October 2009

Our spirit or soul is like a book upon which we write the story of our life;  a narrative that explains our attitudes and beliefs, accounts for our actions and may mitigate  our misdemeanours.  It’s our personal identity, how we see ourselves. It doesn’t have to be based on what actually happened, more on our interpretation of what happened in the light of our previous experience – our version of the truth.  It doesn’t even have to be happy story.  Some desperate souls are tortured daily by tales of self doubt, condemned by harsh accounts of guilt and shame.  But for the rest us, who survive the life’s vicissitudes and live on into old age in relative peace, it is a story that comforts, contains and generates hope.  There’s something almost religious about this.  A personal narrative, such as this, is remarkably like the ancient cultural concept of a forgiving God; a projection or our own needs and aspirations; the temple we build in our own minds.  We don’t have to deliberately deceive ourselves; that way leads to madness. But if we are to live out the rest of our lives in peace, we do need to create a credible story that supports and contains us.    

It’s a magic book; the story is not carved on tablets of stone or even inscribed in ink on vellum, it is scrawled on shifting sand and the tide keeps coming in and erasing bits so it has to be written again.   Throughout life, we update our internal website, we adjust the emphasis, create new links, introduce new characters, rewrite the plot.   

Consider those stories we told ourselves years ago; those early drafts – what we were going to do, the adventures we would have, the success we would achieve, the celebrity, the power, the glory, how we would fall in love and live happily ever after, have children who would make us proud.  We were indestructible then; our tales of ‘derring do’ encouraged us to take the more awesome risks and made all the striving worthwhile.  The plots we devised then were so adventurous and always worked; triumph over adversity, good vanquished evil, true love conquered all adversity and led to lasting happiness.  They were tales of hope, life and death, but life always won; the hero would be back next week to survive another adventure. 

But for most of us, life is not an adventure story, neither is it always happy or successful. Your career is not as exciting as you thought it would be.  The endless meetings are boring; you lose interest and do not get the expected promotion.  Your son, the apple of your eye, fails his exams, cannot get work, and takes occasional drugs.  The woman you fell in love with, beautiful, charismatic and kind, the embodiment of all your dreams, now leaves dirty underwear around, makes smells in the bathroom and can be totally unreasonable. The trick is to live with the disappointment. She is human just like you, part of you and you are attached; you love her with all her minor irritations.  The narrative has to change to a story that is less exciting, more to do with  overcoming adversity, building a steady career, providing a stable home, finding  joy and happiness within the family, rearing confident and independent children.  Respect, peace and satisfaction are the new themes.     

But consider another scenario. You discover that the one you would love forever has deceived you. It takes maturity and wisdom to adapt the story and forgive.  More often than not, those chapters have to be crossed out with a red pen and redrafted.  The romance is turned into a triumph of good over evil. You eliminate a major character to protect yourself.  The one you once loved to distraction, you must now hate to destruction.   

Things rarely work out the way we thought and we have to adapt our story many times.  We make compromises, explain, justify, excuse and forgive. As our mountains we built in our youth are jostled by tectonic forces and eroded by time, so our story changes to one that is more complex, more understanding, more modulated and forgiving, more human.  The goals we set ourselves now are less thrilling, our hopes less ambitious. Experience and the mellowness of middle age softens us in reflection. And if we are to live out our life in peace and hope,  this gives us the wisdom to accept and forgive. 

Not everybody is like that for most of the time. Some feel so threatened and insecure, they cannot come to terms with what happens.  They cling on to the good things and attempt to eliminate the bad. They are suggestible and impetuous. ‘Our house is a dream. A holiday in the Seychelles will be magic.  This will be the happiest Christmas ever.  I think I am falling in love all over again.  That guy’s a monster’ They inhabit a polarized story; the bright recital  is performed for all to admire, but dark gothic tales lurk in the shades, ready to be projected out, condemning any deserving object that frustrates their desires and inhibits their triumphal progress; mother, difficult siblings, a previous lover, the estranged husband, erstwhile friends, the boss, the government – always the government. And the story they tell, has to be defended to the last rampart and ditch.  Experience is adapted to consolidate their position, evidence denied, characters condemned.  ‘Oh, he can seem so kind and caring, but it’s just a trick to get round me.’  For some tormented souls, everything and everybody is a threat and they are the victim.  Films, plays, books, television illustrate this black and white world.  It is exciting; it creates good drama. 

People who have never built up a strong narrative by which to lives their lives; those with what we call a fragile identity can all too easily come to live somebody else’s story.  This is the power of the media, the church.  In traditional cultures, it may be illustrated by the evil eye or pointing the bone.  How many of us start off in life, like Philip Larkin, living out our parents ambitions and grievances?  We may think we won’t  end up that way, but life does have a habit of consolidating the narrative that they gave us.     

Just we need our personal narrative to sustain us, so society needs its collective mythology to hold it together. Couples, families, fraternities, tribes, nations gain comfort and identity from a shared mythology.  Cultures throughout history, have been defined by their stories; the Australian aborigines had their songlines, the Norse, their sagas,  the Greeks, their myths, the Hindus, the adventures of their family of Gods.  History itself is made up of stories.  Or as Alan Bennett wrote, ‘History is just one bloody thing after another.’ 

We have to believe in something. Otherwise we are lost.  In the past, this took the form of religious faith.  God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world!  Jesus loves us!  Allah be praised!  Now the predominant collective mythologies tend to be political doctrines, social advice, scientific evidence and the opinions of media pundits, but they’re all stories. We comfort ourselves with our imaginings and delusions.   

Narrative is the cognitive backbone of our lives.  It imparts meaning and convinces us that things are known – we are known. We are ‘the rational species’.  At least that’s the story we tell ourselves!  We need to explain.  As Descartes indicated; that is the engine of our existence. The unknown is a vacuum that demands to be filled.  If life becomes meaningless, we lose the will to live. It’s not so much the reality that makes us feel good or bad, it’s the story we make up about it.  There’s nothing so good or bad as thinking makes it so.   

Our stories can be life enhancing, but they can also so easily leading to torment, melancholy and madness.  The voyage of life is never without its storms and dangers.  We suffer loss, sometimes dreadful loss, and can wander for years in a meaningless wilderness without plot or purpose.  We don’t always behave well, but instead of forgiving ourselves and letting go, we refuse to rescue ourselves from a punitive narrative and like mediaeval penitents, flagellate our souls with loathing and depression. Grief is a process of retelling the story, but when the reality of what has happened seems so dreadful and the story we try to tell  ourselves cannot console us, then we get anxious and may seek refuge in a world of make believe and fiction. Only sometimes the memory is so traumatic that it cannot be processed by story telling; it short circuits the narrator and is relived endlessly taking control of the individual.  People who are mentally ill, suffer from reminiscences.   

Healing is not just about bringing about some structural or biochemical change in the body;  it treats mind, body and meaning (spirit or soul) as one.  Healers are story tellers.   From the shamans of Siberia, the Amerindian medicine men and the sangoma of Southern Africa to the exponents of state sponsored evidence based medicine; they all try to replace the embodied tale of woe with an enlivening message of hope. 

Psychotherapy is a subtle form of healing.  For me, it is about understanding a person’s narrative, where it has emerged from, what it represents, how it may limit and entrap and then helping them to create a version that can release them from their prison into a freedom that is happy and healthy.  I deal in subjective reality. I work with my patients’ truth.  Different people experiencing the same event will have different truths; everything is filtered through an individual’s own life experience, and changes according to what happens next.

I try to get at the basic theme of a person’s narrative, the story that defines them and lasts through life, and forms what we call their unique identity,  because that theme will influence through transference, every aspect of their attitudes and behaviour; every situation can be a suitable screen, every person a suitable vehicle for projection.  I try to get to know what presses their buttons and why, to understand what memories and meanings lies hidden away in the shadows and gullies of their shame and guilt.  I attempt to infiltrate the dark underbelly of their unconscious.  Only then can I help to ease their sentence and rediscover a narrative that is more life enhancing. 

To me this combines essential elements of analytic exploration within a framework that attempts to change a person’s narrative perspective.  This does not have a particular affiliation with regard to doctrine, but is more a blending of the most useful aspects of psychoanalytical and cognitive behavioural aspects of therapy within a context that encourages sufficient confidence to explore a different attitude.     

We are a cognitive species; we try to make sense of what happens, learn from our experience. The way we think affects who we are.  So when our thoughts, the stories we tell ourselves, are making us unhappy or ill, then the route to peace can only be pursued by seeking out the darker, hidden, human aspects of our common narratives, the things we are ashamed of, and integrating them into a story that is honest to ourselves.

Maculinea_arion_by_Paolo_Mazzei_02 (Large)The large blue butterfly is the largest and rarest of our blue butterflies.  Clouds of them can be seen fluttering over heathland on a summer evening, but in the eighteenth century the passion of Victorian gentlemen for collecting butterflies nearly drove them into extinction.  Conservationists tried to protect them by fencing areas of heathland and preventing the grazing of sheep, but still numbers declined and by 1979 they had disappeared from Britain. Before that happened, a naturalist, Jeremy Thomas, spent six years living adjacent to one of the last remaining wild blue colonies on Dartmoor, where he recorded meticulously, every aspect of their life cycle.  What he discovered was truly remarkable. 

The butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of the Wild Thyme.  When they hatch the caterpillars burrows into the buds and eat the developing seeds.  If there is more than one one caterpillar in a bud, it will be devoured.  The surviving larva then falls to the ground,  hides in a crevice in the earth and is discovered by an ant, which is driven into a frenzy, climbing all over it, licking its skin and sipping the sweet secretions from glands at the end of the caterpillars body.  The larva tolerates the ants attentions for up to four hours before curving its body and making it rigid so that it resembles the larva on the ant.  The ant, thinking that’s what it is, then carries it to its nest and deposits it with the other larvae, which the caterpillar proceeds to devour, biting through the soft skin and sucking out the body fluids. The ants might realize that there is an invader in their nest at this time, but the caterpillar produces a pheromone that is identical to the ants and so remains undetected until its skin becomes too tough to be attacked.  The caterpillar feasts in the nest for a year, by which time it has grown to 100 times its original size.  The workers treat it as a queen, fussing over it and licking its skin.  It even emits noises like those of a queen ant.  It then turns into a chrysalis and late the following spring, amid a flurry of queen like noises and frienzied activity from the attendant ants, it emerges as a butterfly and escapes the nest, where it expands its wings and takes off on its mating flight. 

What an amazing life story, but it still didn’t explain why the Large Blue became extinct.  To answer this, Thomas’s painstaking research discovered two crucial facts.  There are several species of red ant on heathland, but only one of them, Mermica sabuleti,  plays host to the caterpillars of the Large Blue.  This is because the Large Blue larva produces a pheromone that mimics that emitted by sabuleti ants, but not any other species.  The second is that the sabuleti are exquisitely sensitive to temperature and humidity and can only survive when the turf has been cropped by sheep and rabbits and thereby exposed to the sun. When early conservationists tried to protect the butterflies habitat by fencing it in and preventing grazing, they inadvertently broke a crucial link in the butterfly’s life cycle.

But here’s another twist to this tale.  Enter the villain, the devilishly attractive black and scarlet ichneumon wasp.  Different species of wasp parisitise each species of blue butterfly and here’s how they do it.  They seem to know, perhaps by some chemical signal, perhaps by the behaviour of the ants, which ants’ nest contains the larva of the butterfly.  The wasp then invades that nest in search of its prize.  Of course the ants detect the invasion and come out to attack, but the wasp sprays them with a pheromone that causes them to turn on each other instead.  Picking her way through the melee, she finds the larva, injects it with her ovipositor. The caterpillar continues to feed and grow and turn into a chrysalis, but when the skin of the pupa splits, it’s not a beautiful blue butterfly that emerges, but a shiny black ichneumon wasp.

The Large Blue was reintroduced into Dartmoor in 1983 and has since spread to heathland throughout the country, but is still not common.  The question is should scientists reintroduce the wasp that parisitises it.  David Attenborough thinks we should preserve these natural systems in all of their complex diversity. I wonder if we should let well alone, but let new complex relationships develop.

My zoology teacher, Dr Ernest Neal, famous for his doctorate on delayed implantation in the Badger, Meles meles,  once wrote a slim volume on the ecology of the Somerset woods.  It was he who introduced me to notions of biodiversity and the specificity of ecological niches.  The long suffering Ernest tramped his troop of recalcitrant youths through damp coppices, along scratchy hedgerows, across sodden and once, in a fit of pique, marooned us on the summit of Steep Holm in the middle of the Bristol Channel dive-bombed by angry Black Headed Gulls. 

But ecology has developed since Ernest.  Species are no longer regarded as simple organisms, but more as a system of interactions between many organisms dominated by a single species.  Think of the complex ecosystem of an ancient oak tree: the warblers and tits that feed in the canopy, the owls that nest in the cavities left by fallen branches, the woodpeckers that peck away the softer bark to get at the burrowing beetles underneath, the complex fungal mycelia that provide the fungi that supply the root hairs, the ants that crawl up and down the trunk, the ivy, the moss and lichen on the trunk.  And think of the complex relationships between us and the animals we keep for food or for pets, the plants we eat or provide shelter, the insects that live on our bodies or in our houses, the complex ecosystem of bacteria that live in our colons that salvage much of the plant food that we eat.  Symbiosis determines the lives of every species on the planet and drives evolution.  We are not alone.   


I listened to the Large Blue tale as a podcast from David Attenborough’s recent series of Life Stories on Radio 4.  Attenborough is such a wonderful story teller. I hope we are able to preserve the enthusiasm for nature that he so uniquely embodies.

NickGriffin_1403917c (Large)It was the politics of the bear pit.  In last night’s Question Time, Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party was harangued by the audience, his fellow panellists and by the chairman, David Dimbleby.  He was rarely given an opportunity to answer a question without being howled down.  In their determination to portray Mr Griffin as a monster, the BBC exposed a vein of fear that runs deep in British society.  You have only to join the crowd on the Kop or go to the pub after the match to realise that Mr Griffin’s views have more support that we might care to imagine.  In the industrial wastelands of Lancashire and South Yorkshire, the opinions of the BNP seep up through scuffed floorboards, they drip through cracks in the ceiling.  

To be fair, Griffin has tried to present a more reasonable face of British Nationalism, but the concept is outmoded.  We live in a multicultural society based on understanding and integration; we must welcome those who chose to live in this country, not isolate and alienate them. That way only leads to conflict and fear.

But was anything gained by the lynch mob that the BBC assembled to attack Mr Griffin?  In my opinion, no!  It exposed a nasty, vicious side of British politics, which, by contrast, left Mr Griffin almost ennobled by his calm demeanour under attack.  In holding such a mediaeval public trial, the BBC has just deepened the split in society.  Mr Griffin and the BNP won’t go away; a one time boxing blue, he clearly loves a fight – his grievous resolve will only be strengthened by such ritual humiliation.  

Peter Hain suggested that Griffin’s appearance on Question Time was an early Christmas present for the BNP.  It was, but not in the way he imagined it.  The way the programme was conducted ensured that the beleaguered Mr Griffin, another one-eyed political leader, will be regarded by many as a courageous martyr.  In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.     

It was Voltaire who said, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’  When politicians have been exposed as weak and vacillating or downright deceptive and manipulative, it has been the BBC that has upheld principles of democracy and free speech.  Last night their cover was blown.  The corporation’s poodle, David Dimbleby, the appalling Jack Straw, strident Baroness Warzi, forgettable Chris Huhne and an intelligent mob from West London savaged the Griffin unmercifully.  But he is an elected MEP; he represents a large body of people. He deserves to be heard.  And we must have the right to hear him and disagree.  That is free speech! But Dimbleby and his pack of rottweilers were frightened.  They rarely gave him chance to expound.  Only the lovely Bonnie Greer came out of it with any real dignity.  

Last night was a bad night for the BBC; a bad night for Britain!

Helena%20and%20the%20King1 (Large)All’s well that ends well.   The end justifies the means.  That seems to be the theme of Shakespeare’s clever, well observed but lesser known work; more of a gothic fairy story than a play.   

The plot is complex and dark, full of hidden dangers and motives, like the hooting and howling woods that surround the castle. Helena, as she tells us herself, is a simple maid, an orphan – the daughter of a physician.  She works for the recently bereaved Countess of Roussilion, a strong, determined woman, and is infatuated by her handsome young son, Bertram.  But Bertram is one of the lads; he enjoys nothing more carousing with his mates, especially the deviously camp, Parolles, and playing games of war and love.  Indeed, as Parolles explains to Helena, the game of love as more like a siege on a maid’s virginity.  The Countess despairs of her son and is delighted when she learns that Helena has designs on him.   

Helena conceives a plan.  She will use her knowledge of herbs to cure the King of his fistula-in-ano and ask him to grant her the hand of Bertram in return.  This she does. Bertram has to marry her on order of the King.  Entrapped and resentful, he departs for the wars in Florence without consummating the marriage, but not before he has left Helena a note to say that he cannot accept his marriage until she wears his ring and  bears  his child. 

In Florence, he meets Diana, a pretty girl of a good family and sets out to seduce her.  But Helena has, unknown to Bertram, followed her husband to Florence, where she persuades Diana to procure Bertram’s priceless ring in exchange for her maidenhood, then invite him to her bedchamber, blindfold him and change places with her so that she can consummate the marriage, thus fulfilling Bertram’s impossible conditions.

Bertram, thinking he has successfully besieged Diana,  abandons her for Paris, where the King and the Countess have learnt that Helena has died of a broken heart. They berate Bertram for his cruelty and when they see he is wearing Helena’s ring that was given him by Diana, suspect him of murdering his wife. Diana arrives at court to claim ‘her husband’ and shows them the Bertram’s ring. Then Helena arrives pregnant, receives the ring from Diana, is reunited with her husband,  whose matrimonial conditions have been fufilled and  – all’s well that ends well.  Or is it?  In the glare from the flash bulbs, we see Helena’s and Bertram’s happy smiles collapse into grimaces of horror as they realise what they’ve done.

Helena has been so obsessed with capturing Bertram.  She understands the power and politics of courtship, but has neither the station in life nor the looks to enthral and entrance.  She captures her man through a miliary campaign of  manipulation, coercion and deception.  In so doing, she reveals Bertram as feckless,  irresponsible and weak. They have been exposed; they now have to live together in the full knowledge of the depths of each other’s characters.   


‘All’s well that ends well’  was the second play transmitted live from The National Theatre to selected cinemas around the country.  What a good idea.  The company, directed by Marianne Elliott, was magnificent with star performances by Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davis as The King, Elliot Levey as Lord Dumaine and Clare Higgins as the Countess.  The gothic fairy tale set, with images of hooting owls, howling wolves, Reniger-like shadow puppets and silhouettes was a masterpiece.   But at Harrogate last night, the Odeon was half empty.