The Third Man

At 2.00 am on Monday 19th August 1996, Malcolm Imhoff and a climbing partner set off to reach the summit of Mount Blanc. “As a mountaineer I really wanted to climb Mt Blanc. You have to start off it in the dark because that’s when the snow is frozen hard. Once the sun gets onto the snow it starts melting and it all gets very dangerous.”

“After about two hours we’d stopped for our first rest and I was aware of a guy standing near us, and I thought, ‘This is odd,’ because we’d not seen anyone else before, and you just don’t go up Mt Blanc on your own.”

They never saw the man again. Malcolm climbed on and found the climb tested his abilities to their absolute limit. But throughout Malcolm felt strangely serene: “I had this overpowering feeling that there was someone with us, helping us.”

Looking back, Malcolm felt that ‘someone’ was the silhouetted figure he’d seen in the dark, hours earlier. “I’d like to think it might have been my guardian angel. I know I couldn’t have done this on my own: I just wasn’t strong enough. I definitely had some help.”

The 1990s was the final decade before the ubiquity of the mobile phone. Most people, Malcolm included, still relied on letters and landlines. “A week later, when I got home, the first thing I did was phone my mum to tell her I’d climbed Mt Blanc…she had to tell me that they’d been trying to get in touch with us, because my brother, Trev, had died at 43, on the very same time I was on the mountain. Sorry, but nobody is going to tell me that this isn’t a coincidence – there was something going on that day.”


According to neurologist Allan J Hamilton, this kind of experience is very typical among mountaineers. It even has a name: The Third Man.


In 1933 Colonel Frank Smythe, one of the greatest mountaineers of the era, was attempting to be the first person to conquer Everest. At 28,100 feet, exhausted from a climb up a sheer cliff face, his party admitted defeated and  turned back down the mountain, but Smythe recklessly pushed on alone for the summit. Darkness fell, a storm blew up, and Frank was in a desperate dilemma. If he tried to descend the cliff wall alone he was sure to fall to his death as he didn’t have enough rope, but if he remained where he was overnight, he would freeze to death. Reasoning that hypothermia would be the less painful way to die, Frank decided to stay put. He lay down in the snow, closed his eyes and prepared himself for death. A little time thereafter he heard movement. A climber emerged from below, and said to Frank, “Youve got to get up or you’re going to die here. Get up, we can make it together, I’ve got the rope!” And indeed he had, coiled around his shoulder.

Together they achieved one of the great mountaineering feats, descending Everest in total darkness. At dawn they arrived on the glacial sheet and knew that somehow they’d finally reached safety. To celebrate, Frank reached into his coat and pulled out some Kendal mint cake which he broke in two. He went to give half to his companion only to find there was no-one there. Looking back up the mountain, Frank saw there was only one pair of footprints in the snow.

The great Olaudah Equiano and a fellow sailor


The fist biography by a Black Englishman, was written by Olaudah Equiano in 1789. Olaudah was born in the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now part of Nigeria. As a child he and his sister were captured and sold into slavery, being taken from Africa to the Americas by a slave ship. He suffered many ordeals and was witness to countless more, including severe beatings and the murder of fellow slaves.


Olaudah’s account of his life was a bestseller and its moving details of the outrage and brutality of slavery helped to expedite its abolition. While still a boy, Olaudah was purchased in the Caribbean by an English sea captain, inducted into the English Navy, found himself fighting sea battles against the French during the Seven Years War and even sailing to the Arctic Circle with a crew that included a young Horatio Nelson in a dangerous and failed attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage to India.


The extreme importance of the task he set himself – the dismantling of the inhuman system of enslavement – demanded that in telling his life story, Olaudah should never deviate from the truth; there were many supporters of slavery who were very keen to discredit him, some even spuriously alleging that he wasn’t even from Africa.


During his time as a gunpowder runner on an English battleship The Namur, Olaudah was intrigued by a gunner by the name of John Mondle. John was not an exactly upright citizen: “a man of very indifferent morals,” is how Olaudah described him, but he did have a curious gift. He could sense and see things others could not.


One April night, John awoke from a nightmare in “so great a fright” that he felt compelled to leave his cabin and make for the ship’s deck, where he told those on watch he repented of all his old ways. He even went as far as giving away his stash of hard liquor. He returned to his cabin three hours later, and tried reading from the Bible, but still he could find no peace of mind. He upped and left his cabin again, at the exact moment the Namur was struck by a huge drifting English battleship, the Lynne, under the command of a Captain Clark. The Lynne, recalled Olaudah, “struck our ship with her cutwater right in the middle of his bed…in a minute there was not a bit of wood to be seen where Mr. Mondle’s cabin stood; and he was so near being killed that some of the splinters tore his face.” Both Olaudah and John Mondle were convinced Mondle had been spared through divine intervention.


Olaudah was witness to another and perhaps more extraordinary example of Mondle’s uncanny talents. One particular day, when the Namur was anchored at Bayonne, John Mondle came upon a member of the crew in the gun room. It seems he was surprised to see this sailor in that area of the ship, because he mentioned it to officers when he came onto the quarter-deck. They told him that the man he believed he had just seen was not on board at all. Instead, he was at sea on one of the Namur’s boats, with the ship’s Lieutenant. Mondle, however, was adamant that he had just seen the man, and he managed to convince others to help him search the ship. He was nowhere to be seen. But, Olaudah added,  “when the boat returned some time afterwards, we found the man had been drowned at the very time Mr. Mondle thought he saw him.” These events: the doomed making themselves visible to other persons at the instant of their deaths, is a rare but by no means unique event. The phenomenon, known as a crisis apparition, can involve reported sightings of an apparently solid living individual hundreds or even thousands of miles from the scene of their death.  Perhaps the most famous case was that of Harold Owen, who encountered his brother the famous war poet Wilfred Owen in his own ship’s cabin at the very moment Wilfred was dying on the Western Front



Dale’s Riddle

In 1981 I was working with Dale, a New Zealander who had fought with the South Vietnamese and Americans in the infamous Vietnam War. Dale told me that one of the exercises they had to do out there was patrol the dense local forests, to flush out enemy soldiers. These were extremely dangerous mission, as any accidental noise he or his companions might make, such as snapping a branch underfoot or dropping a piece of equipment, would immediately alert the Viet Cong of their wherabouts, and result in their being shot at and perhaps killed. Hence, the patrol had to be undertaken with the utmost delicacy and in complete silence. But, Dale told me, some of the American GIs would take transistor radios with them, so they could have music for company. Needless to say, a high percentage of these young guys would not survive the mission. Why would they take such a crazy risk, I asked Dale. Because they were high on drugs, was Dale’s conclusion. I couldn’t really see this, as most drugs make the consumer even more cautious, not far less. Dale’s story troubled me. It made no sense. It would play on my mind for almost 40 years.


The UK Government and its senior advisers have been at pains to emphasise and praise the wonderful work so many of us have done to stem the spread of COVID19, and perhaps there have been some parts of the country where the great majority of locals have been pulling together to contain the virus. I can’t know, because Lockdown means I’m only able to make a judgement of my own town, Bournemouth. And here people have more or less abandoned social distancing, even though they’ve been told a thousand times that keeping two metres apart will help keep them and the wider population safe. Debbie and I were walking side-by-side on a clifftop pathway a few days ago. A woman and man were coming from the opposite direction so we slid into single file to give them space to pass by, which they duly did. A few paces later, the man suddenly turned back to face us and said, “Can I just congratulate you two on moving aside for us; you’re the first people who’ve done this since we came out.” I know that the great majority of people who catch COVID don’t get seriously ill, but some do, and of these some get the dreaded Long COVID, and a few get dead. It’s a dangerous condition. 125,000 UK citizens are dead. And yet people get so close to others that they literally rub shoulders. How much effort, I ask myself, is required to move just one pace to the left or right? Too much? Yes, too much. Having to be in a state of high vigilance for months demands more than most people can give, so they simply stop bothering. And at last, after 40 years, I had it – the answer to Dale’s riddle. Why did those young Americans hold radios to their ears when they knew it could be the death of them? Because they were just fed up with all the effort of trying not to die.

COVID-19 How the UK plunged into megadeath

As things stand, here in late June 2020, more than 0.1% of the UK population has died either directly from or as consequence of the COVID19 Pandemic.  This figure is around ten times greater than Germany, Denmark and Romania, and twenty times the death rates of Estonia, Slovenia and Norway. How is it, that a technically advanced and affluent nation has the worst death rate in Europe, and one of the worst in the entire world? What the hell went wrong?

The first part of the answer goes back to May 2010 and a policy of austerity introduced by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, a key part of which involved cuts to the National Health Service budget. Government spending on health would decrease in real terms over the next nine years, creating strains on services tending to an increasingly ageing population. Fast forward to October 2016, and (in response to the SARS, MERS and Ebola crises) the UK Government organised a war-game practice for a global pandemic for a novel virus, named H2N2, which was imagined to cause acute respiratory failure. Notwithstanding that the deadly pathogen was envisioned to be an influenza rather than a coronavirus, Exercise Cygnus was a timely and realistic dress rehearsal for the COVID19 pandemic. Cygnus found that NHS England (and in all probability NHS Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) lacked the Intensive Care beds and personal protective equipment (PPE) to manage the great wave of patients that a UK epidemic would generate. The results of the simulation were catastrophic, with the NHS imploding and mortuaries overflowing with dead bodies. Publication of Cygnus was suppressed, but there was no time to lose: the Government needed to act on its very worrying findings. But in view of the cuts to Government spending, the then Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt, decided not to invest in additional ICU beds, respirators, or PPE equipment. It was a calculated gamble, as was an associated decision not to expand the biochemical raw material and laboratory resources to manufacture sufficient test kits to meet the urgent demand generated by a genuine pandemic.

When COVID19 arrived in the UK, most likely at some point in January 2020, the Government’s gamble meant that the country was very ill-prepared. Taking a leaf from the Donald Trump playbook, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced to the press on 3rd March, “We have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing, and fantastic surveillance of the spread of the disease… Our country remains extremely well prepared.” In keeping with his reputation for disliking hard work, Prime Minister Johnson neglected to mention that he had failed to attend any of the first five meetings  of the Government’s national crisis committee COBRA, convened to combat the threat of COVID19. His words may have reassured several people across the UK, but the Coronavirus could never be contained by fake news. An acute shortage of PPE meant that many front-line health workers would die in the weeks to come, and an equally acute lack of testing kits meant that the UK simply did not have the wherewithal to test, and where necessary isolate, hundreds of thousands of people entering the country from COVID19 blackspots such as Italy, Spain and China. This second point was critical: recent analysis of variations in the virus’s genetic code found that rather than it simply entering the UK just once (the often-imagined “Patient 0” scenario), the Coronavirus had come into the country on at least 1356 different occasions between January and early June. The majority of these importations had occurred in March, but as UK testing was then barely off the ground, no-one in the country had any more than the slightest notion how many people had actually caught COVID19 (it took until 2nd April for the UK, with a population of 67 million, to reach 10,000 tests in a day, more than two weeks after Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, had pleaded with every nation to “Test, test, test”).

Throughout 2020 a group of medics, epidemiologists, virologists, psychologists, and other scientists collectively and perhaps unfortunately named SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), was tasked with providing the Government with coherent advice on how best to respond to the virus. But in view of appalling lack of testing, SAGE had extremely limited data to work on. Instead, they fell back on the patchy totals coming back from hospitals. There were no reports from elderly care homes because, disastrously, almost all these homes had no test kits whatsoever. And no PPE either. Meanwhile, a very un-sage-like idea was fomenting in the minds of some of the scientists: Couldn’t we just give up on testing and tracking altogether, and simply let the virus run through the UK? Eventually, they reasoned, enough people would have been exposed to the virus and survived to form a critical proportion of the population. With a diminishing number of potential hosts, the virus would then die back and the UK epidemic would be over. The country would have achieved Herd Immunity. Boris Johnson appears to have liked this low-cost option: no need for an extremely expensive lockdown. The WHO thought the idea insane. As the WHO has at its command many of the finest health scientists from across the whole planet, it makes sense to listen very carefully to what it has to say. It is, after all, the World Health Organisation. But some senior members of SAGE (as yet unidentified) were quite taken with the Herd Immunity idea. It did not seem to occur to them that although they had been fighting the virus for most probably thousands of years, bats had failed to achieve herd immunity: a fact demonstrated by the fact that they had passed the infection on to us. And yet we were going to somehow manage to surpass their efforts in a few short months. Moreover, herd immunity is generally only achievable via vaccination, and there was, and still is, no COVID19 vaccine. From the outside it appeared that these experts (many of whom were employed by the Government) were so eager to please their boss they had abandoned their celebrated higher reasoning powers in an attempt to make the Prime Minister happy.

Boris Johnson, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings (a man who would decide the best thing to do with a family infected with the lethal COVID19 virus would to put them in a car and drive 250 miles along public roads) and the UK’s Chief Scientist Patrick Vallance  didn’t play around with this dangerous idea for long  for long, but for perhaps just long enough to seal the fate of thousands of UK citizens.

After having little idea of how far the Coronavirus had spread the country – SAGE repeatedly calculated that we were on a similar trajectory to Italy, but four weeks behind, with plenty of time in hand – come the 23rd March an avalanche of cases swamped London hospitals, making it all too clear that rather than being a month behind Italy, we were in fact just ten days behind.  And Italy, overwhelmed by the pandemic, had locked down fourteen days earlier. As any epidemiologist will know, if you allow a virus that is doubling its number of victims every four days an additional four days to do its worst, you are almost bound to meet with disaster. Later that day Boris Johnson declared a full lockdown, but he was at least four days and tens of thousands of lives too late.

Another Dream

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, an Exciting New Scientist

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”.

Going to a Death Festival and a Fun Interview with BBC Radio Tees

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 The interview begins at 2.06.40


Interview on the Grief Dreams Podcast

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

27th July 2019
Welcome to 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

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