“Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” by Chris Packham – review

There’s a moment right at the end of this memoir when the author says to his counsellor, “I’m the enemy, my enemy.  And I’m chasing myself and when I finally catch me I’m going to kill me.”  He very nearly succeeded.  This is the story of a child who was not like other children, an adult who is not like most adults.  It’s a journey into the mind of someone at once isolated from others and yet connected to the natural world around him with an intensity that most of us will never experience.  “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” is not about producing a linear retelling of its author’s life story, but rather about him making the decision to open the door into his mind, and trying to convey what the sensation of being alive feels like to him.

I’ve always admired Chris Packham; as a presenter he comes across in a very genuine way, entirely without artifice.  The impression I was left with after finishing his book was that it too felt very truthful.  This is not a celebrity trying to maintain a particular image through their writing; in fact, as you’re reading you almost forget that the author is famous at all such is the book’s intimacy.  Most of it is about his childhood, through which we hop and skip in a series of unchronological chapters, each shining the spotlight on a moment of particular emotional significance.  There are also occasional mini-chapters in the third person in which we see the young Chris as others with whom he had fleeting encounters might have seen him: the man in the ice-cream van, the girl in the ticket office at the cinema, the farmer who allows the quirky child onto his land to watch the wildlife. It’s quite a moving device in a way, as it serves to highlight how far we all are from understanding what’s going on in others’ heads.  People see a slightly strange boy who doesn’t speak or behave like the other kids, and they may feel sorry for him, be puzzled by him or even find him irritating, but they are never going to be able to comprehend what life looks like through his eyes.  The chapters in which the author relives his experiences with other children are an especially gut-wrenching reminder of how cruel people can be to those they consider an outsider.  Teenage Chris has short-lived moments of trying to fit in – such as when he’s trying to attract the attention of a girl at school – but mostly he retreats into his own world, with each day a matter of survival until he can escape back to the only place he feels truly secure: outside immersed in nature.  Even his home is not a sanctuary, with parents who are at each other’s throats more often than not and with whom he has a fairly strained relationship.  The one creature that could be considered to be his saviour is his pet kestrel.  Its acquisition makes for somewhat uneasy reading – he is so desperate to own a bird of prey that with the help of his father he takes a young one from its nest – but there’s no denying that the bond between them surpassed any he’s ever managed to form with another human.  One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book for me was when the author, as an adult and in conversation with his therapist, looks back on the kestrel’s death all those years ago and acknowledges that he has in some ways never got over the loss.  This, he explains, is part of the problem when your only source of solace is the unquestioning, unconditional love you get from an animal: when that animal is gone you’re left with nothing.

There’s a marked difference in the language used to describe his interactions with people and those he employs during the chapters where he is alone with nature.  The world of humans is made to feel harsh, grimy and extremely corporeal.  When he is engaged with the natural world, however, the language really lets fly; metaphors come tumbling think and fast and the words almost take on a life of their own, creating a mélange of remarkable phraseology.  To be honest, there were times when the writing style became a little too elaborate for my taste, and I felt that somehow it had gone past the point of my being able to take it all in.  What is clear, though, is the pure joy the author experiences when the wilderness takes him out of himself; the vibrant, gleeful abandon of the writing is undoubtedly a reflection of a man’s spirit being freed.

There were a few parts of the book I found a bit difficult to read for other, more personal reasons.  The author may have loved his animals but there was a real biological curiosity there too.  As a result we see him removing birds’ eggs from their nests and blowing out the contents so he can keep the shells, pulling apart a dead bird so he can examine the wing structure and boiling his recently deceased pet snake because he wants to see inside.  I have to confess I’m a little squeamish about these things, but if you are too, don’t let it put you off.  Once I’d got over my initial revulsion and started to think about what I’d just read, I realised that all these episodes were about giving another insight into the author’s mind.  I may not choose to appreciate animals in this way, but for Chris as a child, watching wildlife wasn’t simply about admiring something’s beauty but trying to gain an intimate knowledge of who this creature actually was and how it lived its life.  In fact, there’s a chapter in which he sees two boys fishing tadpoles out of the water and systematically killing them, a scene that renders him so angry he can barely express it.  Even the most gruesome of Chris’ investigations are born of a thirst for knowledge; not once does he kill a creature in cold blood.

I have a renewed respect for the author after reading this poignant memoir.  To say that his life hasn’t been easy would be an understatement, but there’s no doubt that, however sad the reason for its origins, there is a lifelong passion here the like of which is incredibly rare.  I have a feeling that “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” is going to stick in my mind for a very long time.

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“The Last Act of Love” by Cathy Rentzenbrink – review

When I put this book down, red-eyed and wet-cheeked, I felt sorry.  Sorry for all the times I’d allowed myself to feel irritated by my family, sorry for the occasions when I could have gone to spend time with them but chose not to, sorry for the periods when I’d kept them out of the things that were going on in my life.  Cathy Rentzenbrink’s unforgettable story lays out many truths in black and white, but maybe most poignant of all is the fact that we can never know at what moment our lives may be blown apart.  When he was just 16 the author’s brother, Matty, was hit by a car as he walked home from a night out and was left severely brain damaged – from that point onwards he was no longer able to walk, talk or feed himself.  This is the story of that appalling night and the years that followed as Matty’s family struggled to come to terms with the reality of loving someone who, while not dead, cannot be said to be truly alive.

It’s a situation that most of us can barely imagine.  After a few early moments of hope it gradually becomes clear, both to the medical professionals and the Mintern family, that Matty has no chance of recovery.  He is eventually diagnosed as being in a Persistent Vegetative State, with no awareness of what is going on around him.  He doesn’t communicate, and indeed he no longer has any of the normal human thoughts that would require communication.  Any movements or sounds are involuntary spasms that Matty won’t even register on any conscious level; the lively, inquisitive teenager has become for all intents and purposes an empty shell.  Yet how long do you go on believing that the person you love is still inside there somewhere?  As Cathy asks of a hospital chaplain at one point in the book, if a person isn’t dead but still in this brain damaged state, then where is their soul?

When faced with a tragic situation such as this you inevitably start thinking things you would have considered unthinkable in your formal life.  The author never shies away from what could be perceived as being the ugliest of thoughts, the most painful one of all for the whole family being the gradually dawning realisation that maybe Matty would be better off dead.  Cathy is honest too about the feelings of guilt that come from enjoying a moment when the person you love cannot, about the long periods of time she avoided seeing her brother because it was just too hard, and about the heavy drinking that became a way of attempting to deal with the pain.  At the end of the book, following years of therapy, research and conversations with others who’ve shared similar experiences, she realises that almost without exception everyone in her position goes through an almost identical catalogue of emotions and reactions.  You only question the validity or morality of your own response because it’s a subject we still haven’t dared to embrace as a society, “the shades of grey that now exist around life and death” as she puts it.

How do you begin to explore such an emotionally complex situation in a way that conveys even a fraction of your agony to your readers?  The feat is achieved, I think, through touches of inspired wordsmithery, the turns of phrase that make you go, “yes, that’s it exactly!”  The phrase that stuck with me most resolutely was a simple one, “emotional tinnitus”.  In two words she’s nailed the way that grief operates; it’s more intrusive at some times than it is others, but it’s always there, an underlying drone running in the background of your life.  And it never goes completely – an enjoyable day or intellectual distraction may dampen the noise but it never falls silent.  She writes too about “marinating in my own sadness”, a description I love because it encapsulates that all-pervading state is despair when you’ve been absorbing sadness for so long it almost becomes a part of you, and you can no longer tell where you end and the sadness begins.

The author tells us many times how much she loves books.  Maybe this memoir was an act of catharsis for her, but it also carries an uplifting sense of the resilience of the human spirit and the joy we find by loving others that will lodge in the hearts of all who read it.  I shed many tears along the way, but by the end I was crying because I couldn’t help but agree with her: grief is the price we have to pay for our unique ability to love – and love truly does conquer all.

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