Last week I dreamt about David Marsh. David was the father of my best friend at school, Larry. David died in a tragic domestic accident when Larry was just ten years of age and I can’t recall ever dreaming about him; if I had, it must have been decades ago. With his thinning hair, Michael Caine glasses and jokey personality, David was his same fun self. He teased me about my shy and foolish boyhood ways, and although I was pretty sure he was wrong on a couple of facts, I didn’t challenge the validity of any of his recollections – it was cool being with him again and I didn’t want to kill the vibe. On waking, I couldn’t fathom why after fifty years (!) had passed, should I dream about David. I was left wondering if it was because another member of his family had just died: his widow Valerie, younger son Sean, or indeed Larry himself. My friendship with Lawrence Bennett Marsh (a fun guy, much like his 1960’s-cool dad) had been more on than off, but we’d lost touch just before the internet era and I have no way of knowing what has become of the Marsh family.
Jeremy England is an academic based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wonders if physics, his specialist subject, might be better placed than biology to explain the emergence of life on earth. Clues to this idea lie in the way sand drifts to form complex dune patterns, and in the capacity of water to build beautifully intricate snowflakes. Neither last of course: sand dunes collapse and snowflakes dissolve, but for a while at least they cheat what is called the second law of thermodynamics, namely the cast-iron rule that everything must become increasingly dis-organised. Disintegrate, essentially. Any reader who like me has moved into their later years will know all about this: creaking joints, thinning hair…I won’t go on. But our earlier astounding progression from a microscopic fertilized egg to a fully grown being passing their driving test defied the second law of thermodynamics: we (and all other living things) become ever larger, more complex and personally organised as we advance towards maturity. One of the big unanswered questions is: how can this happen, when everything in the universe should simply be disintegrating? For the past hundred years we’ve assumed that there is some special anti-disintegration (or anti-entropy) property within life. Jeremy England is now showing us there might be another explanation. He has taken very basic chemicals, poured them into a liquid and subjected the mix to some sustained shaking. As a consequence some of the chemicals began to link up, organizing themselves to form more complex structures. In short, their behaviour was lifelike. They pulled off this trick by exploiting some of the energy Jeremy had put into the mix, while pushing some out as heat. This process, known as dissipative adaption, suggests that matter can exploit energy to develop into building blocks of life. It’s still a long way to the formation of amino acids or protein, or the making the giant step to reproduction, but it does demonstrate that at its most basic (i.e. at the level of individual chemicals), nature has an ability to put itself together. Jeremy England’s finding is delightful supporting evidence for Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century prediction that given their ability to arrange themselves to form molecules, atoms might be “knowing bodies”.
Following an enjoyable and intriguing meeting with attendees of the annual festival of Death and Dying in Somerset. Not everyone’s idea of a fun weekend, but it was raining and some of us don’t much care for shopping trips. Death doulahs, artists, the newly bereaved, health professionals and the broadly curious rubbed shoulders to explore human mortality from as many angles as can be imagined. My slot occupied almost two hours, and to be honest I felt that there were many areas we had barely touched on. Most fascinating to me were the uncanny childhood and young adult experiences volunteered by some of the attendees; I don’t feel I have the right to tell these stories of others, so I will just say that I hope we are entering an era where we feel more free to disclose, share and ponder such extraordinary experiences.
One such tale was told to me by Bob Fischer on his BBC Tees radio programme a couple of nights ago. Bob is a cultural omnivore, who moves effortlessly from discussing kids TV theme tunes to describing Plato’s theory of essences. His account of meeting in a dream his very dear friend who had died was both touching and funny. Bob asked his friend if seeing as he had been able to visit him temporarily that night, couldn’t he just return on a permanent basis. I think Bob’s mate was half-amused by the question. “Ahhh, you’ll find out, but it doesn’t really work like that,” he answered. He’d been given special leave of absence just to make this one vital reappearance.
The whole interview can be accessed for the next three weeks at
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07qjgwq The interview begins at 2.06.40
6th November 2019,
I spent over an hour last month in conversation with Shawn Ram and Joshua Black, experts in the relatively obscure world of grief dreams, the nocturnal psychodramas of the bereaved. In addition to listening to my own accounts of dreams associated with death, the perceptive and breezy Canadians offered some of their own fascinating insights. Among these were reports by parents bereaved by suicide of being visited in their dreams by their dead child, who was able to tell them exactly why they had been compelled to take their own life. Extraordinary and deeply sensitive work by two dedicated pioneers in the field of dream research.
Welcome to this website, which supports the paperback The English Book of the Dead, published by Marcela Books of Bournemouth UK
If you have any questions about the book, please send them to me via the contact page, or direct to firstname.lastname@example.org
27th July 2019
Welcome to englishbookofthedead.com This site has only been live for a few days, so this is my first post. I would like to thank everyone who has expressed an interest in the book. I am moved by how many have had or indeed are having still to take huge losses in this life. Thanks also to those who have ordered the book – we email a confirmation to each order on the day it goes to (Royal Mail) post. I will be posting again soon. dave marteau
30th July 2019
I love mice but rats freak me out quite a bit. I put this down to their fleshy tails, which for no good reason repulse me. I wondered if my rat prejudice wasn’t some cultural hangover from the black death, when rats were blamed for the spread of the disease. Just recently I have come across a less likely explanation that I actually prefer to believe.
Through DNA categorisation and two centuries of fossil-hunting, a scientific consensus has formed that we and most of the planet’s other mammals (including blue whales, the elephant, giraffes and polar bears…all the really big ones) are descended from a small rodent. A mouse, for want of a better name. There is a better name of course, Durlstotherium Newmani, meaning “animal from Durlston,” a bay on the Dorset coast where its 145-million year old fossil tooth has recently been unearthed. Fair enough, but what about Newmani? That’s a reference to Charlie Newman, the landlord of the Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers, I guess where the fossil hunters went for a beer after their discovery. I don’t suppose Charlie did any of the digging, but his name may live long in the annals of science. The team also found a tooth from a slighter larger ancient rodent, but chose not to name that one after any publican.
So my assumption now is that I’m afraid of rats because a small portion of my DNA has me convinced that I am in reality a small rodent and any rat can therefore kick my arse and ruin my existence. Sadly, since coming across this theory, I don’t feel a lot easier around rats. Am I a man or am I a mouse? It turns out the answer is both.
6th August 2019.
It’s a tough subject, but I want to say something here about suicide. I have only recently come across a piece of research which offers an explanation as to why some psychologically troubled people take their own lives while others, with mental health problems just as serious, manage to keep going.
Spindle cells are a sub-type of brain cell found in great apes, whales, dolphins and elephants (i.e. all complex social species). They are particularly common in humans.
Spindle cells serve a number of functions, among which are the processing of self-awareness and empathy. An area of the brain located some way back from the forehead, the ACC (Anterior Cingulate Cortex) is deeply involved in the management of complex negative emotions such as shame, guilt, hopelessness and self-criticism, and has a reasonable stock of spindle cells to perform this work.
Martin Brüne and colleagues (2011) found that the brains of suicide victims were more plentiful in spindle cells than were the brains of individuals who had died through other causes. ALL of the brains examined (i.e. the brains of both groups) belonged to people with profound mental health problems. Critically, Brüne and his team found spindle cells in significantly greater densities within the ACCs (anterior cingulate cortexes) of the suicide group.
What does all this mean? It suggests that some of us are pre-wired to think badly about ourselves, so badly that we decide to take our own lives. Even when we are doing right, too many spindle cells in a crucial area of our brain can convince us we are doing wrong. I am sorry if this post has upset you, but it may be helpful information for some readers. The URL to the research is to be found bellow. Dave
8th August 2019
The Compassionate Friends charity has invited me to speak at a supportive residential retreat for parents bereaved by suicide or drug or alcohol use. The event is to be held in Birmingham on the weekend of 23 August 2019 – 25 August 2019 https://www.tcf.org.uk/content/events/142-supportive-retreat-for-parents-bereaved-by-suicide-or-substance-use/
I’m honored and excited to be asked to speak, but nervous as I should be devastated if any part of my talk hurts or offends any one of the attendees. I will report back on this important event in another blog. Dave
13th September 2019
Lentil-sized clusters of nerve cells grown in a lab dish have been found to fire electrical signals in harmony, mirroring activity found in the brains of human babies.
After two months, these “mini-brains”, each about a million times smaller than a human brain, started working in harness to generate electrical waves. By six months this electrical activity had reached levels “never seen before,” in the opinion of Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist from the University of California.
At nine months, these tiny brains (the size of a honey bee’s) were producing electrical signals that matched the brain activity of newborns. According to Alyson Maotri, the tiny brains were “evolving in the same way as the human baby brain would,”
Madeline Lancaster, who in 2011 became the first scientist to produce a micro-brain and continues to work on her own collection of these mini-brains (or as the science world prefers to call them, brain organoids) at her laboratory in Cambridge University, says,
“Brain organoids are a powerful and much-needed tool for understanding how the human brain develops and how that process can go wrong. But we have to take into account the views of society and religion as well as scientists, so I am getting involved with the ethics too.”
As an example of how far this line of work could lead, Madeline says that, “In theory you could make a fully formed human brain in a pig”. She herself has no interest in pursuing such a ludicrous idea, but it’s always possible some white-coated maniac somewhere will give it a go. Whether that happens or not, the most important discovery has already been made; namely, that a bunch of brain cells, glued into small lumps by lab staff, can work together to produce miniature versions of the brain waves that we all use to feel, think and dream. Dave