the potent blockbusters.


The subtitle of the book should perhaps have been something like “The Rise and Fall of the Blockbuster”. Anthony Powell once said of Kingsley Amis that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension”. Anti-pretension for its own sake becomes limiting and confining, just as eccentricity for its own sake is just irritating, and non-conformism for its own sake the worst form of conformism.


Tom Shone’s argument is anti-pretension through and through, yet he cannot bring himself to the ultimate pretentious anti-pretension stance and learn to love the Hollywood of Godzilla and The Matrix Reloaded. Blockbuster is an enjoyable, witty guide to the Hollywood mainstream of the last thirty years, and how it has been the most prominent victim of its own extraordinary success

How book reviewing works – my first thoughts on Raymond Tallis’ “The Mystery of Being Human”

Recently my review of Raymond Tallis’ “The Mystery of Being Human” appeared in the TLS.

This review had a somewhat convoluted gestation. Put simply, I didn’t like the book much. That isn’t enough for a book review, or at least not enough for an interesting one.

There are a few dynamics in book reviewing. One is the desire to write an interesting, or witty, or stylish, or interesting and witty and stylish, piece of prose. Another is the attempt to convey to the reader – who, unlike the reviewer, will have to fork out their own cash for the book – whether it is worth spending time and money on. Another is to do justice to the author, or authors. Part of this is contextual. It is unfair to judge a purely, or mainly, academic work on the same grounds of readability that we might apply to an avowed popularisation.

I have been reviewing for the TLS since 2004. For much of that time I submitted copy, reviewed a proof, and awaited publication. Only in more recent years have I realised that the relationship with a commissioning editor is exactly that – a relationship. Communication about the piece is part of that relationship, and makes for a much better review.

My review of Tallis’ book was initially somewhat longer. It consisted, as was pointed out to me by the wonderful Maren Meinhardt, an awful lot of quotation. Perhaps I was unwilling to be direct about how much I didn’t like the book, and wished to damn Tallis with his own words. Perhaps, too, I felt a sense of justice towards him, and was unwilling to simply let rip. The “hatchet job” may be superficially enjoyable but ultimately a little puerile.

Anyhow, here is my original submitted copy. It was entirely right to ask for a revision – as well as far too much quotation, I am very wooly as to what Tallis actually argues. I am a little more generous to his NHS essay than I was in my final review (I am unsure if this is really where Tallis is at his “most persuasive”, in retrospect that would be more justly said of this writings on “neurodeterminism”)

In the preface to this volume of essays, the physician and philosopher Raymond Tallis observes that as “among my publications is 1,000 page trilogy on human consciousness, and a forthcoming treatise Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience at approximately eight hundred pages betrays I am not a consistent advocate of the short form.” He further reflects that the essay “which bears its provisional nature and incompleteness on its sleeve … is an antidote to the fantasy of gathering up the world in one sustained glance” and is therefore “an appropriate form for the humanism that I have been seeking to express for several decades often at great length.”

Tallis has been an atheist since his teens, but increasingly describes himself as a “secular humanist” because, as “believers point out with a regularity that I am inclined to call monotonous … ‘atheism’ is a negative term.” As well as this tendency towards negating, “much atheist thought is, usually unintentionally, anti-humanist” (though “it would be unfair and distracting to single out individual thinkers”, an odd approach given that in other domains the cosmologist Max Tegmark and the theologian William Lane Craig  are singled out as emblematic antagonists)

Five of the six essays are predominantly philosophical in tone and approach. In these the nature of Tallis’ humanism comes into – somewhat – clearer focus. It is most evident in the essay “How On Earth Can We Be Free?” against “neurodeterminism” and “All Is Number” against the contention that “the world is fundamentally composed of mathematical objects such that the whole, fundamental truth about it is captured in the mathematical models developed in advanced physics.” Here, the richness and mystery of human experience is powerfully conveyed; along with our location in tensed time and ability to envisage possibilities, this renders the claim that human existence can purely be explained away with neuroscience and mathematical physics untenable.


Tallis’ anti-religious passages are somewhat pro forma; when considering Craig’s arguments he writes that “most atheists could rehearse these counter-arguments in their sleep”, and there is a rote quality to his litany of religions’ debit side. For all this, in the closing pages he quotes Diarmuid McCulloch on “the seriousness a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human existence, and  concludes “a humanism that is truly mindful of religion and what It has meant may be less prone to the arrogance and ignorance that leads some thinkers to overlook the unfathomable mysteries in which we are immersed, and as a result to fall under the spell of a disenchanted naturalism that overlooks the transcendence in our shared humanity.”

The philosophical pieces illustrate the shortcomings of the essay form which Tallis himself enumerates in the preface. “I hope by this stage that you are persuaded that it is all over for determinism and that we really can be free” reads a not atypical sentence, and there is a rushed feel to much of the writing. Perhaps human consciousness is best addressed in 1,000 page works after all.  It is surprising, given the centrality of Free Will in most Christian theology, to read that “historically, the main assault on the ideas of humans as free agents has come from religion.” Tallis also mourns the “cognitive opportunity-cost of [religious] indoctrination”, this intrusion of an economic concept is surely a manifestation of the contention that “all is number.”


The seeming outlier in this collection addresses a third of the subtitle: the essay “Lord Howe’s Wicked Dream: Notes from an Undeveloping Country.” This is a passionate attack on the destruction of the NHS perpetrated by the 2010-15 Coalition and now the solo Conservative government – an extended version of Tallis’ piece in the TLS of September 7th 2016. An eloquent account of the follies, bad faith and falsehoods underlying the agenda of stealth privatisation perpetrated under Health Secretaries Lansley and Hunt, here Tallis is at his most persuasive – but an opportunity is missed.

He justifies the inclusion of this polemic amongst philosophical essays on the grounds that “being healthy is for most of us a necessary precondition of taking philosophical problems seriously” and, in the Preface, links the assault on the NHS not only to neoliberal economics but also “the increasingly prevalent idea that the universe and the human world boils down to numbers” he targets in the essay “All Is Number.” He makes less of what seems to me a more evident connection to the secular humanist project he undertakes in the other essays.

In “How On Earth Can We Be Free?” he writes, in a passage celebrating “human beings as the originators of an entire extra-natural reality”, of “the human institutions to which we relate for so much of our lives, and the social facts and preoccupations that fill our waking hours.” The NHS is surely emblematic of these institutions, and the values which Tallis espouses; indeed here is an opportunity for a secular humanism that is not about endless negation to assert itself.

Tallis’ passion for freedom, and determination to fully face “the mystery of being human” without illusions or false consolation, is clear. Ironically, by relegating philosophising behind healthcare in human needs (“To adapt Berthold Brecht’s ‘First grub, then ethics’ I would suggest ‘First analgesis, then metaphysics’”) he seems to remove the NHS essay from this philosophical concerns, and ends up subtly downgrading his own humanistic project.


Computer games on paper: MiG-25, Colosseum, Mental Mills

Around 1986 my family bought an Amstrad PCW 8256 in Derry. I suppose at this distance it is OK to recall it was hidden under a blanket in the back seat of the car (and  I suppose this sort of thing may happen again)  At that point, computers meant games to me and my brother, rather than the all-purpose panopticon of our lives they have become. Unfortunately, the PCW was not a games machine by any stretch of the imagination. A few years later, I discovered 8000 Plus , a magazine for PCWs, which opened my eyes to a whole world of PCW software (as well as David Langford’s wonderful column) – especially text adventures, but also the likes of Starglider.

However, in the years between getting a PCW and finding out that, actually, games did exist for it, I tended to try and use the word processor Locoscript to “make games” – basically word processor files full of symbol characters which I would move the cursor around (with the arrow keys, naturally) as “gameplay.” I am sure this was very good for my imagination. Recently I discovered a old project notebook from those days  in which I had written out three possible games.

The first was “MiG-25.” This was the Cold War, don’t forget, and the library was full of worthy books about the possibility of nuclear war. Therefore a game based on the Soviet jet was not that much of an outlier

It was over a decade before “Gladiator” but, as well as Soviet weaponry, all things Rome fascinated me. Still does, I guess. However, my spelling needed work – here was “Colossuem”


Finally there is “Mental Mills.” I must admit to finding this one hard to relate to any interest I had then or have now, or any other context, except evidently I wanted to “neutrailise” atom bombs.

“The Driver”, winner of Molly Keane Memorial Creative Writing Award 2010

Nearly six years ago I ended up winning the Molly Keane short story competition.  In retrospect, there are lots of things about this story that make me squirm, especially the very opening line’s too obvious nod to Blade Runner, subsequent allusions to Moby Dick and other sources which are amazingly clunky to my taste now, and the reference to  MGMT. More profoundly perhaps, I am now rather leery of the technique of listing or itemising things or places or people as a short cut to convey plenitude, an approach I lean on heavily here

However the whole has a kind of propulsive force which seemed to impress the judges and which I still like. They also found it somewhat more dystopian than I intended. I think the underlying idea of the story came to me in around 2003 when working in Kildare and spending, as I have for most of the years since, a lot of time on the motorway network. I have a recollection of listening to an audiobook of Tom Sawyer and mentally comparing riverboat life to the odd camaraderie of the road. And yes, back then I drove a  Anyhow, with a tip of the hat to Waterford County Council (one of the ironies of this is I now live much closer to Lismore and County Waterford overall than I did then) , here it is :

The driver

I have seen things that you people would never believe. I have driven into the sunset on the coast road between Gortahork and Gweedore, driving along the height of Bloody Foreland with nothing but some stone walls and the Atlantic Ocean between my car door and Newfoundland. I have got gloriously lost along the roads north of New Ross, emerging somewhere near Borris having driven through a vision of green innocence, with Van Morrison on the CD player singing about walking and talking in gardens all misty wet with rain. I have gloried in the sleek smooth drive that is the M50 at four in the morning, communing with the sodium-lit bulk of Dublin’s industrial outskirts all around.

I am of Ireland. I have slept in my car in commuter towns; Newbridge, Arklow, Rathcormac. I have slept in the carparks of Belfast, Derry, Galway, Kilkenny, Waterford, Athlone, Newry, Armagh, Drogheda and Dundalk.I have recognised no division between North and South; wherever I can park my car, that’s my home.
Call me Alan. I am a captain, and the roads are my Mississippi River, my Seven Seas. I have listened to the greatest minds of their generation debate on my in car world band radio; from London, from New York, even from the RTE studios. I have contemplated mortality to the sound of Beethoven’s late quartets, while driving the stony gray roads of Monaghan. I have felt buoyant and weightless while singing to the electropop of MGMT while crossing the border on the M1. I have felt rooted, part of a timeless Celtic twilight, listening to sean nós on the road to Clifden.
I am Alan, and I am a driver. I work as a Sales and Marketing Manager with a mobile broadband company, and my role is to travel the country ensuring our nationwide sales teams are fully up to speed with the latest promotions and products. I have worked in this job for eight years. Before that, I lived in an apartment in Maynooth, and commuted on the train to Dublin. I’m from Athy, and after three strange years in UCD – from the first day until graduation I felt like something marvellous was about to be revealed, and college would become the wonderful, revelatory, spectacular experience I had always wanted it to be. It never happened, and though I was not unhappy, I was not entirely unhappy. Those days, a job was waiting on graduation, and I was helping to plan marketing strategy a few weeks after leaving college. Soon I bought an apartment – in those days – well, you know the rest.
I loved commuting. I love being part of the great engine that disgorged masses of people into Dublin city every morning, and I loved knowing that across Ireland, across Europe, across the world the same thing was happening. I felt connected in the train, and bus – for having got into Heuston Station, I had two buses to get to the warehouse housing the company office – to everyone else, to the unsmiling faces, to the cups of coffee grimly grasped in each arm. I fantasised about the women on the train and on the bus, and cherished memories of brief conversations.
When I was promoted, I had to get a car, and resurrect driving skills I hadn’t used since being taught by my father in a hotel car park near Athy. At first, I thought I would miss public transport, miss being part of the great machine. Now, while I would be part of the machinery of commuting, I would be an atomised one. Or so I feared.

Three months into my driving life I had my epiphany. I could sell my apartment, for what I knew ever then was a ludicrous amount of money compared to its real cost. I cannot claim any prescience about this – just that I always felt property was a rather dull, unproductive investment, and I was better off with as much liquidity as possible. I wanted a liquid life, and I realise in my battered Toyota Starlet, with a surprisingly strong heater and a passenger seat that reclined to nearly horizontal, I could achieve the ultimate liquidity.

So I became a driver in a floating world. My parents’ address was used for driving licences, payroll purposes, bank statements, and such. They had never really approved of my getting an apartment, and all told, as I slept there about one weekend a month, began to see me more often than any time since leaving school. This delighted them, and they didn’t ask too many questions about the apartment. My salary went straight into my bank account, and without mortgage or rent, and with the bulk of my petrol paid for, as well as most lunches during the week and expenses for accommodation for more distant trips (I would still sleep in the hotel car park) my liquidity steadily increased. As the rest of my generation lumbered themselves with more and more debt, I was going in the opposite direction.

I could easily have bought a more glamorous car, by the way – any car would have been more glamorous – but I didn’t want to. I was fiercely proud of the Starlet. I loved the way she could accelerate so well, how she was so light and maneoverable and yet sturdy. I got her serviced every ten thousand miles, and as I treated her well, so she treated me well.
The Toyota Starlet is not a car that excites. And yet, she proved more than adequate for romantic assignations. My lack of a permanent residence actually saved me from complications. I was not in a place where I wanted a lasting relationship. I went out for two years with Judith, the director of an accountancy firm – a woman who was, in fact, younger than me. She was a very good accountant. She was usually in London during the week, despite being supposedly based in Dublin. We met at weekends, and I would stay in her apartment sometimes, but more often drop her home. She liked the Starlet, she liked my lack of pretension, my lack of any desire to impress her. I treated her well, and generously, and listened to her tales of workplace woe. My parents liked her. She didn’t believe me when I said I lived in the car, and in the end thought I was lying to her about it. That ended it. I felt annoyed at the time, but then rationalised the whole thing, and then felt better so quickly I realised how little I had wanted a serious relationship.

A year or so later, there was Alison, the surgeon-in-training. We had met at Mondello. I often paid to take the Starlet around the track there, to the amusement of the staff. One day, while drinking a coffee in the reception after a few laps, I noticed a tall red-haired girl looking at me. Her car was certainly far more glamorous than mine. This was, I would later discover, one of her very few weekends off, and she was indulging herself by driving this beautiful sports car very fast.

Alison worked in Dublin, then in Cork, then in Limerick, then Dublin again. I would say she lived in those cities too, but she didn’t really. She worked. If I wasn’t nearby, which was most of the time, I would talk to her on the phone at ten or eleven or night, and she would tell me about her day. I didn’t always follow her tales of workplace woe, but it sounded pretty bad. She would start work at quarter to seven each morning. It was a little different at the weekends, but not much. If I was nearby, I would pick her up from work at night. More often than not – much more often than not – she would fall asleep in the Starlet, and I would drive the city streets, until the morning, or rather the hour before dawn, came, and it was time for her to work again. She never questioned what happened.

I think I did love Alison, the sleeping girl in the passenger seat, while I drove the M50 or the Outer Ring. I remember being told once that we all look younger sleeping. Alison certainly did. When awake she looked drained, exhausted, under strain. Sleeping, bathed in sodium light, she would look alive again. I did love Alison, and would have settled with her in some place– but then she had to go to America for her career, and she decided to end it with me.
Both Judith and Alison had been, I had thought at the time, serious relationships. I was certainly much more upset about Alison than Judith, but in both I quickly recovered. Both had been long relationships – two years, three years – and yet felt like they had lasted about a month. This was not a case of time flying when you’re having fun – both of them had generally been too tired when we did meet face to face for all that much fund to happen – but of how little we actually saw each other. I realised that I had fulfilled a need for them, for a time, as they had for me, but I was fundamentally alone, and meant to be alone. This realisation came rather dramatically.
The weekend after the breakup with Alison I woke on the Saturday morning in Killarney. I drove to Mizen head, and then turned around and raced up by Limerick and Galway and Sligo through County Donegal to Malin, where I arrived at ten p.m. I turned round and crossed over the Northern Coast, taking the coast road past Carrick-a-Rede and the Causeway to the Rathlin Ferry. There, in the car park, at two a.m., I tried to sleep. But I couldn’t, and at three I set off again, down past Belfast and then onto the great motorway, sweeping past Portadown and Newry and Dundalk and Drogheda and then going through the Port Tunnel, into the heart of Dublin. Dawn was, for once, glorious, as I drove through the industrial landscape of Dublin Port, made to look fresh and full of promise by the morning light. Picking my way across the city, I kept driving along the N11, the first dual carriageway, all the way down Wicklow and Wexford, hitting mass traffic in Ferns and Enniscorthy, and then on to Kilmore Quay. It was a beautiful Sunday, and tourist parties were scattered around, waiting for a boat to the islands. I drove to the end of the pier, got out, climbed the harbour walls, and looked out to the Saltees, so far, so sharp, so beautiful. I cried.
I had not cried for years. A fisherman approached me, as if to say something, but thought better of it. I got back in the car, drove a little up the road, and booked into a hotel. The room would not be ready for a couple of hours, so I sat in the bar with a coffee and a notepad. I began to write on this furiously. I had decided to write out a marriage vow to the road. I was not in love with the Starlet, or Alison, but with the road. I thought about how the ancients made rivers into gods, and in the case of the Nile, they made the annual flood itself into a god. We should make the road a god, I thought, and when I realised this I realised that it was blasphemous to marry the road. I would serve it.
I cancelled the hotel booking, got back in the car, and drove. Driving helped. It brought me perspective. I came to terms with everything. I realised that the important thing to do was to keep moving, always moving.