Dr Doolittle was right all along

Some people have such tightly closed minds. It’s such a shame, as the world is so extraordinary, so fascinating, and we know so little of it. How exciting it is to be introduced to new possibilities, wild ideas, oddities and improbabilities – why would anyone close themselves off from all that, unless they were either tired of life or terrified of it?
The argument in question – whether or not animals had feelings, were capable of meaningful communication with other species (ie humans), and whether they had souls – was being waged with an academic, a man in his fifties with a string of Humanities qualifications.
I’m firmly in the ‘yes, of course’ camp. The academic was strongly opposed, and scornful of my woolly female thinking. Animals are animals, he said with blinding logic. He keeps a cat, but regards it as a thing, to be fed, vetted, and otherwise ignored. His children like it, he says.
I asked if he had a garden. A small patio, he said. ‘So you don’t talk to your plants, then,’ I said. He excused himself and went to find a man without wool for brains.
We may be one of the few animals to use complex speech, but there are many creatures who use language – albeit unlike our own – and to say that we are the most intelligent animals on the planet is a moot point. Read Douglas Adams on dolphins – the key bit is right at the start of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Whales are generally recognised to have brains far larger than ours and to have a language so complex and subtle that we don’t have the first clue how to decode it. As for migrating birds and spawning salmon – see David Attenborough.
What I didn’t know was that octopuses are as smart as your average cat, which if you ask me is pretty damn smart. Your octopus can learn to open jars by watching people do it. They break out of their aquaria in the lab, and can trot across the lab to get into another aquarium full of fish, for lunch. Octopuses board trawlers and open holds to get at the crab catch.
Pigeons are art critics. A trio of Japanese scientists trained pigeons to tell the difference between Picasso and Monet. After a while, the pigeons could spot the difference in style of paintings they’d not seen before, and later the birds could tell other impressionists and cubists from each other. One of the scientists showed that college students with the same training as the pigeons were no better at distinguishing between Van Gogh and Chagall than the bird brains.
The theory that brain size is an indication of intelligence doesn’t always hold up; when you start looking at bird brains the theory falls very flat. Alex and N’kisi, two African grey parrots, seem considerably brighter than the bonobo apes, Kanzi and his family, who are astonishing scientists with their language skills and dexterity. Kanzi (born in 1980) can string together grammatical sentences (using lexigrams - he can’t say the words) and has a vocabulary of about 200 words.
N’kisi the parrot is only six (African Greys have life spans comparable to humans) but his vocab is almost 1,000 words strong. His owner doesn’t reward him for speaking – N’kisi speaks and learns because he likes it. He has a sense of humour, in fact is a bit of a smartarse, taking the mickey out of his owner and other birds. N’kisi holds conversations, some more intelligent than the average cocktail party chatter.
See Rupert Sheldrake’s website for lots more about this fabulous bird, and his older rival Alex – another African Grey who can count, is learning to read, and can not only recognise the difference between wood, plastic, metal etc, but can say so. The big advantage that parrots have over apes is that parrots can speak. So when Alex fancies a banana, he says with perfect diction: ‘Want a banana.’
It is, of course, perfectly possible for humans to learn other creatures’ language, too: humans are almost as good as birds at mimicry. I am no mean speaker of Chicken, and entertain myself hugely by winding up the cockerels round my house in Transylvania. I attempted Seagull last weekend: I ak-ak-ak-aked at a gull sitting on the roof next door. He looked a bit startled, but ak-aked back. Another gull arrived, and I repeated my statement. The two birds looked me, then at each other; one said ‘ak-ak’ and they both flew off. I got the strong impression that I’d been saying something decidedly non-U.
For a species that behaves in so many extraordinarily bone-headed, murderous ways, it is a bit galling for any human to claim that animals are dumb, in any sense of the word.

Who stole my marbles?

Since I hit the age of 49 in April, I can apparently look forward to hitting menopause in the next six years. I already exhibit three of the noted symptoms: memory loss, lack of energy, aches and pains.
Certainly I’ve noticed the increasing number of complete pains who inhabit the world, but perhaps that’s not what was meant.
Happily the hot flushes are still in the future. I am stocking up on phytoestrogens and recipes for ladybread so I’m ready to fight back when the Doom approaches.
The prime aggravation, however, is the diminishing ability to get hold of information from my own brain: age-associated memory impairment, or, in a word, amnesia.
Lovely Greek word, Amnesia. Nice girl’s name. If I ever get another cat, that’s what I’ll call it. If I remember.
I can recall first names, but not surnames. Couldn’t yesterday (and still can’t) remember the name of the serial killer doctor in Hyde. Can see his face, but his name remains in the storeroom of my brain, safely filed away. Can give you an asssortment of other serial killers, from Manson to the Wests, but the good doctor? No.
A little while ago I forget the word moussaka. I was telling someone the recipe, and came to a dead stop when the word I wanted just wasn’t there.
It’s not just words and faces. Have forgotten several parties, lunches and meetings in the last couple of years, to my great embarrassment. I double-booked myself last week with two speaking engagements on the same day, 250 miles apart. Oops.
Some smart alec in India who can remember ludicrously long strings of numbers declared this month that mobile phones are responsible for memory loss. Hurray, I thought, a great excuse: all that electromagnetic radiation scrambling my grey matter like hotel breakfast eggs. I can get all upset again about electronic gizmos dealing death on the invisible spectrum to us innocent consumers of technology.
But no. The memory man just meant that because we can tap buttons to find phone numbers we no longer exercise our memories and turn into mental slobs. OK, clever dick, so some of us have more to remember than a string of digits. That’s my favourite excuse, actually – that I have so much information stuffed in my head that there’s just no room for any more. So how come I can’t choose what I retain? Why do I have to remember the Russian word for cranberry, or that the dishevelled cop in Hill Street Blues who snarled like a Dobermann at people was called Belker, facts which are of no use for anything except pub quizzes?
Biologists doing research for drug companies are using pond snails to find a cure for memory loss. They wave pear drops under the snail’s nose before giving it a sugary treat, while another snail gets tickled before its supper. (Snails don’t like being tickled, but they do like the smell of pear drops.) Since humans haven’t evolved as far from pond life as we like to think, we still share the molecular mechanism that controls memory and learning.
But as drug research moves forward slower than the average snail, I shall have to find another strategy. My favoured route is to release the grumpy old bag who lurks beneath my upbeat and youthful mien. A local goddess for the middle aged woman is dear old Nellie Boswell, Carla Lane’s Liverpudlian matriarch, snapping the heads off any unfortunate to come within biting distance of her doorstep in the Dingle. Personified by Jean Boht in the TV series Bread, Nellie is not so much a desperate housewife as a one-woman Panzer division.
But still, Nellie’s rage comes from thwarted passion and optimism, which is not grumpy-old-bag enough. Anyone who has seen the Hallmark cartoon character Maxine will have a good idea of my role model. Cynical, louche and very funny, Maxine would have pleased Dylan Thomas no end: going gentle anywhere, let alone into that good night, is not a concept that Maxine would recognise. Everything annoys her; she minces up sacred cows for beefburgers. She is unafraid and unapologetic; political correctness is the bullseye of her darts board.
My heroine. As yet, despite my ambition to be a Scouse Maxine, I am still too eager to be thoughtful, fair, courteous, reasonable: I still want to be liked, even by waiters in hotels in Warsaw (but that’s another story). I reckon, though, that a few months of hot flushes and other charming menopusal symptoms will take care of all that. It may not be for another six years, but on the other hand…

SHIPMAN! Dr Shipman..... thank you brain.

Getting the happy habit

Last week I realised that I was really happy for the first time since August 1968.
At 7am on Friday morning I was pootling down the M6 on my way to a photo shoot in Stoke; moderate traffic and blue skies were good omens, but they couldn’t account for the smile on my face. That was there for no particular reason, just – because.
There is these days, underpinning my daily life, a general feeling of wellbeing, needing nothing, fussed about nothing, taking each moment as it comes, getting joy from the smallest things. Reassuringly, there are still bad days, sad moments, daft mistakes and assorted frustrations, otherwise there’d be a horrid aroma of smugness.
But I can tell you, it’s fantastic to feel like this. It’s only taken 38 years to get it back: I was a sunny child before my family blew itself into pieces when I was ten, and it’s rather delicious to feel the dimly remembered warmth again.
This happiness thing is not to be bought – but we spend fortunes on self help and more fortunes on conspicuous proof that we are on the road to the elusive Eden.
Even politicians are peddling the happiness agenda – the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has the job of compiling a happiness index after Tony Blair announced in 2002 that ‘money isn’t everything’ and set his strategy unit to organise a life satisfaction seminar to discuss the implications of a happiness policy.
David Cameron, youthful Tory leader, is all for putting happiness in the manifesto: he is planning an altogether more holistic set of policies for the next Tory government. ‘How are we going to try and make sure that we don’t just make people better off but we make people happier, we make communities more stable, we make society more cohesive?’ Good question, David – staggeringly complex answer.
One answer, according to economist Richard Layard, is for the government to train up 10,000 new cognitive behaviour therapists to transform the needy populace into a functional generation. Making people happy could do more for the health of the nation than all the exercise, diet, anti-smoking and substance abuse campaigns together.
Folk, on average, have far more money, more stuff and more education than our grandparents, but we are no happier; wealth can just mean being miserable in comfort, and fame brings misery in the media spotlight. Can’t buy me love, as the Beatles sang back then – and how right they were.
It’s all very well working out what happiness is, and who’s got it. The question that every human being wants answered is how to get it, and once got, how to sustain it.
As far as I can see, it’s not a question of acquisition, but of relinquishing. ‘Do what brings you joy, and get clear of things which interfere with joy,’ is a reminder on my pin board. OK, cleverclogs, but like what?
Stuff – that’s a good start. Get rid of stuff. We want things, buy things, hang on to things because we fear that we don’t have enough. The consumer society thrives because we can never get enough. But underlying that hidden fear of not having enough is a worse fear – of not being enough. We need status because we have to prove we’re at least as good as the Joneses (Quentin Crisp had it right about the Joneses: ‘Drag them down to your level – it’s cheaper.’).
The tricky stage is clearing out the emotional cupboards. Resentment and bitterness stored since childhood fester, and we can’t understand why we boil over into corrosive rages for no apparent reason; forgotten incidents trigger self-sabotage, and we can’t stop it. Answers are everywhere but in our conscious minds, so intelligence is no help in this subtle alchemy.
The crises that often come with middle age are often the best turning points; after the meltdown comes emptiness, and if you’re bloody lucky, you realise one sunny M6 morning that you’re not empty any more.

Sex and death in the afternoon

Over the weekend I watched a feature length spectacle of sex and murder – live, right in front of me. This was X-rated stuff; all hearts and flowers for an hour, then a short and violent sex scene, with a chilling finale.
Really…. not in a nice middle class garden, please.
I was sitting in the shade, reading Sense and Sensibility again, with a long glass of melting ice at my elbow. My garden is full of stripey orb weaver spiders, their exquisite webs strung about, waiting for lunch to buzz in. One spectacular web is a good ten inches across, the main suspension cable anchored to the wall at one end and hooked to a branch of the Japanese acer about three feet away. Its creator is a huge madam, her body fully rounded, with six long elegant legs – a bit of a spider babe, if you ask me. She’s been there for at least a week and by the look of her has picked a good strategic spot to catch lunch on the wing.
All was quiet, apart from the whizzing of insects and the chatter of my blackbirds; then on the edge of my vision was movement. My big arachnid babe had a visitor – a skinny suitor, a quarter of her size, had edged along the suspension cable to the outer ring of the web. He reached out a long striped foreleg and plucked a silk string like a harpist, but he must have struck a bum note: Madam, hanging head down in the centre of her web, twitched an angry warning. Boyfriend flinched back, but after a few seconds, tried again. Softly, softly, catchee girlfriend. Another pluck of the string, another rejecting bounce from Madam.
This went on for some minutes, until Madam got used to the idea and let the seducer creep a little closer. It must have been half an hour before the brave boy got within leg’s length of his object of desire.
I was riveted, and had left Marianne and Colonel Brandon to their own devices while I watched some live action like a perv.
Then came the first moment of truth. Spiderman reached out a foreleg and with great tenderness stroked the foot of his lady love. He got bounced, but he was nothing if not persistent, and after a few seconds, he tried again. Bounced. And again. But on the fourth stroke, she sat still, and at last it looked as though he was on a promise.
For ages he stroked gently, and she let him. He edged a fraction closer, and stroked his way up her leg. Don Juan had nothing on this. Spiderman reached closer and began to stroke her body. Madam sat still, tolerating the attention, at least; one would hope she was loving it, lucky girl.
After all this seduction and foreplay, it all happened in a trice. He pounced, and the web shook violently under the strength of their passion. After half a minute, all was still again, and they seemed to be locked in post-coital exhaustion.
But then I realised she was busy. She was wrapping her lover tightly in silk: I realised with horror that he was history. She wrapped her legs around the marital bundle and settled to her cannibalistic lunch.
I couldn’t watch any more and went to make myself a cup of tea to help get over the shock. I’d thought that such brutish behaviour was the province of Black Widow Spiders, not my pretty cafĂ© au lait tenants. But it turns out that Black Widows – three species, all in North America –don’t always eat their mates and often co-habit with them. And the male British garden spider is supposed to get a leg or three over without paying the ultimate price – in fact he can have several affairs.
So it seems that it was seriously bad luck that my skinny Don SpiderJuan fell for an unusally domineering female. Perhaps his timing was off and had caught her when she was particularly hungry; there’s nothing like convenience food, after all.
I could find no definite answers as to why a spideress eats her lover; maybe the sex act hurts, and she’s getting her own back. Maybe male spiders are particularly nutritious for gestating spiderlings. Maybe it’s a deal – I’ll not shag another spiderman if I can eat you: you die, but your genes go on, guaranteed.
Just as well this behaviour doesn’t translate into human life. Think of the implications for Saturday nights: it would do the restaurant trade no good at all if all the girls brought packed dinners. Mind you, I know some men who think they’d be better off dead than wed. Isn’t nature wonderful?

Out of touch

Can it be the lack of simple human contact that is slowly destroying modern society?

A few years ago, you’d mention massage to the average joe, and you’d get a very funny look and some embarrassed shuffling. ‘Massage’ was too often followed by ‘parlour’ in people’s minds and it took a few minutes to make the therapeutic, healing, safe and asexual case.
These days massage – actually a long list of touch therapies – is again established as part of a healthy living regime. How history repeats itself: Hippocrates, father of Western medicine, said that only three things are necessary for prolonged health: regular exercise, sensible diet, and regular massage.
Early on in my year’s training in massage, our teacher stated what seemed like an outrageous opinion: ‘If each of us had a massage every day or even every week, hospitals would soon be out of business.’ He talked about touch deprivation, the lack of simple human contact that means that most of us crave touch, although we probably don’t even realise it. We might call it loneliness – we all know that it’s perfectly possible to be lonely in a crowd, lonely in a marriage. It’s not solitude that gets you, it’s the being out of touch.
Remember the shock of seeing pictures of young children in Romanian orphanages, almost catatonic, standing behind the bars of their cots, faces devoid of emotion. They were starving, not from lack of food, but from lack of human contact. Too many children and not enough staff. No-one with time to play with them, talk to them, hold them. The medical term is marasmus: failure to thrive and dying for no apparent reason.
Harry Harlow’s famous study touch deprivation in the 1960s and 1970s showed that of the five basic senses, touch was the one essential to life. Harlow took newborn monkeys from their mothers and put them in a cage with two surrogate ‘mothers’ made from wire round a wooden frame, one wrapped in soft terry cloth. In every way the monkeys were well cared for, except they had no contact with other monkeys or even the scientists. The baby monkeys clung to the soft cloth surrogate and refused to move away even though the feeding bottle was attached to the other surrogate. Touch was more important than food. Skin hunger is worse than starvation.
Ever wonder about babies lying in incubators, row on row of them, in maternity hospitals sometimes long after their mothers have gone home?
Ever wonder about the elderly, who have lost touch with spouses and children, isolated and lonely?
Tony Cawley, a psychotherapist based in Liverpool, is frustrated by the lack of attention to the importance of touch given by his profession. ‘It’s obvious to me how incredibly powerful touch is to the mind, but mind doctors aren’t allowed to touch their clients. Therapists don’t even talk about touch: it’s extraordinary.
‘The response of the psychotherapy profession to the work of Harlow and Bowlby is conspicuous by its absence. Why? Are we so shy of touch because it leads to the thorny subject of sexuality?’
Western society is now obsessed with what is termed ‘inappropriate touching’; the paedophile is the modern Beelzebub. Britain has been a very disconnected nation since Victorian times, at least; touch is conducted under strict but unwritten rules. It’s worst for men: their best chance of allowable touch is on the sports field, where contact sports and horseplay in the changing rooms are acceptable. Other than that, it’s the very pissed bloke who wraps his arms round his mate and, tears in his eyes, says: ‘I love you, I do,’ only to get some expletives and an embarrassed shove from his mate - unless he too is a bottle of vodka or several joints to the worse.

In many academic and clinical studies, touch deprivation is linked to aggression and violence. In the 1970s James Prescott studied 400 human societies and found that those who lavished affectionate touch on their children, and were tolerant of teenage sex, were the least violent societies on earth. He also found the converse true.
Touch is the first sense to develop in the human foetus. The skin is the body’s largest organ, and develops from the same stem cells as the brain. Frequent pleasurable touch for infants results in positive change in brain tissue, while chronic touch deprivation or trauma results in measurable brain damage. Many studies have shown the critical importance of good touch to the developing infant and the growing child. It remains vital – touch-deprived adults may turn to food, alcohol or drugs to make up for the lack of physical contact, or adopt behaviours from promiscuous sex to shop lifting.
Touch, or the lack of it, can dramatically affect emotional, mental and physical health. It has huge implications for society, let alone the family and the individual. So my massage teacher’s claim doesn’t seem so outrageous after all. It begins to look as though touch could be the philosopher’s stone of human health, so perhaps the NHS should sack a lot of managers and hire some top notch bodyworkers.
However, the degree of positive benefits from massage and other forms of healing touch depend, like one’s bank account, on the relationship between client and service provider. Anyone who has had great massage will not need telling about the clinically proven benefits, from neurochemical changes to skeletal realignment. If you’ve met the wrong bodyworker, though, you can stagger from the treatment room feeling as though you’ve been through a punishment beating.
There are over 150 different bodywork techniques at the last count, not to mention more subtle techniques such as quantum touch, zero balancing and cranio-sacral therapy – so it’s a question of finding what works for you.
If the technique suits you, then find a practitioner who has enough skill, experience and subtlety to make it work. Even the simplest of techniques can have fabulous results if the practitioner is good. Quantum touch is the least showy of healing techniques, being a systemised form of the natural ability of one human to help another to heal with simple touch and intent.
Traditional Swedish massage (so called because it was a system devised by a Swede, Per Henrik Ling, from various techniques he observed around the world) can be dull as ditchwater or downright unpleasant if the masseur has the sensitivity of a brick. In the hands of a master, however, it can be as complete a therapy as anyone could want.
Gerry Pyves’ No Hands massage technique, for instance, are a rare experience. The quality of touch comes from the practitioner’s entire body using an enormous variety of strokes and movements to produce a gentle and painless massage as deep and powerful as any of the ‘deep’ techniques which can be excruciatingly painful. Developed orginally to save masseurs’ hands and arms from injury, No Hands has turned out to be a remarkable move on for the client as well as the practitioner.
No surprise, then, to discover that Gerry Pyves was the massage teacher who had as much faith in his practice as did Hippocrates. He still does: ‘I believe doctors would transform the health of this nation if they were to listen better to their first teacher.’
The research points to Hippocrates having it right 2,500 years ago. Let’s learn from history, for once, and put more trust in the innate ability of humans to heal with the tools we were born with: head, hands and heart.