Synaesthesia, for those who don’t know, is ‘a confusion of the senses, whereby stimulation of one sense triggers stimulation in a completely different sensory modality’, so that colours may be heard, sounds tasted, smells seen. Famous synaesthetes – as those who suffer from (or enjoy?) the condition are known – include Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kandinsky, Nabokov and Hockney. John Harrison’s Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing, a scientific and historical study, is due from Oxford in March. The condition has been dismissed by at least one anonymous ‘notable scientist’ as ‘romantic neurology’, but in the foreword to Synaesthesia, Simon Baron-Cohen says:
this book will do much to educate the general public about the important but often overlooked point that we do not all experience this universe in the same way. For the most part, synaesthetes would not wish to be free of the synaesthesia and if anything feel somewhat sorry for the rest of us as we go about our unisensual existence. My guess is that John Harrison’s valuable book will ring a colourful bell for many people who until now did not realise that their experience had a name, and who will now be able to identify themselves with like-minded others.
Dr Baron-Cohen is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, the University Lecturer in Psychopathology, the recipient of both the British Psychological Society’s Spearman Medal and the American Psychological Association’s McAndless Award, a world expert on autism, and the author of countless highly regarded articles and books, for both academic and general readers, including one or two on synaesthesia. He is also rumoured to be Ali G’s cousin; or rather the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the man behind the dodgy shades and Hilfiger hat, who returned to Britain’s billboards and TV screens in the run-up to Christmas, advertising his ‘new’ video. But even if the Baron-Cohens aren’t related, you have to wonder about the kind of conversation they might have.
G: Check it. I is here, wiv me main man, Simon Baron-Cohen … Tell me, Baron, dis book, is it about drugs?
Dr B-C: No.
Since, like Goon Show scripts, Ali G-speak loses something when transcribed onto the page, paraphrase here becomes necessary. So: G makes a variety of facetious remarks – with interjections of ‘bo yakasha’, and references to ‘his Julie’, his mate Dave and the Staines westside massive – to the effect that experiencing synaesthesia sounds like being on drugs; the dialogue falters hilariously on, till it is time to draw things to a close.
G: You is called Baron, but you is not a drugs baron?
Dr B-C: No.
G: Respect. A big up to the Baron. [He makes an incomprehensible gesture with his fist in an attempt to imitate the Masonic handshakes he understands are used by street gangs in Los Angeles.]
Also due in March is a memoir called Self Abuse by Jonathan Self. Whether or not he may have any famous relatives is hinted at in the John Murray catalogue, which tells us that Self’s father, ‘Professor Self’, from whose lips ‘the word love never escaped,’ was ‘“fond” of his wife, “fond” of his boys, Jonathan and Will, “very fond” of Brownie, the dog’. Having a famous sibling – ‘kudadelphism’, it could clumsily be called – is an interesting condition: there is something a little odd about seeing Paul McCartney’s brother being interviewed on TV and talking about Macca as ‘our kid’ (how many Beatles fans ever wondered if Paul McCartney had a brother?); and what about Terry Major-Ball. Not to mention Earl Spencer. I don’t know if anyone’s written a study of the subject, though there is Barbara Trapido’s novel Brother of the More Famous Jack, and it’s one of the themes of John Lanchester’s first novel, The Debt to Pleasure. Among the many irritations must be to find yourself always referred to as so-and-so’s brother or sister, and to be written about as such by smart-arses.
Ali G, despite (because of?) his indeterminate ethnicity, is not one of the speakers in a series of talks at the South Bank, beginning on 23 January, under the general title Team GB?: In Search of a British Identity. Roger Scruton, whose England: An Elegy will soon be reviewed in the LRB, is giving the first lecture, and he will be followed by, among others, Robert Crawford, Meg Bateman, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Billy Bragg and Sukhdev Sandhu.
You might think the editorial staff of the Sun could learn a thing or two from attending some of the talks, until you have a look at Hold Ye Front Page, or its sequel, Hold Ye Front Page II (HarperCollins, £9.99), which tell, respectively, the history of Britain and ‘21 billion years of prehistory’ as if they were a series of front-page stories in the nation’s favourite red-top:
The fun-loving city of Sodom was destroyed by God yesterday – because he was sick and tired of citizens’ sinful ways.
The ten-year siege of Troy is over – after the daft Trojans were conned by a giant horse made of wood.
Sexy crimper Delilah was in hiding last night as demands grew for her to be stoned to death for chopping off Samson’s hair.
Britain is an island at last, the Sun can anounce today. The melting of ice has caused a ‘channel’ of water to cover the low-lying areas in the east, cutting us off from the vast continent we used to be joined to.
Vandals have caused fury by gouging a hideous horse shape in the side of a chalk hill … the view will be blighted by the sickening 374 ft-long eyesore.
And then you realise, as if you hadn’t worked it out already, that they know everything they say is daft, and they don’t care how unconstructive it might be, and you wonder whether the silliest thing anyone, including the Government, can do is take the paper seriously. Bo yakasha.