Kate Chisholm

All in the mind | 10 January 2013

Text settings

Radio 4’s Book of the Week sounded so promising, pertinent, perfect for these gloomy first days of January. Maybe listening to it day-by-day could help to banish those demons of despair and disillusion which become so virulent after festive over-indulgence and the onset of the New Year? What better antidote to the dank outside than the positive thoughts and advice of an expert psychoanalyst, you might think. But although Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life was beautifully read by Peter Marinker — a voice that’s easy on the ear yet always fluent with meaning — it felt empty, without relevance. Grosz promised us solutions to those feelings of being trapped, imprisoned, walled in by life. He said he could help us to make sense of how we feel by explaining the stories we devise to explain, reconcile, live with what we are. But in the end his sequence of case-studies of patients he has treated were just stories of unfortunate people with a common theme — unhappy and abused childhoods.

His title presumably comes from the philosophical school which believes that to know thyself is both a divine obligation and the only way to live a fulfilled life. His patients in their daily sessions with him were taken back to the source of their often strange and always destructive behaviours. Peter, for instance, who tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose and then hiding in a cupboard in a church, where he slashed his wrists, his chest, his neck. Or Philip, a pathological liar, who began his lying career by telling his schoolmates, aged 11, that he’d been recruited by MI5.

Grosz made it sound so easy. Track back to first memories, he seemed to be saying, and you’ll find the key (and more importantly the solution) to current ills. Nowhere did he suggest that sense of mystery, of things beyond our knowing, which lies behind so much mental dis-ease; those ‘sheer, no-man-fathomed...cliffs of fall’ evoked by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Much more inspiring was the first of Martin Wainwright’s One to One interviews, in which he has chosen to look at people who have demonstrated remarkable perseverance. How do people acquire such staying power, even in the face of danger or state punishment? What drives them?

His first guest on Tuesday (Radio 4) was Lindis Percy, who as a political campaigner has been arrested more than 500 times and has served 15 custodial sentences. She has felt ‘compelled to do something’ ever since 1967, when, like so many of us, she watched with increasing horror and outrage the terrible images on TV of starving, brutalised children from the Biafran war. But Percy, unlike so many of us, immediately set about doing something. She began by opening an Oxfam shop in her local community to raise money but soon became political, joining the Greenham Common Peace Camp in 1981. A practising Quaker, she now leads a weekly sit-in at the Menwith Hill American base near Harrogate, studded with spooky-looking radomes or ‘golf balls’, the receiving satellites used in intelligence-gathering from around the world.

‘We should know what’s going on,’ she told Wainwright. Scratch beneath the surface of many so-called RAF bases in the UK, she tells us, and you will find that they are actually being run by the Americans. ‘I don’t like to be deceived,’ she adds. Her Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases now stretches worldwide into south-east Asia, because China has replaced the Soviet Union as the new big threat. ‘It’s really important to be angry,’ she reminds us, calmly yet forthrightly.

‘Does she never get tired, worn down by the frustrations of campaigning?’

‘I can be low,’ she admits. But then she walks up into the Dales close to where she lives. ‘You just need to lift up your eyes unto the hills,’ she declares. ‘That’s what we’re working for.’

Is such outrage a form of disgust? On The Forum this week (Radio 4, Saturday) Bridget Kendall and her guests explored this very human emotion. ‘What really makes your stomach churn?’ asked Kendall. Is it culturally determined? Or an evolutionary response? Does disgust have a moral dimension? If so, can our degree of squeamishness determine our political affiliations?

David Pizarro, a Californian psychologist, has been researching the connections between physical disgust and political beliefs. He suggests on the programme that conservatives are likely to be more squeamish than liberals. That’s massively controversial, responds Kendall.

This being The Forum, which aims to explore ideas, not promulgate or define them, Pizarro was pitted against a sensory scientist, John Prescott, who’s discovered that the faces we pull when faced by something truly disgusting (the open mouth, tongue sticking out, wrinkled nose and curled lip) are not exclusive to humans. Rats can be seen to make them just as clearly.

Disgust then is innate, pre-programmed, an evolutionary response to something that’s bad for us. Or is it? Also on the programme was Iain Hutchison, a plastic surgeon who specialises in facial reconstruction. His research has shown that toddlers react to disfigurement with curiosity, not disgust. Only grown-ups recoil.