psychology


Donald TrumpThis was the book, Donald Trump tried to ban, but failed. Michael Wolff was given unique access to the west wing as a fly on the wall journalist for the first nine months of the Trump presidency. If his host knew what he would produce, he would have been swatted. The result is an appalling indictment of the president and his administration.

Trump had never expected to win the election; he had banked on losing and then making a lot of money in television. He wanted to become the most famous man in the world and he probably is, but not for the reasons he would have liked. Donald Trump is undoubtedly the least qualified and capable president, America has ever known. He had never worked in government before; never studied law or politics; he had a degree in economics and estate management from a minor university. He was a businessman, joining his father’s business as soon as he graduated. All he knew of politics was gleaned from the television news.

Not only that but the personality of the man seems totally at variance with the role of a president. Wolff paints a picture of a man, who is impulsive, mercurial, emotional, paranoid and totally uncontained and unpredictable. Despite his macho persona, Trump is a man who cannot make decisions. He may seem to make up his mind very quickly, largely on the basis of how he feels about the last person who came to see him, but he changes it just as rapidly. On difficult decisions, he prefers to procrastinate and let them make themselves or hand over the brief to someone else and then forget about it. If it succeeds, he takes the credit, if it fails, then they have screwed up and are fired. According to Wolff, Trump cannot see the bigger picture, and therefore tends to make rash, polarised judgements about situations. He has a very low attention span and never listens to advice. He gets bored with people who present him with the information he needs to know, he never reads briefings, he doesn’t even follow his own script when he has to give a speech and is likely to go off on a rant and repeat himself. This all implies a limited capacity to think.

Trump reacts to personalities rather than issues, either loading them with fulsome praise or dismissing them completely. He creates dramas; he wants to be the centre of attention, even when it is bad news, he has little empathy and can be ruthless and cruel when he doesn’t get his own way. Were it about any other person, Wolff’s book might be dismissed as media hype or dysphoria; fake news – to quote a Trumpism, but it seems to confirms what most of us already know already; the man is quite unsuited to be the de facto leader of the western world. What seems so shocking about Fire and Fury is just how damningly, the man and his administration are portrayed.

Wolff reports that Trump is universally derided by members of his staff, who variously describe him as a child, a clown, a moron, an idiot and stupid. But is he so cognitively challenged? After all, he was a very successful businessman and in his words, very very smart. Isn’t it more that he is emotionally unstable. Donald Trump would appear to be a text book case of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Donald was fourth in a family of five children, which might suggest he had to fight to get his parents’ attention.  Trump’s father, Fred, was a belligerent, uncompromising, ruthless man; he created a son, who was driven to achieve his father’s approval.  Donald’s relationship with his father was ambivalent; he both resented his control but was at the same time devoted to him and determined to become a much more successful businessman. Donald must have been difficult teenager for his father to send him away to a military academy, where he subsequently excelled. I could not find any information about Donald’s relationship with his mother, but I would guess from his subsequent behaviour around women, he needed his mother’s love, but didn’t always get it. Mary- Ann Macleod Trump, who emigrated to new York from Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides,   was more reserved with her children than her husband and somewhat vain.  She had a curious orange hair style rather like her son’s.

Although he quickly became a billionaire from his real estate business, the world of Manhattan and in particular the media, regarded him as a joke, a lightweight, a wannabe. Donald Trump hates to feel humiliated and will always seek revenge.  His emotional insecurity was soothed by a sense of entitlement; he always had the money and power to get his own way.

You would think that for a man who prides himself in being a good judge of people, Trump would appoint a top team to run the country.  Not so: Trump needs to be in control; he is too insecure and sensitive to criticism to let others be seen to run the country. The people Trump has chosen to help him are either his own family, hustlers who believe they can manipulate him to get their own agendas met, or ‘yes men’ who try to manage him by letting him think he is in charge, while they get on with the business of government.

Steve Bannon was the White House Chief Strategist for the first eight months before he too was fired. Crude and as uncontained as his boss, he could speak the language, Trump liked to hear. They would have dinner together every night. But Bannon had his own ultra right wing agenda. It was Bannon who was behind the isolationism of Trumpian politics, who wanted to limit immigration, repeal Obamacare, build a wall along the Mexican border, withdraw America from the Paris Climate accord, but all of this was music to Trump’s ears. Bannon was like Thomas Cromwell was to the King, but Trump never had the guile of Henry VIII. The danger was that even if Trump disliked Bannon, he owed him a debt. It was Bannon, who was largely responsible for Trump winning the election with his ultra right populist politics. The two men were said to be closer than a marriage. Their recent divorce could still produce a lot of fall out.

Trump has now been in office for over a year and apart from a reform in the tax system, very little has been achieved. His first year has been a constant firefight. And if there wasn’t a crisis, Donald Trump with his not stop sequence of tweets and turns would make sure there was one. Members of his staff rarely have lasted more than a few months with the exception of his daughter and son in law. The investigation into the Russian influence in the 2016 election; the social media campaign against crooked Hilary, is coming ever closer and could result in impeachment. Bannon lurks under a rock at Brietbart News Headquarters biding his time, awaiting the fall. He has been reported as saying that the chances of Trump’s impeachment are 33%, resignation 33% and hanging on for the rest of his term 33%, dismissing entirely any change of a second term, at least not while there is a chance of a take-over by President Bannon.

If we can take Wolff’s observations and opinions at face value, the worrying question for the rest of the world is how the Americans could have elected somebody, who is so inept, to be their president? And why does he remain so popular? Michael Wolff may criticise the man, but perhaps we should question the society and the system that elected him? Has America got the president it deserved? Does a narcissistic society get a narcissistic president? Is it a dysfunctional news media that controls public opinion and politics these days? Whatever else Trump is, he is compelling news.

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Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?

FreudFor many years, scientists thought that consciousness was a peculiarly human phenomenon that resided in the cerebral cortex, that deeply fissured cap of fatty substance that overlies the more primitive ‘brain stem’ that we share with other mammalian species. The things that we didn’t ‘know’, our ‘unconscious’ mind, that raison d’être of psychoanalysts that controls our instincts and drives, was thought to be hidden down in the brain stem adjacent to those centres that control basic functions like respiration, temperature control, sleep and eating. Under certain circumstances, however, this ‘dark matter’ in the unconscious was thought to surface and influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviour, but it may be accessed through the psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams, symptoms, free association and behaviour. Freud called the conscious mind, ‘the ego’, representing the self or ‘I’, while the ‘unconscious’ was the ‘id’ or ‘it’. The purpose of psychoanalysis, he asserted, was to make the unconscious conscious, so that our reason for our drives and behaviour could be understood and changed.

Once an idea has been accepted, scientists try to fit their observations to that theory, but in Science, there is never any absolute certainly, there are just ideas that seem to fit our observations better than others.

In the beginning was the feeling.

Earlier this month, at a conference venue overlooking the Regent’s Canal just before it disappears into the tunnel that burrows under the London Borough of Islington, the South African neuropsychoanalyst, Professor Mark Solms claimed that Freud got it the wrong way round. The great man confused the content of consciousness, all the associations stored in the cortex, with its function. In 1923, he wrote that the ‘conscious’ ego is derived from the environment as discerned by our major sense organs. The ‘unconscious’ id, on the other hand, detects certain changes within the body as fluctuations in the tension of instinctual needs (or drives), which are perceived as feelings. So how, declared Solms, can the ‘id’ be unconscious? Consciousness emanates from the brain stem as feelings that include include desire, joy, hunger, care, curiosity, play, fear, disgust, sadness, loss, pain and are related to certain basic physiological functions. After all, we can all feel happy or sad without the mental capacity to recognise we are happy or sad, let alone reflect on what caused the feeling.

So, in direct contrast to Freud, Solms asserted that the id, representing our feelings or needs, is conscious, while the ego – all the stuff stored in our cortex – aspires to be unconscious. After all, we can only hold a very limited range of content in our conscious mind at any one time. The vast majority, 99.999%, is sequestered away unregarded until required. Similarly, most of our actions are automatic. Think of the way we use a keyboard, drive a car, play tennis. If we tried to think about what we are doing, we would instantly make mistakes.

So do our feelings about what happens make us aware of content tagged with the same emotional salience stored in the cortex? Is consciousness rather like a librarian searching the stacks with a torch for relevant content? Are we only conscious of particular associations, stored in the cortical stacks, when those are triggered by feelings? This would seem unrealistic, since the range of feelings even allowing for every minor nuance would only run in the hundreds if that while database of memories in the cortex, even allowing for complex associations probably amounts to hundreds of thousands. So is it more that what happens accesses memories and that their emotional tag causes us to react in much the same way as the immune system reacts to bacterial antigens displayed on the surface of macrophages? After all, the way we think about things can certainly affect our feelings just as our feelings influence the way we think. In science as in life, things are rarely either/or, but both.

It seems likely current awareness is a feeling state that creates associations with stored memories and tags them with a particular emotional salience, transforming drives and feelings into object and verbal representations so they can be worked through and then restored to long term memory. We can sense the way this works when we recall our dreams. Dreaming is widely thought to be the way the brain consolidates experience. Dreams have a certain content, often related to what happened the day before, relevant, albeit somewhat abstracted, associations and a theme that is related to feeling. If it were not for the feeling, conscious perceiving and thinking would either not exist or would decay away. A mind unmotivated by feelings would be a hapless zombie, incapable of managing the basic tasks of life.

If we ever doubted the role of the brain stem in creating consciousness, consider those children born with hydranencephaly, who have no cortical development whatsoever; just a fluid filled space where the cortex should be. They not only wake up and go to sleep at appropriate times, but they also demonstrate the whole gamut of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, love/care as well as what may regarded as pre-emotions such as hunger, thirst, discomfort. On the other hand, people with very discrete lesions in the brain stem, can go into a deep coma even though the cortex is completely intact.

Even cows can get the blues

Other mammals have the same brain stem structures as we do and, as any pet owner will testify, demonstrate the same range of emotions. It is a fallacy to say that animals have no feelings; they might not be able to reflect on those feelings but they feel everything and respond appropriately to a whole range of stimuli. It is their ability to think through situations, delay gratification and develop strategy, that seems limited compared with ours; though within their own environment, chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins and many other species, show remarkable cognitive capability. One of the books, I received last Christmas was ‘The Secret Life of Cows’. It described a whole range of caring, exploratory, aggressive, contented behaviours in animals which we often dismiss as stupid. James Rebanks described much the same in his Herdwick sheep in his book, The Shepherd’s Life. Even whales express a range of emotional behaviour. Perhaps we don’t wish to think that the animals we slaughter and eat have feelings too.

 

the secretIris had known there was something different and rather strange about her since she was very small, but she could never quite put her finger on what it was.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was everything to her; she not only clothed her, fed her and cared for her as most mothers would, there was something deeper, stranger. Her mother knew her so well she seemed to be able to regulate the way she felt. This feeling of difference intensified when she went to school. Her mother had wanted to educate her at home, but was persuaded by the social worker that this would not be in Iris’ best interest. At school, the children seemed to know she was different, a bit weird but not in any obvious way. After all, she looked like a normal little girl, and she was bright and interested in things. Maybe it was the way she didn’t seem to want to join in with the other girls; it was like her mother was enough for her. As she grew older, her isolation intensified; she never hung out with the other girls. Her somewhat detached air of self containment irritated them and she was picked on and bullied, but her mother knew her so well and was always there to calm her and make her feel secure.

She began to ask questions. Why didn’t she have a father? Why were there no aunts or uncles; no grandparents? Why did her mother have no close friends? It was like she and her mother were everything each of them needed. As Iris developed into a young woman, they even looked identical: same height and shape, same colour hair, same way of walking, same choice in clothes. People did a double take when they saw them both together. It was weird. This feeling of strangeness grew in Iris; she wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Elizabeth was evasive, telling her that she was not old enough to know yet; she couldn’t handle it, but that only intensified Iris’ curiosity. Once, Janey, Elizabeth’s sister, came to Chicago. She kept looking at Iris and seemed almost frightened of her. It was all very odd.

Iris had to find out what was going on. When her mother went out, she began to search through her papers. In the cellar, she found an old filing cabinet. It was like a treasure chest. There were all sorts of things in there from way back: Elizabeth’s old school reports and certificates, letters from boy friends, a whole stash of letters from her mother, sad, poignant letters that indicated a big rift in the family, but there was no mention of Iris’ father. Then she found it; tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer  was her birth certificate. She hardly dare read it.  Next to the heading: father, the registrar had written ‘none’, and under that by way of explanation: ‘clone’.

So there it was. Iris was a clone of her mother. She was not a separate person, she was just a copy.  Suddenly, everything was explained: the unnatural closeness to Elizabeth, the sense of strangeness, the estrangement from family, the absence of a father – everything!  But it was devastating!  Was she some kind a monster; a freak of nature? Did she even exist outside her mother? What was the point of carrying on if she was just a copy of her mother?  What future did she have if it was already determined?  Could she ever have her own identity? She had to get away.

They had a violent argument. Iris got her fingers round her mother’s neck and almost throttled her. They could both no longer exist in the same space. Then, some days later, in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was asleep, she left. She flew to New York.  It was where her mother’s family had lived.  She needed to fill in the gaps.  Perhaps if she knew more about her mother, she could begin to know herself.  She stayed in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, was picked up by a man in the bar, had sex with him more out of sense of curiosity than desire. She even went to the clinic where she was made and met the scientist who had produced her, but this just intensified her sense of alienation. With the help of Piotr, a strange geeky young man, she lived with for a time, she hacked into her aunt’s computer and found where her grandparents lived. She flew to Palm Beach and surprised them. Whether it was the shock of seeing Iris, meeting a facsimile of Elizabeth as she was when they had last seen her or just ‘natural causes’, her grandmother, who had not been well, collapsed while they were walking back from the beach.  Within a few days, she was dead, but not before Iris, as Elizabeth, was able to forgive her ‘mother’ for putting pressure on her to have a baby.  Her grandfather died a few weeks later.

Returning to Manhattan, Iris lived with Janey, enrolled in university to study molecular science, and went into therapy, though the psychoanalytical interpretations seemed too rigid and not entirely relevant to her situation. Then she met Robert first on an on-line chat room that allowed her to reveal who or what she was.  Robert recognised her own unique self, and they fell in love.  It was the final act of separation. She was no longer her mother. In a strange, dream like sequence, Iris and her mother see each other again while walking in France. They both stop, turn and walk the other way.

 

Eva Hoffman’s intriguing novel uses ‘the clone’ as an extended metaphor to explore the notion of separation. It is something that we all face. In the beginning we are part of our mother and then gradually we grow apart and establish a sense of our own identity. Childhood is a protracted process of separation until we leave home and live our own lives. Sometimes our mothers are reluctant to let us go and fail to give us the freedom to explore our own personality. Then we may struggle to separate or, needing ‘the other’ to survive, we may dive straight into a merger with somebody else, who then becomes our new soul mate.  Or we may never really separate; there are still mother and daughter dyads who claim to be ‘best friends’.

Elizabeth did not only try to prevent Iris from developing an independent life, in perhaps the ultimate narcissism, she  created her as a copy of herself.  Iris was Elizabeth, except that she wasn’t, in the same way that identical twins are not the same person. They may share an identical genetic template, but this becomes overlain with differences in experience so that with time they become different people. It raises the whole nature/nurture discussion. Genes can only provide a blueprint, a tendency to behave in a certain way; the rest is the epigenetic and psychological influence of environment and experience. The notion of self is a creation, not a given.

Iris may have looked like a young Elizabeth, but the influences on their lives were very different. Elizabeth never had such an incestuous relationship with her own mother; she had an extended family, a sibling, grandparents, friends. Iris had own known the intensity of her relationship with her mother and some difficult times at school and with friends as a consequence of that relationship; she was a different being, but, because of her unusual situation, somewhat flawed and autistic.  Her psychological development was much the same as many others, whose relationship with a parent is too close.  This was why, if she was going to find ‘herself’, she would need to ‘kill off the mother in her’.

Iris escapes and spends the next few years trying to discover who the is, first by archaeology through contact with the doctor who made her and her own extended family, and then by accreting layers of her own experience and finally by realising her own independent self in Robert’s recognition and acceptance. How she was created is no longer relevant. It is who Iris has become that matters. She is her own person.  But this is not a boy-meets-girl, happy-ever-after romantic tale. Robert and Iris didn’t get married. Perhaps, having struggled so hard to find her own identity, Iris was not willing to subsume it into a merger with another person.

 

The Secret by Eva Hoffman was published in 2001. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Jewish parents who had escaped the holocaust by hiding in the forest in Ukraine, Eva was brought up in Vancouver, went to University in Texas and now lives for part of the time in Hampstead. The Secret is undoubtedly informed by considerations of her own identity.

 

blake_1759784c

George Blake was perhaps the most successful double agent at the time of The Cold War. Working at the centre of British intelligence, for years he sent invaluable information to the KGB, in particular details of the tunnel the Americans constructed to tap into the Soviet communications across Berlin and the names of over a hundred British agents working there at the time. Blake was captured, escaped and survived and is still living in relative luxury in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, but he misses the sun.

So what made George Blake a spy? Was it that he never felt he belonged anywhere? Blake wasn’t even his name. It was Behar, but he was named George after the English King, George V.  His father, Albert, had a small company in Holland making heavy duty gloves for dockworkers, but George wasn’t close to his father; they didn’t even speak the same language. George was brought up speaking Dutch; his father spoke English and French. He was also half Jewish; his paternal grandfather had been a carpet dealer in Istanbul, but the family kept that a secret. George was much closer to his mother, who was very religious; he wanted to be a pastor.  George always had a strong social conscience.

While George was still at school, Albert’s company failed and then shortly afterwards Albert died. His mother struggled to keep the family in their house by the canal, but his father’s sister had married a rich French merchant and George, his two sisters and their mothers were invited to live with them in their mansion in Cairo. It was there that he completed his education and met his playboy cousin, Henri Curiel, who was the joint leader of the Communist party in Cairo. Curiel was later assassinated in Paris.

He was back at school and staying with his grandmother in Rotterdam when the Nazi’s invaded. He remembered the bombers coming over. His mother was desperate to contact him, but escaped with his two sisters on the last boat to England, the same boat that took the Dutch Royal Family into exile. He came home to find nobody in their apartment and the breakfast things still on the table. He stayed on in Holland for a while, running messages for the Dutch resistance. He enjoyed the excitement of living on the edge. In 1942, he managed to escape through occupied France to Spain and hop on a boat to join his family in England.

In London he grew a beard and was recruited into the Special Intelligence Service. They were impressed by his resourcefulness and need to make a difference. He claimed that he was dropped by parachute in Holland as part of the liberating force, but there was no evidence that was correct. George could be a bit of a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character. So it seemed that George possessed all the credentials to be a double agent: strong social and political convictions but no strong allegiance to any country or any religion, somewhat guarded and secretive, no strong emotional ties, resourceful and independent. He told people he wanted to make a difference in the world.

When war erupted in Korea, he was sent to Seoul and was instructed to go north to Vladivostok and recruit Russian agents who would work for the British. He was in Seoul when communist troops invaded and was imprisoned with other members of western legations. It was while he was a prisoner in Korea that he witnessed the American bombing of Korean villages and decided that he was on the wrong side. Together with the other prisoners, he was escorted on the long march through the mountains to the north. He seized the opportunity to escape but was recaptured. It is probable that he made contact with officers from the KGB at around that time and was recruited as a communist agent.

After 2 years in prison in Korea, Blake was released and sent back to England as a hero, seemingly none the worse for his experience. Impressed by his work in the Far East, he joined MI6. One of his first tasks was to take the minutes for the meeting setting out plans to build a tunnel to tap into the Soviet secret communications channel across Berlin. He printed the document out and handed it to his minder on the top deck of a London bus. The Russians did not react; keeping the identity of such a valuable double agent was too important to them.  So they kept their communications open and allowed Blake, now in Berlin, to continue sending his reports on to Britain in return for information from him. He handed over the names of at least a hundred British agents and much more strategic information over the course of the next few years. It was while George was on his next assignment in Lebanon that MI6 grew suspicious of his role in betraying the existence of their tunnel.

Brought back to England for interrogation, he admitted to spying for the KGB and was sentenced to a very harsh 42 years of imprisonment on various counts of treason.  While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, he was a model prisoner and was allowed certain privileges, such as access to the library. It was there he met the Irishman, Sean Bourke, who was doing five years for being connected with a bomb incident. Bourke was impressed by Blake’s courage and convictions and decided to help him escape using a hacksaw and a crude rope ladder and the assistance of some local helpers from the CND. Blake injured himself falling from the wall, but was whisked away to a safe house, where he was patched up by a doctor, the girl friend of one of the conspirators. It was touch and go; there was a massive search for him. He was nearly discovered when the wife of the owner of the apartment told her therapist that she had a spy in her flat. The therapist, however, thought she was delusional and ignored it. Hiding under the seat of a camper van, Blake escaped through Europe and was deposited at the Russian border, where he walked to the guard house and asked to speak to a member of the KGB.

Later in Moscow, he invited Bourke to join him for a holiday in his luxurious, KGB apartment in the centre of the city, no doubt wishing to recruit him. Once there, Bourke found he was trapped. He stayed for a year and a half but was eventually allowed to return to Ireland. The British Government applied for extradition, but the Irish government refused. So Bourke stayed in Dublin and, in between drinking sprees, was able to complete and publish his book, ‘Springing George Blake ‘. He died in 1982, his life cut short by alcoholism.

Simon Gray’s play, ‘Cell Mates’, covers the time from when Blake and Bourke met in the library of Wormwood Scrubs to when Bourke was allowed to return to Ireland. It covers the trajectory of their relationship from Bourke’s idealisation of Blake in the beginning to his disillusion, a course accompanied by his increasing alcoholism. ‘Cell Mates’ is a play about trust and duplicity that questions what drove Blake to be a spy.

There is something detached, almost autistic, about George Blake. He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong. He was convinced that Russian communism was the practical means whereby the Kingdom of God would be built on earth. He regarded Russia as his spiritual home. More committed to ‘the cause’ than people and a narcissistic desire to make a difference, Blake advised his wife, who had also worked for MI6 and by whom he had three children, to divorce him.

Blake still lives in the leafy outskirts of Moscow in the green-painted, wooden dacha, donated to him by a grateful state. He is 95 and seemingly in good health. In 2007, he was awarded another medal by Vladamir Putin for his services to Russia. He has married again and has another son. His second wife still looks after him. Blake has no regrets over what he did. He had no particular loyalty to Britain, but he is disappointed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and does not like Putin, though he keeps that a secret from the Russians.

Simon Gray’s play is as enigmatic as the spy, himself. We don’t really get any insights about the relationship between Bourke and Blake. Were they gay? Probably not; Blake was married twice. Did Blake trick Bourke into staying in Moscow with him, only to arrange for him to leave when he realised how unreliable he was? Was Bourke’s life ever in danger? It seems that Blake was too self centred to feel any lasting attachment to another person and any guilt, but has created a myth that he can live with.

He reminds me of Julian Assange, who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy, protesting his right to do what he did, while the world has largely forgotten about him. A recent report said that the Ecuadorian officials were complaining about his personal hygeine. Wikileaks, it seems, has become Whiffyleaks!

Stephen Fry was originally cast to play Blake and Rik Myall was cast as Bourke when ‘Cell Mates’ first opened in the West End in 1995, but the production had mixed reviews and was panned after Fry dramatically left because of depression. This is the first revival since that disastrous opening. Should they have bothered? Probably not. It seems to me that the back story of George Blake is much more interesting than the play.

Cell Mates played at The Hampstead Theatre until January 20th. It was directed by Edward Hall with Geoffrey Streathfield as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke.The

Resignation Syndrome

Ylena is just nine years old, the daughter of asylum seekers, currently living in Sweden. Shortly after arriving, while her mother was pregnant with her baby brother, she was afflicted with a strange illness. From being a very active young girl, she became listless and tired, she wouldn’t explain what was the matter, then she stopped talking altogether, she wouldn’t eat and she wouldn’t even get out of bed even to go to the toilet. There were no signs of any identifiable disease. The doctors were perplexed. All they could do was keep her alive by tube feeding, maintain hydration and hygeine, treat any infections, massage her limbs and prevent pressure sores. For most of the time, she slept in nappies like a baby. It is now five months since she became ill. Her parents are beside themselves with worry, not only about Ylena, but also the family’s immigrant status. The Swedish government has informed them that when their 13 month temporary residence expires, they will be deported. It was because their lives were in severe danger that they were forced to escape their country of origin and seek asylum.  They fear they will all be killed if they return.

Ylena is not the only child to be afflicted with this strange condition. It has been observed in the children of many asylum seekers in Sweden, and often occurs in clusters of friends or family members. It has been called Resignation Syndrome because it seems like the children afflicted have given up on life, but although the children are non responsive, their pulse and other physiological signs react to the presence of other people.

All the children affected by Resignation Syndrome have witnessed severe trauma often directed against their mother or father in their country of origin and the family is under threat of deportation. It is like, having witnessed extreme abuse, they cannot cope with the anxiety that their life will again be threatened. If their parents are taken away, how will they survive?  It is like the children have gone into a state of dissociation, like ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  But the illness tends to recover spontaneously if the threat of deportation is lifted.  Thus it seems that the cause of the illness is the extreme insecurity and the treatment is hope.

This epidemic has only been reported among asylum seekers in Sweden. Is this because Sweden has taken in a disproportionately large number of immigrants in recent years, but their policy for asylum has now become more strict, maybe because a few people were feigning illness to stay. But Resignation Syndrome is not faked.

Although the standard Swedish health policy has been to support life and wait for the illness to recover spontaneously or not, there is one clinic where they have instituted a radical new treatment. The children are separated from their parents and accommodated in friendly, comfortable surroundings, where staff play and engage with them in a positive way. There is, however, one strict rule; nobody is allowed to talk about deportation. Separated from the constant threat, children start to recover often within days and most make a complete recovery. But then they have to return to their parents and the threat of deportation.

There are clearly similarities between Resignation Syndrome and other unexplained illnesses, notably Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Anorexia nervosa and perhaps some patients with severe constipation predominant Irritable Bowel Syndrome, all of which may be instigated by trauma. Perhaps the epidemiological links with insecurity and the therapeutic influence of hope apply to all of them. The beneficial effect of removing the children from an environment that is toxic is also important. Illness isn’t just about medicine, politics and culture can have an important influence.

This post was inspired by Crossing Continents, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last Thursday.

Hot-Milk

Rose is paralysed. She cannot walk or even feel her legs. The doctors do not seem to know what is wrong. So Sofia has accompanied her mother to see Dr Gomez, a charismatic doctor/healer with a clinic, built in white marble ‘like a spectral beast’ on a hilltop in Almeria, Southern Spain. Throughout Deborah Levy’s new novel, Hot Milk, we are never quite sure whether Gomez is just a clever practitioner, who is trying to create the conditions where Rose has no alternative but get well, or whether he is a charlatan preying on her vulnerability to fund his clinic.

Ever since Rose was abandoned by Christos, Sofia’s Greek father, she has been dependant on her daughter to care for her. Bound by chains of control and dependency, Sofia has struggled to find her own life. She trained to be an anthropologist, interested, of course, in kinship, but she works as a barista and in her spare time, experiments with sexual relationships with both men and women. Her obsession with Ingrid, whose ‘body is long and hard like an autobahn’, seems to mirror her dysfunctional attachment with her mother, while with Juan she plays out a desire that is never quite reciprocated.

A little more than halfway through Sofia, throws a vase on the floor. The vase is a replica of an ancient Greek krater. In the shards Sofia sees “the ruins that were once a whole civilisation”, an image of her mother’s shattered life in Greece. When she takes a week off to visit her father in Athens, a city broken by economic collapse, she finds him shacked up with his child bride and baby daughter in small apartment. She sleeps in an airless storeroom on a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it. Upon leaving, she discovers her father has made a will leaving all of his not inconsiderable wealth to the church.

Back in Spain, she goes swimming in the sea and notices her mother walking over the sand. Her legs are clearly working fine. She swims though a swarm of medusa jellyfish which sting her into action. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says. “It cuts very deep.”

Later, she offers to take her mother for a drive, but at a viewpoint high in the hills, she wheels her mother to the centre of the road. In the distance she sees a white lorry approaching. So she leaves her and drives off. When she returns to the apartment her mother is already there. Without a word, she walks into the kitchen to fetch Sophie a drink.

Deborah Levy’s novel is not a great read. I could not easily sympathise with any of the characters. The men seemed not to care, the women self centred and acting out of a sense of injustice or grievance. The stark desert landscape, the relentless sun, the chained Alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking, the sea full of poisonous jellyfish; they all seemed to represent Sofia’s life in confined exile. She uses her desperate, ambivalent sexuality as a gesture of freedom from her dysfunctional relationship with her parents that she cannot relinquish, but that in turn threatens to be an obsessional entrapment. Ingrid calls Sofia a monster. Perhaps she is. She is certainly not a heroine I could warm to.

Hot Milk isn’t a long novel, but it is heavy with meaning, like a poem. In the first few pages, Sofia drops her computer and its screen shatters. “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else”. Perhaps that is a clue. Deborah Levy’s book about identity and entrapment. Sofia floats through her life like the poisonous jellyfish which drive the tourists away from the white-hot beach. Her her mother’s illness devours her past, her father’s new family render it meaningless, and her relationships with Ingrid, with Juan, with the inscrutable Gómez, seem to evaporate like spray on hot sand.

Perhaps her trip to Spain with her mother marks a fracture in her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. When her mother limps painfully, so does Sofia. “My legs are her legs.”, she says. Only now, it seems, they can both walk away independantly, but to where?

Hot Milk is a powerfully hypnotic narrative of a troubled life, containing a constellation of disturbing symbols, that continue to haunt me long after I turned the final page.

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