TV review: The Shadow Line

The brain's ability to remember and make sense of our past reflects our deeper needs, says Gary Day

July 7, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

The Shadow Line drew to a close a couple of weeks ago, but I've only just recovered from it, a troubling odyssey into the dark heart of modern Britain. The 19th century lost faith in God. The 21st century lost faith in the institutions of civil society. This series shows why. If you missed it, get the DVD. If you saw it, you'll still need to get the DVD. It was that kind of thriller.

One of its many motifs was the loss of memory. The failure of various characters to remember what happened in the past, or even in the recent present, cannot be divorced from this and the previous government's attacks on the teaching of history and the fatuous corporate rhetoric of "futurism".

Politicians and business leaders seem to believe that a knowledge of the Bill of Rights, or the visionary tradition in English art, or even the free play of ideas do not satisfy the needs of the economy. And they are right.

Such things satisfy what, in a previous age, would have been called the soul. They give us weight, orientation and a sense of continuity vital for negotiating change. Without them we are adrift, the flotsam of every managerial fad, and in no position to satisfy our own needs, let alone those of the economy.

Hang on a minute. "Satisfy the needs of the economy"? How easy it is to slip into the idiom of the times. One of the advantages of a literary education is that it makes you pay careful attention to how words are used. And there seems to be something profoundly wrong with the expression that we should labour to satisfy "the needs of the economy".

It should be the other way round and, looked at from the proper angle, this anthropomorphised entity, which of course has no appetites, can be said to magnify our basic needs while denying the existence of deeper ones. We live in a culture that conspires not just to sever our connection with the past but to corrupt the very language in which we live, move and have our being.

It was not just The Shadow Line that registered these anxieties, so too did the first episode in a new series of Imagine hosted by Alan Yentob, who asked us to imagine not being able recognise anyone, and not being able to read (The Man Who Forgot How to Read and Other Stories, BBC One, Tuesday 28 June, 10.35pm). Oliver Sacks, best-selling author and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, sometimes can't even recognise himself. "I am gesticulating at this bald man with a beard through the window, and then I realise it's me looking in a mirror."

Artist Chuck Close has the same syndrome. "If you turn your head slightly," he said to Alan, "your whole face changes." Chuck, who is now confined to a wheelchair, made his name in the 1960s as, of all things, a portrait painter. "We spent a day together once," said Alan. "Do you remember?" "Yes," said Chuck. "I thought you would never leave." There was another jolly moment when Chuck insisted that Alan sat on his lap so he could give him a ride around his studio.

Howard Engel is a Canadian mystery writer. "I see you like books," said Alan, as he stepped into the author's living room. "What else is there?" responded Howard. One morning he went downstairs to pick up the morning paper. But something extraordinary had happened. It was written in "Serbo-Croatian or Cyrillic". At least, that's how it looked to Howard.

In fact he'd had a seizure in his sleep and could no longer read. Worlds upon worlds had vanished overnight. But he gradually got them back by teaching himself to read again, tracing the outlines of words and following their shape with his tongue. Victor Hugo thought letters themselves were works of art. "Y" is a picture of two rivers converging or of a wine glass with an elegant stem. All you have to do is imagine.

Danny Delcambre is going blind. A 10-year-old film showed him gliding through a green glade in Louisiana, gazing up at trees that seemed to part to let him pass. Now he is looking his last on all things lovely, recording them in photos of breathtaking beauty: raindrops flashing on a leaf, a bee sequinned with pollen, a hummingbird jetting through the blue.

Neurobiologist Sue Barry was born cross-eyed and could not see in three dimensions until very recently. It wasn't just a matter of correcting her vision, her brain had to be taught how to interpret the information coming through her eyes. Now she can barely conceal her amazement as the world spills its riches before her while on us the mind-forged manacles threaten to descend.

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