family


Anneka is only one year old, but she is bonding with me.  She stares hard at my face, makes eye contact, holds it, then reaches out, touches my nose, my eyes, my ears, scanning each of my features, fixing them in her memory.   Then later when she hears my voice she looks round until she finds the face and smiles.   It seems to me she is not just recognising, she is bonding. 

In the fusiform gyrus, deep in the inferior temporal lobe of the brain, there is a collection of neurones that respond to specific faces.  Damage to this area by a tumour or a stroke leads to the neurological condition, known as proposagnosia – absence of face recognition.  The same region also serves place recognition.  It responds to the features of particular cars in car enthusiasts like Rowan Atkinson, and to characteristics of birds in bird watchers like Simon Barnes.  Indeed Barnes writes about having a giss for a bird, a facility for identification from minimal cues.   If Anneka is played a recording of birdsong, she immediately looks out of the window to see the bird.  Is this the beginnings of giss? 

So is the fusiform gyrus, the site for pattern recognition?  And do people develop a facility for better recognition of patterns that are familiar and interest them, like cars, bird or traction engines?   That would make sense.  After all, Chinese people are better at recognising Chinese faces and find Europeans look very similar.  

But recognition is not the same as familiarity.  The latter is more a function of the amygdala and its emotional connections to the orbitofrontal cortex.   You don’t need recognition in order to form an emotional connection. People with proposagnosia are not autistic.  Some with proposagnosia greet everybody with great familiarity as if every face was a friend.   So do minor forms of proposagnosia lead to indiscriminate affection and intimacy, like the potion poured into Titania’s ear.  Almost anyone will do, even one with the head of a donkey.  Is promiscuity based on a neurological deficit of character recognition? 

Bonding is more enduring than emotional connection.  It requires a specificity, a recognition that is  consolidated by repetition.  Every time you see that person, go to that place, hear that song, a charge of emotion fixes the connection deeper into the memory, like paths through the forest.  It takes time to get to know a person, to trust the consistency of the interaction, to establish that  emotional railroad that makes relationships meaningful.   And once that bond has been produced, it is impossible to sever.  Reinforced by contact, it only declines by degrees when lack of contact and/or disillusion no longer sparks the memory.

If only.  If only they hadn’t put the banner on top of the roof at Lower Loxley.  If only Nigel had employed somebody to get it down.  If only David had not suggested that his brother-in-law climb up.  If only David had admitted this when it all happened.  And if only he hadn’t felt compelled to admit it later when Elizabeth was beginning to get over it all.  

Did he expect Elizabeth to understand and forgive him?   Didn’t he realise that the knowledge was bound to shatter the fragile supports she had manage to construct over the weeks since Nigel fell to his death?  Not only would it dismantle the story she had constructed to enable herself and the children to get over it all, but it would also destroy the trust that had built up between brother and sister and leave her without any support at all.  So why did he do it? 

David wanted forgiveness, redemption; he wanted to salve his conscience.  He couldn’t bear the guilt of Elizabeth’s gratitude.  His conscience wouldn’t let her think he was a saint, whereas he felt exactly the opposite.  So he sought absolution from the only person who could give it to him.  But this was such a selfish act.  In admitting his guilt, he was only thinking of his own feelings.  He didn’t think about the consequences of his actions. 

Openness and honesty are not always the best policy. Sometimes you have to bear your own guilt.  Admitting it can only damage the aggrieved.  Let them keep their story; it’s all they’ve got.  Don’t take that away.  Don’t try to justify or explain, only to yourself.  Live with it, understand, don’t attempt to excuse, just understand and in doing so understand your own humanity. 

But this is radio, not real life and in fiction, the best story lines are the most dysfunctional.  So what will happen now?   Will David get so depressed he will take his own life?  Will Elizabeth leave the village?  Will Roy be without a job?  I see a tipping point has occurred and events will take the trajectory that is of most interest to the script writers.

 

Life is a constant process of modification and adaptation,   The basis of our identity is forged early on through the interaction with our parents.  Our whole world is our family, our home.  But then as we grow, become more independent, explore our environment, other people and situations influence us;  extended family, friends, school, holidays, university, marriage, job; they all accrete to our personality to form a distinct, recognisable identity.  But it doesn’t stop there.  We continue to remodel our personality throughout our life.  This usually occurs by a gradual process of evolution, but it sometimes occurs more dramatically by crisis and revolution. 

So what is it that changes us?  The simple answer is experience; the things that happen.  If the environment changes, then we either adapt and grow or we stay put, stuck in the past. Not all events change us, of course; most of what happens can be accommodated within the confines of our experience and serve only to reinforce our view of the world.  But occasionally, we encounter someone or live through some situation that so outside our experience that we are forced to adjust our whole way of thinking to incorporate it.   

Change is an emotional interaction.  Things that are different challenge, excite, shock, frighten and even depress us.  If we engage with them, we may feel envious, guilty, ashamed or angry.  Sometimes we may be able to change the situation, but more often than not, we can’t; the only thing we can change is ourselves.  Working through, coming to terms with, are the processes of change;  the reconstruction of the personality that develops out of emotional crisis.   So if something affects us, makes us think and feel, then we are changed by it.  Change is instigated by emotion.   We fall out with somebody, argue, disengage, fume, but then later, sometimes much later, we pause, start to see it from their point of view, and reconcile our differences.  We are changed by what has happened.    

‘Love changes everything’, wrote Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Such a deep emotional identification with another human being results in coalescence, a  blending of experience that changes both.  Change requires an interaction, an exchange.  We are social beings; other people change us.   Conflict and love; we are changed by sharing of intense emotional experience. 

 But it’s not just direct emotional experience that changes us.  We can be adjusted by culture.  Art, literature, science, technology, religion, politics are all agents of cultural change.   They facilitate change in ourselves by altering the emotional environment.  They can rearrange the way societies perceive their existence and influence the choices they make.  Somebody proves that God no longer exists or that world is finite, and suddenly the restrictions of people’s behaviour are lifted and they change.  The ability to communicate instantly with somebody at the other side of the world, the way we experience war, earthquakes and tsunamis in the comfort of our living room as they are happening, the way we can shop, pay bills, book holidays, conduct our jobs without leaving home; all off this has altered the way we are. 

Governments, yes even Conservative governments, are agents of social change; they change the social environment by legislature and the people have to move into it.  

Architects also change the social environment.  Geoff Cohen said on Radio 4 last week that good architecture must not only be functional, it has to create hope and space for emotional development.   Jaume Plensa (currently at The Yorkshire Sculpture Park) creates  environments for peace and meditation as well as exciting spaces where change can happen.  His sets for opera create such dramatic possibilities.   

Change the environment, change the meaning.   If we move away, get another job, we mix with a whole new social group and we are changed.  If we separate from our partner,  move on, marry someone else, we become a different person.  Relationships change people, probably more than anything else. Parents and teachers create the environment/space in which children can grow, but eventually the child has to separate.  A good teacher or parent equips the child to take advantage of the opportunity. By the same token, psychotherapy can expands perception and creates possibilities for change, but only the individual can change.  You not only need space to change, you need courage to take advantage of the opportunity.  And the good enough parent, teacher or therapist, must facilitate a safe environment for the person to develop with confidence and not seek to overprotect and confine through selfishness and fear.

So why do we help each other?  It defies logic.  According to Dr Samuel Okashi, who was speaking at the Cafe Scientifique last night, if we were the rational, logical creatures we claim to be, then there would always be an advantage not to.  The Prisoner Game, invented by the ‘autistic’ mathematician John Nash (depicted in the film by Russell Crowe),  demonstrated that when you cannot trust your partner what to do, it is always better to defect, because the risk of collaborating when they don’t, could mean you end up with nothing and even if you both defect, you could at least end up with something.  This makes logical sense to prisoners and psychopaths, who cannot trust.  It also makes sense for governments.  Look how difficult it is for states to agree on cutting carbon emissions.  Powerful states with more to lose, defect, because if everybody else cuts emissions they will gain, even though the world will lose.  How could you ever get them to collaborate?

Why should people who are inherently narcissistic and self interested, engage in co-operative altruistic behaviour?   Is it just that we are social animals and as such have an inbuilt need to collaborate?   Such behaviour is built into us from the beginning; it’s instinctive; the baby clings to the mother, the mother’s instinct is to care for her infant.  Families stay together not just because there are distinct advantages for them to do so, but because there is a powerful emotional bond.  People group themselves in tribes.  There’s strength in numbers, but there’s also comfort, creativity and meaning.  In a social unit, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  No one person can do everything.  By adopting different roles, they can work as a unit to achieve much more as long as they see advantage in doing so and there is discipline.  And for that you need trust and leadership.  Difficulties arise when you have too many chiefs and not enough Indians.  Our survival as a species is based on collaboration.        

But we don’t collaborate with others just because we discern long term gains from such behaviour or because we avoid long term losses; we avoid being punished.   No, I think it’s deeper than that.  Our lives are built on meaning, the meaning that can only come from social interaction.  Our brains are wired by making emotional connections; neuroscience shows that the more we engage with the people and world around us, the more our brains adapt to cope; the more we grow as individuals.  It’s the way we form our identity.  Defection leads to autism, depression, exclusion and in an evolutionary sense, extinction.  Comparative research among primates indicate that the bigger the social group, the larger the size of the brain.  The implication is that you need big brains to hold in mind the dynamics of so many relationships. 

The key factor is trust.  Relationships, societies are based on trust.  Evolution assumes collaboration, at least for time enough to exchange genes but for social species collaboration must persist for much longer.  Trust is the glue that bonds people into families, friendships and tribes.  We have to know that at the end of the day, those whom we are bonded to by trust, will not abandon, mislead, exploit or betray us.  We need to know we belong.   Without trust we are like prisoners; always suspicious, watching our backs, making sure that others do not steal the advantage leaving us with nothing.  Society disintegrates without trust.  

The Prisoner Game is not the only game. There is another game for social animals and that is what my grandmother quaintly called courtship.  Here the goal is conjunction, the creation of a lasting bond.  In the edgy dance of courtship, each partner attempts to determine the sincerity of the other in all sorts of tests and tasks. ‘if you really loved me, you would do never be late, forget, let me down.’  The object is to build and establish the share mythology of absolute trust that will sustain the sufficiently to rear confident, trusting children while at the same time consolidating their place in the tribe.  In the courtship game, there is only one win.  The philanderer and seductress may achieve a short term gain, but it doesn’t last and both are the losers, gaining only disillusion and loneliness; lust, trust and bust!    

The Prisoner Game is based on false assumptions.  It assumes that human beings are purely logical, rational animals, who have no time for trust and only see personal advantage in relationships.  It is rather similar to the corporate game in which representatives employ the skills of seduction, charm and persuasion, to gain an advantageous deal.   Trust often doesn’t come into it; the best either partner can hope for is mutual advantage, bound by a written agreement, where law replaces trust.   But in the corporate world too, aren’t the best agreements forged during a round of golf or over a drink or meal?  The enjoyment of the game, the companionship, alcohol and food are ways executives still use to break down suspicion and promote trust, but increasingly such individuals are ‘protected’ by their PR companies.  As societies have expanded, so they have developed ever more efficient systems to protect themselves from ‘messy’ emotions.   You need more than the promise of good intentions if you are going to strike the best deal. 

Are so called civilised human beings becoming more selfish and more suspicious?  Do we trust less?   And are we paying the price for this?  Isn’t loneliness the major public health risk of our time?  Hasn’t the birth rate declined  – and the divorce rate gone up?   Are we breeding a generation of mixed up, disenfranchised kids?  Are we more split, more confrontational, more keen on our individual rights than building something together?  Is it better to be right than be together?  Is this the essence of our decline as a society?  Can we do anything about it?

The driver game, in which drivers choose whether to drive on the left or the right,  only works if the players can rely on each other to make the same choice.  A partnership must be mutual, in marriage, friendship or even corporate relationships.  If one partner does everything, if one partner is ambivalent, deceives, plays away, betrays, it doesn’t work.  But collaboration requires energy (though not as much as suspicion) and as long as their basic needs are met,  human beings are lazy. 

So is this the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper?

What is the secret of the enduring popularity of the British monarchy?  What curious alchemy is at work?   I can understand why my father, the venerable Read, God rest his soul, was such a fervent  monarchist.   He was, as he frequently told us, one of Churchill’s few.  He fought for King and country, though I doubt the King was that impressed when he wrote off three Hurricanes without even seeing the enemy.   It’s enough to make a st-st-statesman st-st-stutter.   But sixty years on,  and a sequence of public relations disasters, the institution still has the power to generate a sense of awe and respect.   It’s not so much what the Royals do  – and the chief characters in this enduring soap opera certainly do a lot – it’s what they represent.   The Windsors play an essential symbolic role for our nation.  They create a collective sense of identity and continuity that we would never get from an ephemeral political leader.   They embody consistency and a reaffirmation of traditional values of duty, loyalty, charity, family and community.  The Queen is Commander in Chief of the armed forces and head of the Church of England and she brings a softer more human sense to both of those organisations.  I once met Prince Charles and was impressed by the way he could work a room and how he raised self deprecation to the status of an art form.

Some say the mere existence of the Royal Family is an affront to democracy.  Not a bit of it; they are its upholders.  They curb the power of politicians by subsuming the cult of personality from leadership, providing an alternative focus of respect and idealisation that prevents our elected leaders becoming too big for their political boots.  So the Royal Family prevent the creation of tyrants, just by being there.  The Queen’s in her palace and all’s well with the world. 

Next year, The Queen would have been on the throne for 60 years.  She acceded in a different time; she has overseen the most amazing changes, not just in terms of historical events or our way of life, but more crucially in our attitudes to all the important things,  family, marriage, religion, sexuality.   She has stayed firm and uncompromising through it all. She is the same now as she was in 1952.  She is the moral anchor for a nation, nay half a world, that has been buffeted by the winds of change.  Not only that, but The Queen is latest in a long line that goes back to William the Conqueror;   she embodies continuity, representing a historical notion of nationhood that goes back to the very beginning.  I don’t know ho children understand history now, but when I was a boy, it all hinged around the Kings and Queens.   Like the Observer’s Book of Birds or Ian Allen’s Great Western Railway locomotives (with its 30 Kings, 6000 to 6030),  I knew the images of each King and the dates they ruled;  I still do.  Some knowledge never fades.    Our national anthem is not about the power of the state, the revolution, or even the beauty of the country, it is about the monarch – as if The Queen (or King) is the essential symbol of nation and empire.   ‘God Save The Queen’.   Quite!          

Saturday’s Guardian, an organ that hs never admired inherited privilege and power, was so critical of the whole Royal Wedding extravaganza,  though they did approve of the royal minibus fleet; the need for cuts and all that!  They reminded me of prison vans.  In a sense, I suppose, they were.      

But there is surely nothing like a Royal Wedding to reaffirm that sense of unity and commitment.  In the Church of England, it seems, the beards always have the best words.  It was the bald and bearded Bishop of London who emphasised the commitment of marriage (as opposed to just living together) as a potent symbol of unity and responsibility for family, society and the nation, while it was left up to that aging Welsh hippie, Rowan Williams to remind Kate of her responsibility to have a baby, preferably male.         

The Germans may sneer at the English for their eccentric attachment to the Windsors, but had it not been for the last century’s two great German wars, they might have still been Saxe-Coburg-Gothas and William might have been assigned a German princess.  It was the symbolic significance of the Royal Family, who refused to leave London even though the palace was bombed, as much as Churchill’s indomitable rhetoric that got us through the second war.   The Germans began to recognise the flaws in their Fuhrer quite early on.  Theirs was not a glorious endeavour; they couldn’t prevail.  Our parent’s war had right on its side.  So despite the familial dysfunction and the flurry of  royal divorces,  the Royal Family is nearly as popular now as it was in the 1950s.   80% of the population support it.  Maybe it will be different when the Queen dies; there could be a backlash to King  Charles and Queen Camilla.  Could Kate Middleton will be the one to restore it; she has that quiet sense of dignity, that stability and composure, that regal quality that could capture the nation’s affection and identification.  

Friday’s Royal Wedding is a symbol of hope, hope for William and Kate of course, but also for the rest of us, though the cynics will remind us we’ve been here before.   30 years ago, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer.  A fairy tale wedding, they called it, but it was more like one of Grimm’s.  Charles and Camilla were still exchanging tokens of their affection up until the eve of the wedding.   But apparently Prince Philip had insisted Charles choose a virgin and an aristocrat.   There were not that many around.  So Diana, the nineteen year old insecure daughter of a dysfunctional family, was selected for sacrifice.  They hardly knew each other.  It was less of a romance and more an arrangement to secure the dynasty.   The runes were not good and it ended in tragedy.  Kate and William are so different.  Theirs’ is a love match, they met at university 10 years ago, they are the same age, they were friends before they became lovers, they have lived together.  They are like us, they laugh and joke at the same things and they renew our belief in love and family at a time when cynicism is considered clever.  

May their marriage be strong and happy and may they continue to bring a sense of joy to the lives of the rest of us.

Today she was 95!  She knew there was something special.  The nurses put up a banner and two balloons in her room, they had even baked a cake with a single candle on it, sang happy birthday, but they had lost her shoes and she had lost all recollection.  She couldn’t understand why had they dolled her up, combed her hair, dressed her in her smartest blue dress, even shaved the whiskers from her chin?  What was going on? 

She was worried about where she was going and so was her friend Betty.  ‘You will bring her back won’t you?’   I promised to get her back by supper.  

All the way to Chatsworth, she kept up a running commentary. ‘Look at those trees.  What do you call them; the ones with the white blossom.  Can you smell them?  It looks like a reservoir up there?  I used to walk along here.  That’s a lovely house.  I remember that tree.  I went everywhere by myself.  I’ve been in that pub. What do you call this town?  Ah, yes, Hathersage.’   She was like a little girl on an outing.  ‘Oh I won’t want to go back home. …..   I can’t remember where I live.’     

I took her to the farm shop and she plodded along after me, carrying the empty bag.  She likes being with people.  I had to talk loudly to her and repeat myself.  It was like being on stage, but the audience looked away. 

At my cottage, she enjoyed the lemon tea and the date and walnut cake.  She opened her cards.  Simon had made her a card with a rather beautiful poppy on it; mine was a photo of bluebells.  But when the conversation lapsed, she looked around in panic and in a voice, querulous and pitched high, declared,  ‘ I am unsettled; I don’t know where I am’.  I explained this was my house.  ‘But where do I live?  Can’t I stay with you?

When we returned the others were having tea, the same blank expressions, looking but not seeing, grabbing their food with mechanical shovels – got to keep the body alive even though ……  I parked her at a table, went to put her coat back in her room, propped her cards up, noticed that Doreen had left a present for her – some tiny white flowers in a pot and looked in Pamela’s room for the pictures of the family that had gone missing, but when I went in to say goodbye, she’d forgotten I’d ever come.

In society, behaviour is everything .  You have to be seen to conform to the values and attitudes of the group, to belong, especially if you are in a minority separate culture like the Jews in North London.   You’re either in or you’re out. 

David is so anxious to be considered part of the Jewish community in Edgware, that he would sacrifice family, everything.   So when his son Danny, fighting in the Iraeli army tries to tell his father he is scared and wants to return home, David tells him that his loyalty to his men is more important; he has to do his duty.  But Danny is killed, and before he dies he testifies to his sister Ruth, a human rights lawyer working on a report about Israeli atrocities in Gaza, about the guilt he feels at having bombed innocent children in a school.  

Ruth is demonised by the community for her apparent criticism of the Jewish state and David is ostracised.  People like the appalling Saul, a gynaecologist and synagogue leader, withdraw their trade from David. 

So David is forced into a dreadful conflict.  Is he to bow down to the wishes of the community and stop his daughter attending the funeral or is he to support all of his children, acknowledge Danny’s fear and guilt and face down his society?  Can he support his family in the face of prejudice?  Can he understand and help his second son, Jonny, who is lost in drugs and meaninglessness?  Can he be proud of his daughter for her courage?  Can he feel compassion for Danny?   These are the components of David’s dilemma.  What’s more important, his society or his soul?  

Too much trouble in the world, too many wars,  are caused by the blind adherence to dogma, to attitudes laid down by a rigid and fearful society.   More people need to stand up for what they feel is right, to speak out.

Dare to be a Jonah!  Dare to stand alone!  How many of us would be confident enough in our own skin to face isolation in the service of what we feel is right?  

Henry Goodman plays David in Ryan Craig’s  new play, ‘The Holy Rosenbergs’ currently being performed at the Cottesloe.   Henry Goodman is for me one of our very best actors.  The Cottesloe the perfect intimate space for such a close family drama.   ‘Dare to be a Jonah’ is the motto that Tony Benn has attempted to live by.    

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