The Discovery of Lithium – Part 4

Welcome to what is the final installment in our four part investigation into the history of lithium and it’s many uses. Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be accessed HERE , HERE and HERE for anyone late to the party.

Lithium has been applauded as the penicillin story of mental health. The first effective medication for a mental illness, it has also been labelled Australia’s greatest mental health story.

Australian scientist John Cade’s (1912 – 1980) rediscovery of the drug lithium, after it’s earlier use in the late 19th century, stands as a matchless accomplishment in the history of Australian psychiatry.

Yet a doctor is nothing without patients. Today we examine the incredible story of John Cade’s first ever human patient for lithium therapy, a man by the name of Bill Brand. It has been said no patient has been more important to the history of psychiatry than him. Hopefully by the end of reading this, you will understand why.

Bill Brand was a 51-year-old ex-World War 1 soldier who had been psychotic for 30 years. This was back in the time when post traumatic stress disorder from serving in war zones was referred to as ‘shellshock’.

When he first came in contact with psychiatrist John Cade, he had been an inmate at Bundoora Mental Hospital in Melbourne for five years. Official reports describe him as ‘restless, dirty, destructive, mischievous and interfering … the most troublesome patient in the ward’.

The picture on the left shows psychiatric patients roaming freely on the grounds of Bundoora Mental Hospital in Melbourne Australia in the 1940’s.

Bill’s existence was the quintessential life of the seriously mentally ill patient. He cut off the tips of two fingers while working as a labourer. He was disowned and alienated from his own family and had been left in the asylum. Concerned at his son’s extremities of mood and threats of violence, Bill Brand’s own father encouraged Bill’s wife Pearl to leave him. She eventually did in 1930, taking their adopted daughter with her.

In a depressive stupor for months on end, Bill would talk slowly, each syllable having to be almost prized from his mouth. In 1934, a shellshock specialist, Dr Clarence Godfrey, pronounced him as ‘very mental’. This represented a worsening diagnosis than his previous label as just ‘mental’. It was also noted he had a peculiarly shaped head and that in this mal-nourished head only two teeth remained.

At the asylum grounds he’d fossick around the rubbish bins, try to spend money he didn’t have and attempt to abscond. When it came time to select a patient to test the mood-stabilizing drug lithium on – after having first tested it on himself for three weeks – Bill Brand was an obvious choice for the asylum’s head psychiatrist Dr John Cade.

Brand’s response to treatment with liquid lithium was so dramatic and rapid that, within three months, the notorious patient was able to be discharged and returned to the community on indefinite leave. He walked out of the asylum perfectly sane. Nothing had been seen like it in mental health before.

He sought and found work while living back with his parents. His recovery was nothing short of miraculous and the most glowing endorsement for the transformative powers of lithium. Unfortunately, there was to be a tragic twist in events. In many ways it is the archetypal story of mental health. Bill Brand returned to his old job, and at some point decided he didn’t need to take his medication any more.

The first sign that something was seriously wrong again came in the form of a letter to psychiatrist John Cade. Bill’s parents wrote that he had been ‘excitable and argumentative after a trivial row’. The year was 1949. Bill Brand returned to his psychiatrist and confessed to ceasing his lithium. He had indeed become ill again with bipolar. He was re-admitted to the asylum as eye-poppingly manic as ever.

When Bill returned, psychiatrist John Cade pushed his lithium harder and harder in a desperate bid to get him back to a normal mental health state. In the late 1940s, the correct dosage wasn’t known. Because of this Brand became toxic with lithium and died in 1950.

John Cade confessed years later it was the greatest shock and disappointment of his life and made him uncertain about the future of lithium as a mental health treatment. But over the course of the next two decades, lithium’s cause was championed by other psychiatrists, and ultimately it was successful.

Seventy years after this roller-coaster history, the role lithium plays today in the treatment of bipolar disease varies depending on who you ask. Many physicians still regard lithium as the gold standard treatment for people with bipolar – especially those with more severe cases of the condition – and claim it continues to be the single most important treatment for mental health that has ever been discovered. Others have gone so far as to call lithium “dangerous nonsense”.

As with many other issues related to mental health, the real answer may lie somewhere between these extremes and is reflected in different practices around the world.

** Attribution** A sampling of the same dozen or so previously cited information sources were again consulted to compile this account.

PS. Your bonus read this week is – no other way to put it – pretty heavy, courtesy of THE SCIENTIST magazine. Click HERE if you’re up for the challenge.

The Discovery of Lithium – Part 3

The first chapter (HERE) of our investigation into lithium looked at the role Australian scientist John Cade played in establishing lithium salts as the gold standard of psychiatric care for bipolar disorder from the 1950’s onward.

Our second chapter (HERE) examined exactly what lithium is, where it comes from and it’s myriad of diverse uses.

Today’s look-see will explore the history of lithium within the world of psychiatric care and answer the question “Was Australian scientist John Cade really the first to bring lithium use for mental care to the masses?” Seriously.

Tracing the history of lithium therapy is a little bit like trying to pinpoint the man who ate the first oyster. Lithium has been in medical use—including psychiatric use—since at least as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times.

Back in this era, people suffering from melancholia or mania would be soaked in alkali-rich mineral springs to soothe their conditions. Many mineral springs contain lithium, among other elements, and some of them such as Mineral Wells in Texas, even today have age-old reputations as “crazy waters”.

To understand how lithium entered medicine in more recent times we have to go back to the mid-nineteenth century when it was introduced -mistakenly as we now know – for the treatment of gout (a type of arthritis). Back then a commonly subscribed to theory was that recurrent episodes of gout could lead to mania and melancholia – ‘brain gout’, if you will. Lithium was viewed as a treatment to heal these states as well.

In 1871, American military physician William Hammond reported using lithium bromide in the treatment of mania. But nothing further came from it. Around the same time, two Danish doctors, brothers Carl and Fritz Lang, began treating recurring depression with lithium. However because publication of their work was in Danish and German it restricted their audience and their approach fell into disuse.

Slowly however lithium began to be seen as a general ‘pick-me-up’ tonic. It was praised for its supposed magical healing powers and considered useful in helping to manage everything from hemorrhoids, paralysis and constipation to diabetes, eczema, gallstones and kidney trouble.

Lithium beer was brewed and marketed in U.S. Wisconsin. In 1929, in the weeks before the Wall Street stock market crash, the popular soft drink 7-Up was launched, boasting lithium as an ingredient. There was even a lithium version of Coca-cola. At this time lithium was not regarded as a drug, but as a health-promoting dietary supplement. In the 1940’s Americans didn’t need a prescription to get lithium; all they had to do was walk into a health food store and ask for it.

Even the science-fiction writer H.G.Wells (1866 – 1946) included lithium and it’s calming restorative powers in a short story he wrote called THE RECONCILIATION. Lithium water stirred with whisky was a gentleman’s balm to settle unsteady heads introduced when the two central characters, both scientists, have a heated disagreement.

Yet lithium failed to develop the foothold in the medical world afforded other substance remedies. It’s fair to say the overwhelmingly vast majority of other medications in psychiatry, indeed the whole of medicine, are discovered and promoted with hefty pharmaceutical company support.

A patent is taken out, and, if all goes well, millions of dollars are scooped up by investors. But not for plain old lithium; dug from the earth, no one owned the patent but mother nature; elements on the periodic table can’t be patented. It therefore meant that no pharmaceutical company contorted itself to promote and push lithium hard in the marketplace at this time.

By the time John Cade was performing his experiments on guinea pigs in the late 1940’s however, lithium as a treatment for serious depression and schizophrenia had fallen out of favour and been superseded by other types of psychiatric therapy treatment, including the barbaric-by-today’s- standards insulin coma therapy.

It is therefore entirely accurate to conclude the role Australian scientist John Cade played in bringing lithium to the forefront of psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill from the 1960’s onward was NOT DISCOVERING lithium but RE-DISCOVERING it.

Gradually, after dosages approached uniformity and careful monitoring became routine, lithium in various compounds was recognized as an acceptable treatment for those suffering manic depression, or what is now known as bi-polar disorder.

Lithium gluconate was approved in France in 1961, lithium carbonate in Britain in 1966, lithium acetate in Germany in 1967 and lithium glutamate in Italy in 1969. In 1970, after passing the strict controls and approvals process imposed by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) the United States became the 50th country to admit lithium to the pharmaceutical marketplace.

** Attribution ** A total of eleven different information sources were consulted for the writing of this article, including the 2016 published book FINDING SANITY which I read cover to cover last year.

** Next week, in our final installment, we take a look at Australian scientist John Cade’s very first lithium patient. Bill Brand has been described as the ‘single most important patient in Australian psychiatric history‘. His story is indeed a fascinating one.

The Discovery of Lithium (Part 2)

Part one of this series examined the role Australian scientist John Cade (1912 – 1980) played in helping establish the drug lithium as the gold standard in the treatment of mentally ill patients from the 1950’s onward.

This second installment will unearth exactly what the substance known as lithium is and what it’s myriad of uses in today’s world are.

Lithium has been around since the very beginnings of the Universe. At the moment of the Big Bang, according to scientists, only three elements were at play – hydrogen, helium and lithium. In every single star and planet there is lithium.

In the modern context, lithium was ‘discovered’ in 1817. It’s distinction on the Periodic Table is it is the lightest of all the 91 metals listed. It is so light, in fact, it can float on water. It is also soft; soft enough that it can be cut with a kitchen knife.

Lithium is found in the world’s oceans at very low concentrations and is a naturally occurring trace element in the human body. A person weighing 70 kilograms has about half a gram of lithium residing in their body.

0.0007 percent of the Earth’s crust is composed of lithium. Lithium is only found in nature locked up in minerals and salts. In other words, when we speak of ‘lithium’ per se, we are most often actually referring to what in the science world is known as a compound ie. a mixture of two or more different substances. Lithium salts, lithium citrate and lithium carbonate are the three most often sold and prescribed forms of ‘lithium‘ serving as mood stabilizers in the pharmaceutical world today.

Everyone knows about lithium batteries but probably not that lithium is a lethal component of the hydrogen bomb. Lithium is used in the most astonishing variety of places. When you gaze upwards on New Years Eve and marvel at the incandescent pyrotechnics and the night sky turning blood-crimson, you are gazing at lithium burning in the heavens.

Lithium-based compounds are used in aircraft manufacture as well as the production of bicycle frames. As well, lithium is used in glass ceramics, air-conditioning units and industrial drying systems. Only 5 percent of all lithium production is devoted to medication.

As to the question, “Where do we get lithium from?” there are two main sources of lithium: mines and brine water. Over 80% of the world’s lithium comes from the brine water obtained from briny (salt) lakes.

As of 2019, the top three lithium producing countries were –

  • Australia – 51 000 metric tonnes
  • Chile – 16 000 metric tonnes
  • China – 8000 metric tonnes

Demand for lithium is expected to surge this current decade. This is being driven chiefly by the growing demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries to supply the electric car market. As but one example, Tesla plans to produce 500,000 battery-powered vehicles per year by 2020, with batteries supplied by the company’s 13.6 million square foot “gigafactory” which, once completed, will be the world’s second largest building by volume.

Apple (believe it or not) will be competing directly with Tesla with its own electric car which is expected to be available in 2021, while the start-up Faraday Future is planning a new $1-billion factory in Las Vegas, and is hoping to produce its first car next year. All these battery factories will demand an estimated 100 000 tonnes of new lithium carbonate by 2021.

Economists have been forecasting a lithium economy for decades, and it may well be that someday every car, computer and wearable electronic device — not to mention our energy storehouses — will depend on lithium.

The next great frontier for lithium production is investigating ways in which the almost unlimited supply available in seawater (though as already stated, in very low concentrations) within the world’s oceans can be harnessed and mined. Currently there is considerable research and development taking place in this area.

** Attribution – The facts and research used to compile this article / conduct this inquiry assemble this… this…fact-riddled ‘thing’ were taken from a total of fourteen separate resources, all accessible via knowledge-seekers the world over’s best friend – the internet.

In our next installment we investigate the use of lithium’s application within the psychiatric domain. We delve into lithium’s past reputation as a general panacea for a variety of ills. And we attempt to answer the question “Was Australian scientist John Cade really the first to pioneer lithium’s use as a mood stabilizer?”

Aussie Scientist John Cade and the Discovery of Lithium

Anyone’s who’s followed this blog for more than a few minutes will know life around here, to quote the renown philosopher Forest Gump, is most definitely a box of chocolates – hard and soft centers. You never know what you’re gonna git.

This brings us to the fascinating (to me) story of the drug lithium and the Australian scientist who pioneered it’s use in the early 1950’s as a treatment for depression and bi-polar disorder.

As much as it hurts me to say this, if knowing more about this topic sounds not the least appealing, you may want to take a brief sojourn from Scenic Writer’s Shack – for let’s say the next month or so. I intend to employ no less than a fleet of industrial excavators equipped with alloy steel bucket teeth – they’re the ‘diggiest’ – to fully unearth this game-changing chapter of medical/scientific history.

Here we go…

Born in the city of Horsham, 300km northwest of Melbourne, John Cade would grow up to be nothing short of one of the true rock stars of Australian medicine. Wearing his stereotypical thick-framed glasses, he had a professional look reminiscent of ‘Brains’ from the 1960’s tv show THUNDERBIRDS.

He was the son of a psychiatrist in the days when psychiatrists lived on the grounds of what today are referred to as ‘mental health facilities’ but back then were known as asylums.

As a young boy, John Cade was taken from asylum to asylum through his father’s work and observed mentally ill patients every day. Instead of being objects of curiosity or people to fear he was able to regard them as friends with imaginary worlds from a very early age.

Back in this era however, people with serious mental illness lived in a kind of netherworld. Then, it was almost romantically referred to as melancholia; now it would be considered severe clinical depression.

This 10 minute video shows an interview with a young man (who bears a healthy resemblance to ‘Sheldon’ from the television show BIG BANG THEORY) admitted to a U.S psychiatric institution in the 1960’s.

The man says he has an ambition to be a piano player and piano instructor. It’s pretty clear from his ‘flat’ speech and minimal body movement he is suffering from some mental condition. The video, which has attracted close to 50 000 comments, suggests the condition may be catatonic schizophrenia.

As heart-rending and, frankly speaking, harrowing at times as this video may come across at certain moments, on a lighter note, one person after watching it added the comment – “At least he thinks before he speaks unlike most people nowadays.”

Those severely affected by melancholia sometimes fantasied that their brains were rotting, their bowels unmoveable and that life was a farce in need of obliteration.

Another hallmark of institutional care back at this time was that every shade of mental affliction – from alcoholics, epileptics, the brain-injured and vagrants to manics, the depressives and those who imagined their minds were being wirelessly tampered with were all lumped together under the one all-embracing roof. Routine, rigidity and responsibility were the triad of asylum life.

John Cade would himself become a psychiatrist, but not before serving as a Major in the Australian army during World War 2. During this time he survived three and a half years incarcerated in the notoriously hellish conditions of the Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Changi, Singapore. This experience would help shape his theories on human psychology, physiology and mental health care.

After the war ended Cade found himself working at Bundoora Asylum (which closed in 2001 but has since developed a reputation for being haunted) on the outskirts of Melbourne, treating ex-diggers who were afflicted with mental illness.

It was here he began crude experiments examining the urine of patients and injecting guinea pigs with the naturally occurring substance lithium. Cade noticed that when he did this the guinea pigs became calm. After then ingesting it himself and confirming it was safe he began administering it to several test patients at the asylum.

By the start of 1949, John Cade knew he had uncovered something remarkable in lithium, and with his once-ill patients blooming with health, he was ready to break his silence and write up his work for publication.

In his research paper, he would argue that lithium – a simple element on the Periodic table, could tame a specific mental illness – mania. The notion itself was almost unbelievable to many at the time – that lithium, a metal dug from the earth’s crust and made into a solution or a tablet, could do this.

Even the idea that something inanimate, a naturally occurring chemical that had been around since the beginnings of time, could shape a person’s mind and govern his behavior was repugnant and against the natural order of things to the traditionally thinking minds of some doctors.

Many of John’s colleagues saw the source of manic depression as stemming from a disturbed family upbringing. To such psychiatrists, it was a mother’s malevolent word or a father’s brutal fist that twisted a child’s upbringing and caused madness.

John knew his research paper would provoke bitter opposition, particularly among fans of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. He had read Freud (the Austrian neurologist who pioneered the clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst) extensively but rejected his theories. He saw the body and brain as an interconnected chemical laboratory and much preferred the chemical causation theory to explain and treat mental illness.

John Cade’s historic paper was published without fanfare in THE MEDICAL JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIA on the 3rd of September 1949. It was his four page magnum opus. In due course it would be celebrated as that esteemed journal’s (THE MEDICAL JOURNAL OF AUSTRALIA commenced publication in 1856 and today is a peer-reviewed medical gazette published 22 times a year) most cited paper.

This single published paper would forever change the way we think about mental illness.

What exactly is the substance known as lithium? Where does it come from? Was lithium really an ingredient in the soft-drink 7-Up? Is it true John Cade really was the first to pioneer lithium’s use in psychiatric medicine or were there other’s who tried before him? And is lithium still the gold standard in treating mental illness today? These questions and more will be answered in the second part of our inquiry next week.

**Attribution

Research for this write-up used seven separate information sources – including the 2016 John Cade biography FINDING SANITY. I read this book cover to cover a few months back. The most recently written book on the subject was published in August of last year. It’s title is LITHIUM – A DOCTOR , A DRUG AND A BREAKTHROUGH.

Ps. Naturally you deserve a bonus read, right? Click HERE to read a movie review of the film THREE CHRISTS (2020) starring Richard Gere. It tells the story of real-life psychologist Milton Rokeach who conducted a groundbreaking study in the late 1960’s of three psychiatric patients who all firmly believed they were Jesus Christ.

Banished – Banned – Begone!

Sick of the ‘C’ word yet? Silly question, right? You were sick of it a hundred days ago.

It’s been one rough stretch of highway for we humans of late and so I know you’ll understand what’s led to the following decision. A meeting held in my living room two nights ago attended by the entire editorial board of SWS has unanimously agreed this post, the one you’re now reading, will mark the final time any mention of Coronavirus will appear on these pages until… until… a vaccine is discovered.

It’s not a policy you’ll see The New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC or any of the other major news outlets of the world rolling out anytime soon. In that sense, SWS is leading the way with a pledge I’m fully willing to be held to account on.

We’ve been starving this agent of chaos – Covid 19 – of hosts to infect through social-distancing practices that, by this time, have forced some of us to question whether the cure might be actually worse than the disease. Now it’s time to starve this microscopic ogre of attention. On these pages anyway.

In the meantime there’s this…

Those GOAT (greatest of all time) 1970’s glam rockers with a sense of humor, and, let’s face it, my favourite band, KISS have released a new t-shirt design to join their already ca-razy-large merchandise range.

It’s set my heart into car alarm mode not least for the fact I know I’ll never be able to own it – for obvious reasons of maintaining standards of good taste as set out by my extreme hardcore version of a girlfriend, known as my wife. Here’s a picture anyway…

Not only do the guys (I get to call them that ’cause, you know … life long fan supporter) show a sense of humor but a sense of charity as well…

Yep, live-performance artists the world over have been thrown to the canvas big time in all this virus-flavored malarkey. Authors, on the other hand, god bless ’em, keep on churning out their stories…

THE GUEST LIST by London author Lucy Foley was released at the end of February just as Cornonavirus was beginning to make a name for itself around the planet. Have a listen to the story synopsis for this novel then ask yourself at the end could the killer actually be COVID 19?

“On a windswept island off the the Irish coast, 13 guests gather for the wedding of the year. The cake has barely been cut when one of the guests is found dead., then a storm breaks and everyone is trapped with a killer in their midst.”

Well, not too seriously, yes, the ‘killer in their midst’ could actually be our current microscopic public enemy number one – except for one little snag. Under present rules, weddings aren’t allowed to have that many people attend. Ta da! Sherlock Holmes at your service.

Being quarantined can definitely do funny things to your mind. Like what for instance? Like, I don’t know… maybe finally getting around to reading all 1225 pages of WAR AND PEACE ?

Last time I set down that path to somehow elevate myself by imbibing one of the so-called ‘classics’ of literature, it took the endurance of an ultra-marathon runner to wade through it. That book was DRACULA, written by Bram Stoker 123 years ago. (Go HERE if you want the low-down on a novel that outsold DRACULA 6:1 back in the original day).

By comparison it’s ‘prequel’ called DRACUL, penned by Stoker’s great grand nephew Dacre and written only two years ago, motors along like a Mclaren GT3 racecar and left me breathless right up until it’s dramatic, atom-smashing multi-conclusions. An adrenaline read if ever there was one. So much for the classics!

So what to do with overrated literature from a bygone era you might love the idea of but can’t stomach the turtle-slow verbose reality of? Try getting a hold of American author Lisa Brown’s new book LONG STORY SHORT for a start.

Not only will it alleviate the guilt associated with snubbing your nose at such immortal ‘classics’ as Dicken’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859), Charlotte Brontë’s JANE EYRE (1847) or Hemmingway’s monumentally overblown and over-written FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1950) – a book some readers judged should have been retitled FOR WHOM THE BOOK BORES – but it will shorten the length of each novel to just three comic panels.

Faukner’s Southern Gothic story AS I LAY DYING (1930), American poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel THE BELL JAR (1963) and Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY (1948) are among the 100 monuments to classic literature that get the three panel treatment –

Yessirree, for modern readers some of the so-called ‘classics’ are not all they’re cracked up to be. And now there’s another book that positively stinks as well.

To be clear, that’s not a critical judgment of American fiction author Adam Levin’s (not to be confused with Adam Levine – lead singer of American pop rock band MAROON FIVE ) new novel. Rather, it’s a simple statement of fact.

The bright pink jacket cover of BUBBLEGUM smells like bubblegum. It’s the first scratch-n-sniff adult book I’ve seen. . . or, uh, smelled. This is a dysotopian novel set in an alternate present-day world in which the Internet does not exist, and has never existed. 

The story goes that as soon as Levin’s editor, Rob Bloom, read the manuscript, he asked publishing company Doubleday’s art director “to go crazy” on the jacket design. He started from scratch, literally, by sniffing through samples of bubblegum scented children’s books.

When the final design was presented to the publicity team, everybody gasped. And loved it. Of course, it’s a bitter shame that, with bookstores closed, prospective readers won’t be drawn to BUBBLEGUM by its odoriferous jacket. But editor Rob Bloom is philosophical about that: “The people who order it off Amazon or whatever, they’ll get a nice little surprise when they get it home.”

Ps. If you’ve been finding social distancing rules gratuitously inconvenient, spare a thought HERE for the tortured souls with multiple personality disorder.

Pss. A fan of movies but not social isolation? Better click HERE

Psss. Social distancing rules for animals? Seriously?

Pssss. New design for China’s national flag anyone?

And that’s it everyone! No more mention of the ‘C’ word on this blog until the whole bad dream is over. That’s a promise.

Hollywood Does Viruses

An internet search I did a few days back using the term ‘Hollywood virus movies’ brought up a list of no less than 91 films. Dating back to 1957’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (directed by Ingmar Bergman), the index included such notable titles as THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), I AM LEGEND (2007), RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) and the entire RESIDENT EVIL (2000 – 2017) series comprising six live action and four animated releases.

A catalog as voluminous and spread out (pardon the expression) as that amounts to nothing less than a whole film sub-genre. It tells me the ready-made drama inherent in plague outbreak / plague containment / search for a vaccine scenarios is a formula long attractive to movie audiences; audiences up for experiencing safe, vicarious thrills from the comfort of a cuptray-equipped leather lounge chair. Living through the real thing, as we can all currently attest, is quite another thing altogether.

This post, maybe SWS‘s best chance ever of finally going viral, will spotlight two ‘deadly pathogen’ movies from that long list – 1995’s OUTBREAK and 2011’s CONTAGION.

OUTBREAK (1995) was based on the 1994 non-fiction book THE HOT ZONE about the Ebola virus. Produced on a budget of $50 million, the film made $190 million at the box office and featured an ensemble all-star cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Director Wolfgang Petersen’s (THE NEVER ENDING STORYAIR FORCE ONE – THE PERFECT STORM) thriller follows the ‘career’ of a microscopic bug – the film’s super-villain if you will – that kills humans within 24 hours of exposure by liquefying the internal organs.

OUTBREAK opens 28 years ago, in Africa, as American doctors descend on a small village that has been wiped out by a deadly new plague. They promise relief but send instead a single airplane that incinerates the village with a firebomb. The implication is that the microbe is too deadly to deal with any other way.

However, nearly three decades later, fresh hosts for the deadly super-bug are found when Betsy, a white-headed Capuchin monkey infected with the virus, is smuggled from Africa into the United States. The scene included below, featuring first-rate monkey acting, shows an attempt to kill the primate after it has been confirmed as a carrier.

OUTBREAK received solid, bordering on mixed reviews at the time of it’s original release. In a case of real life mirroring (pre-digital) reel life, the African nation of Zaire was in the grip of an actual Ebola outbreak when the film debuted in theatres.

Among the movie’s more famous scenes is the ‘airborne droplets’ sequence set in a cinema. Cheesy acting it may be but surely this is just the kind of entertainment needed right now to keep our minds off the current issue worrying us all…

Contagion (2011)

CONTAGION (2011) cost $60 million to make and earned back $137 million at the box office. As part of script development for the film, writer Scott Burns consulted with American epidemiologist Larry Brilliant (name not made up!) – renown for his work in eradicating smallpox – to help develop an accurate perception of a pandemic event.

CONTAGION featured an all-star ensemble cast of actors including Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and one of my favourite actors from the 1970’s, Elliot Gould.

The plot concerns the spread of a virus that makes it’s way into the human population when a bulldozer knocks down a banana tree in a rainforest in China, disturbing some bats. One bat finds shelter in a pig farm and drops a piece of banana, which is eaten by a pig. The pig is slaughtered and prepared by a chef in a Macau casino, who shakes hands with Gwyneth Paltrow‘s character, transmitting the virus to her.

The film was well received by parts of the scientific community who lauded the movie for its accuracy. Interestingly, Jude Law’s character is a popular blogger with conspiracy theories about the government’s ties with drug companies. OUTBREAK (1995) similarly featured glimpses of a deep conspiracy, theirs involving a sinister army general played by Donald Sutherland and the army’s reluctance to widely distribute a vaccine. 

Unsurprisingly, it comes as no surprise (you like that?) someone has made a video comparing director Steven Sodenbergh’s movie to our current agent of chaos COVID-19

Our present – what used to go by the name of comfort zones – may indeed be flooded with pepper spray and bad ju ju, but if it’s brightsiding you crave then you’ve come to the right place.

The current death toll from CORONAVIRUS has now surpassed 100 000 people but a little under 700 years ago a pandemic – known by various names including Bubonic Plague and Black Death and spread by fleas carried by rodents – resulted in an estimated 200 MILLION deaths across Europe and the Middle East.

Feeling comparatively a teensy better now? No? Then howz about trying something new… like… oh, I don’t know… maybe a new word for instance? I picked this one up just the other day and took an immediate shine to it. ‘Zoonotic’ isn’t the strangest word that’s rolled off anyone’s tongue but any batch of joined letters with a ‘z’ sound comes with a built-in weirdness quotient so let’s accept that. This word’s a classic case in point.

The term zoonotic is used to refer to diseases and viruses able to be transmitted between animals and people. The source of COVID 19 is thought to have originated from one of the usual animal suspects, bats, but been transferred to the human population via an intermediary animal such as a snake, turtle or pangolin.

The smart money for a chief go-between faciltator is apparently currently on turtles – referred to as “virus reservoirs” capable of carrying dozens of diseases simultaneously – since these were more commonly traded in the live animal market in Wuhan, China where the virus has been pinpointed as originating.

Did someone say infographic?

Check this out – the animal origins of major viruses dating back the last 50 or so years –

And now I’m done beating up on the animals who’ve been beating up on us, to the question – “What’s been my experience like of this whole bucknutty, cocoa-bananas self isolation saga?”

I’ll respond using just two words; two words that happen to be the title of a well-known deadly virus film series –

Ps. You really do owe yourself at least one virus-flavoured bonus read, agreed? Try THIS ONE. It’s funny.

Pss. Why settle for just one bonus when you can have two? Take a leaf out of William Shakespeare’s book and find out how he coped with lockdown during the Bubonic plague HERE.

Psss. You like writing, right? All types of writing, right? The sky’s the limit, right? If you answered ‘Yes’ to any or all of those barely-disguised baiting questions, GO HERE.

Pssss. Naming your new-born baby after a virus? Who’d do that? Only THESE PEOPLE!

An Introvert’s Dream

In 2019 Oxford’s word of the year was ‘climate emergency’. I’m willing to wager now, by the time the sun sets on our top to bottom beyond cray cray 2020, everyone’s presently favourite-not-favourite term ‘social distancing’ will rank high up the list for this year.

Yet for a particular parcel of the population known to be crowd-averse at the best of times, social distancing equals nothing short of a raving good time. You heard that right. The current virus-flavoured cataclysm unraveling a million threads from a million different blanket corners from the fabric of society does have a silver lining.

For the world’s introverts – known by such not-especially-complimentary colloquial terms as ‘homebodies’, ‘shut-ins’, ‘wallflowers’, ‘loners’ and ‘solitaires’ – what’s happening at present as far as the curtailing of social contact and the ban on large groups of people – is frankly nothing short of a form of heaven on Earth. And it’s one this quietly spoken and inward-looking army of tens of millions were sure they’d never be so lucky to witness in their lifetime.

Seriously? Seriously. And joyously if you’re an ‘Intro’.

Wasn’t there an ancient tongue saying doing the rounds at some point long, long ago about the meek inheriting the earth? Well…welcome to it!

What the grey-bearded ones conveniently failed to mention however was the fact that by the time the ‘inheritance’ was left to be claimed, whatever was left after the devastation to be quietly, politely and considerately stood in line for, would, undoubtedly, be in such a shambolic state, no one – be they meek or shouty – would be the least bit motivated to covert these leftover society’s ashes.

Collapse and carnage aside, point is seeing whole nations come around to what you’ve been doing your entire life – albeit not willingly but rather something that’s been forced on them much like a pair of police-issue handcuffs (or a sloppy kiss from great grandma – choose your own analogy) – is nonetheless personal validation on a grand scale for Earth’s social moths, shyologists and keep-to-them-selfers.

Pretty sure this Poster girl for Introvert’s United is not a genuine introvert herself but hey, she’s been chosen to deliver the message so LETS RUN WITH IT!

Throughout my life I’ve alternated between believing myself to be an introvert as well as the more outward-focused extrovert. These days my pet go-to description is the very new-millenium-sounding ‘ambivert’.

For those who haven’t heard the term before – of which, until very recently, I counted myself as one – it’s a description of people who embrace traits from both ends of the introvert /extrovert spectrum, continuum or whatever you want to call the genetic personality lottery that makes us us.

And before we go any further now seems as good a time as any to map out exactly what is meant when we describe someone as being ‘introverted.’ Most descriptions I’ve encountered over the past day or so appear to cite a similar batch of re-occurring traits.

For those playing at home (where else would you be?) try asking yourself, on a scale of 1 – 10, how true the following statements are for you. Ready? Steady? Go…

  • I hate small talk but I enjoy deep conversations.
  • I get tired if I stay at a party or social gathering too long.
  • I feel like everything I say should be meaningful and often refrain from talking for this reason.
  • I prefer one-on-one or small group conversations over talking in large groups.
  • I need to spend time alone to recharge my battery.
  • I think before I speak.
  • I have difficulty thinking in a group. I think best when I’m on my own.
  • I usually listen more than I talk.
  • I dislike interruptions.
  • I hate conflict.

Adding to that checklist, here’s a few of my own. You know you’re a social vegan who avoids meet when –

Your idea of happiness is when the elevator door successfully closes before anyone else can get in.

You’d rather forgo the chance of winning $200 000 in Channel 9’s ‘I wake up with Today’ phone promotion because there’s a chance you might be interviewed on television.

You regularly enjoy watching your phone ring until you miss the call.

You know and understand that the collective noun for a group of introverts is a ‘no thanks’.

Your personal motto reads “I may on occasion ‘visit’ the world of people but my true home will always be solitude and the world of thought”.

The idea of sleeping in a coffin with a sealed lid holds genuine appeal.

Equally the thought of climbing into a packing box and staying there (just like you did as a kid only now you’re adulting) is… attractive.

And if after all that checking you’re still unsure whether you’re a bona-fide ‘intro’ or merely just a victim at present of ‘Corona circumstance’ one thing is for certain – there’s plenty of books on the subject-

Ps. Got some great bonuses for you this week. Try THIS ONE on for size for starters. It’s advice on how to last 42 days alone in your own room – you know… just in case?

Pss. Two of the three cartoons used in this post have been lifted, with permission, from an amazing little site called INTROVERT DOODLES. Owner Maureen ‘Marzi’ Wilson – U.S author of four books – says she created the site as a way for her to better understand her own introversion.

Psss. In a world gone stupid, what we need now more than ever is love. How’s that for a 1970’s-radio-DJ-style sedgeway into presenting the latest Lady Gaga song video STUPID LOVE? This clip maybe Michelin star quality gourmet eye candy but what’s it doing here, at the end of this post you ask?

If nothing else it’s exhibit A for the case why this world, beholden and calmed as it may be by the introverts, is most definitely, and undeniably, created and choreographed by extroverts.

Pssss. Just quietly – the introverts aren’t the only stock holding up better than most during this time of…of… disarray? The OCD‘ers who’ve been known to compulsively wash their hands a dozen or more times a day are also fairing quite well I hear.

Psssss. I could leave you with a Coronavirus joke but you probably wouldn’t get it. Hopefully not anyway. And before anyone thinks about voicing their concern at the standard of purported humour on this site, it’s best to keep in mind one thing: protesting will get both you AND I precisely… nowhere.

150 Reasons to Smile

There were at least a few ways that came to mind when considering how best to celebrate SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK publishing it’s history-making 150th post – the one you’re now reading. They included –

Hiring a white stretch limo, taking myself off to a fancy restaurant and eating and drinking the night away.

Rounding up a bunch of my favorite subscribers/commenters and shouting them all to an open bar down at Pyscho Suzi’s Tiki Garden.

Letting out a long slow breath, like I didn’t even know I’d been holding it in, and nodding with a slight smile.

In the end I chose to go with the final option because – you know – understated. Rather than getting all paralytic at the bar and then ludicrously moving around a lit dance floor like my limbs were made of cooked spaghetti, this more low-key approach allowed me time to reflect and more properly take in the occasion, like this…

Part of that reflecting had me thinking about age and the feeling of reaching milestones. Once you’ve racked up a certain number of years on the planet some of us find it handy to have a list of ready-made snapbacks responses to those sometimes socially awkward inquiries – “How old are you?”. Now and again, goddammit, you may not feel like playing ball and spilling the actual number.

In those circumstances sassy retorts like these become useful –

Age is just a number and mine is unlisted.
 

I’m 9183 days, 3 hours and 22 minutes.
 

Age doesn’t matter unless you are cheese or wine.
 

Don’t you mean how YOUNG am I?

Thing is I haven’t had to put anyone in their place with use of one of these lippy wisecracks. I am completely happy for people to know my blog age. In fact, excuse me while I shout it from the rooftops one more time. I’m 150 posts old today!

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any merrier, a glorious email arrived in my inbox. An email from no less than Scott Morrison. That’s Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Or ‘ScoMo’ to his friends – of which I obviously am now counted among.

I nor anyone else should be naive about the elevated status such a ‘trophy’ well-wishing message can bring it’s receiver… so to heck with modesty. I will share it (proudly) with you all now –

Dear Glen,

Allow me to be among the first to congratulate you and SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK on the occasion of publishing your 150th post.

My staffers inform me that within blogging circles such a milestone, while modestly regarded, is nonetheless still compared to that first time in a couple’s relationship when one partner may inadvertently bear witness to a blushworthy moment of flatulance on the adored other’s part.

Awkward it may be, yet properly handled it is not cause for dissolution of the union but rather provides an unlikely bonding moment that signals the relationship is ready to proceed on to a more deeply human, exploratory and committed phase.

Having established a foothold in the hearts and minds of readers, so too SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK seems ready to embark upon the next phase of its mission to bring quality blog content to readers for the long term (shall we say at least ’till the next election?)

Having just a few days back also notched my 150th (150 meetings for the calendar month) – I believe I can relate somewhat to the feeling of satisfaction you are feeling now it is all over… er, I mean – the feeling of satisfaction now you have reached this important waypost.

Here’s to you and all that you have achieved and will achieve in the hopefully COVID 19-free years to come.

You’re an inspiration.

Liberally yours,

The Honourable Scott J. Morrison

30th Prime Minister of Australia

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Ps. Forgive me for observing but I get the sense that SWS and LNP are both from the same political alphabet soup tin – if you get my meaning.

Perhaps my people can talk to your people (ok, I know it’s just you, so… my people can talk to you) come next election time about a little bit of ‘you scratch my lower lumbar I’ll scratch yours’ mutual favorable publicity.

I’ve had the odd back-rub in the past from both political friends and foes alike (even one from a duffer who claimed he was just removing lint from my shirt) and I know how beneficial they can be. Let me know if this sounds interesting.

Carpe Diem.

Our Scomo really is one big lovable and well-meaning teddy bear on a political stage crammed with moth-eaten cabbage-patch dolls – isn’t he? I treasure those congratulations from him, while choosing to overlook his obviously poorly advised and supremely self-serving postscript borrowed directly from the Political Manipulators & Scallywags handbook.

And now, as one is apt to do on occasions such as this, it’s time to travel back through the dusty blog pages of SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK history and nominate my..

MIRACLE AT THE DRIVE-THRU (Feb 2017) What made this trip to Maccas so memorable? Order yourself a Big Mac re-read HERE and find out.

THE GREAT WRINKLE MACHINE (June 2017) Well… someone’s gotta be the smarty pants! A prankster does what he does best HERE

CASE OF THE MYSTERY LETTER (June 2017) How exactly did I find myself reading a jail prisoner’s handwritten letter? The key to cell block A lies HERE

BAND T-SHIRTS – HOW OLD IS TOO OLD? (Oct 2017) Cool? Ridiculous? Ironic? You be the judge HERE

WHEN FASHION MEETS ICE-CREAM (March 2018) You won’t see Scenic Writer’s Shack speaking too often about ladies handbag fashions. But you might HERE

GOODIE GOODIE GUMDROPS! (March 2018) ‘Scenic’ bravely peers inside the Oscar nominees complimentary ‘Goodie’ bag and comes away floored, breathless and not a little hankering HERE

A SWING AND A MISS (March 2018) What do ghosts and golf courses have in common? Quite a lot if you believe Scenic HERE

THE GREAT VANILLA SLICE RIPOFF (June 2018) Scenic led the way with this daring foray into investigative journalism – exposing what could be labelled ‘The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Internal Pastry Layer’. Prepare to have all your treasured cake shop memories shattered HERE

WHEN NO MEANS NO (Sept 2018) Ok, so you try approaching YOUR wife or partner for permission to adorn the family car with wrap advertising about your beloved blog and see what response YOU get. Relive the pain of rejection HERE

INTO THE SNAKEPIT OF FRIENDSHIP (Feb 2019) Friends come and go but enemies last a lifetime. Right? Wrong? Sometimes? Plunge down the rabbit hole and mull it all over HERE

A big thank you to all the people who have followed this blog over any portion of the last three and a bit years. Writers write to be read, plain and simple. Without you guys there would be no ‘Shack.

A special gesture of appreciation is reserved for the readers and followers who go that one extra step and ‘like’ or, better still, comment on a post. Your engagement with topics lights up a part of my brain that makes me feel connected and fully awake. I call them ‘minty moments’ and I simply love them. Thank you again and please… keep doing it!

For the last six months or so Scenic Writer’s Shack slogan has been PEACHY NOT PREACHY. Have no doubts the commitment implied in that motto will continue to be upheld. Now seems like as good a time as any to unveil the new slogan which will help carry this blog forward for its next exciting stage – THE BEST IS YET TO BE WRITTEN. And I really do mean that. Here’s to the next glorious epoch… the next 150!

Ps. It may be SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK’S birthday but you get the presents! Click HERE for a very infecting affecting bonus read.

Lost in the Fog

Three years ago I wrote a short story about two lighthouse keepers. Amidst the confines of cramped quarters, one was slowly driving the other mad with his nightly tinkering of the ivories. I called it ‘PIANO MAN’. It was deemed good enough to be published in a literary journal and much to my delight they sent me two complimentary copies in the mail.

I mention this now since unfortunately this is likely the last positive words you’ll read here for the next short while. At present with movies, you see, I’m on what you’d call a roll. More like death spiral, actually.

After enduring the shotgun-to-the-face blast of boredom that was the Mel Gibson/Sean Penn starring THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (HERE) you would have thought I’d resolved to treat myself a little more kindly.

Some people gotta learn the hard way. It seems one lesson in arthouse lethargy torture just wasn’t enough ’cause the very next weekend I’ve gone and lined up to see the William Dafoe/ Robert Pattinson film THE LIGHTHOUSE.

You want symbolism? Gee, Here’s some… I’m the bull heading full steam in the direction of something I thought was attracting me only to end up running smack bang into an immovable object of cast-iron ‘LIGHTHOUSE’ tedium.

Before things degenerate completely I should point out THE LIGHTHOUSE is currently being hailed, courtesy of a vast chorus of in-the-know voices, as some type of modern day masterpiece. Lovers of surreal avant-garde cinema have declared this a once-in-a-decade treasure of a film.

This type of once-in-a-decade is way too often for me, I’m afraid. 109 excruciating minutes spent with this – if you’ll pardon the expression – white bread yawnage story vomit was enough to send me

My chief gripe with THE LIGHTHOUSE, and films like it, can be summarized in just three words …

NOTHING BLOODY HAPPENS!

Being an arthouse movie, nothing bloody happens naturally in the most stylish of ways! I’m old enough to know by now when I see films bathed in praise like –

  • ‘technically immaculate’
  • ‘an audiovisual feast’
  • ‘haunting’
  • ‘striking’
  • ‘thought provoking’
  • ‘could not possibly look more beautiful’
  • ‘a gorgeous piece of film craft’
  • ‘heavily stylized’

I need to start running in the opposite direction as fast as my feet will carry me…

THE LIGHTHOUSE tells the story (and I use the term ‘story’ like a toddler uses a cigarette lighter… that is to say ‘recklessly’) of two early twentieth century lighthouse keepers who are ensconced in the claustrophobic confines of a lighthouse situated on a remote uninhabited island.

If living with your boss is not your idea of a good time spare a thought for Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). He’s put up with the dirty moods, foul cooking and dictatorial ways of senior lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (William Dafoe) for four long weeks, only to learn a raging storm has caused the resupply vessel with his replacement on board to no longer be on its way. The next ship is due in anything up to seven months.

It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, including, unfortunately the viewer. Because what I’ve just outlined, if you get right down to it, is merely a premise for a story. An actual fair-dinkum story story requires the accompanying infinite and intricate twists and turns necessary to take the viewer on the rollercoaster ride they think they’re paying their money to see. There is simply none of that here.

What there is is howling winds, long conversations over meals, drunken dancing, raised voices, creaking floorboards, more drawn out conversations over meals, repetitive dream sequences, blaring foghorns, a depiction of the daily chores and drudgery necessary to keep a coal-powered lighthouse going at the turn of last century, and yes, just what we needed… still more long exchanges over dinner-table meals.

By the end of it my mind was spinning on it’s own gears with boredom

and I was wishing I was some relative of Godzilla so I could do this to the whole agonizing and completely miserable saga…

Then again, when you sit down to a roast chicken dinner you can’t expect the taste of fish. Shot in glossy black and white, THE LIGHTHOUSE is an arthouse film to it’s core. That means, by it’s nature, there is an emphasis on the thoughts and dreams of characters rather than presenting a clear, goal-driven story.

I uphold the nobility of the idea of arthouse movies – what with their elevation of a director’s authorial style and their clawback against Hollywood’s cliches and traditional story telling elements. But I question why the end product has to so often end up being painfully self-serious, miserable to watch and an all-round trying experience.

One American newspaper reviewer of this film observed THE LIGHTHOUSE “has got nothing and lot’s of it” .

My thoughts precisely.

And because two lackluster films in a row have caused a tsunami of negativity to spill forth on SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK these past few weeks, movie reviews are now banned from this site until further notice. Let’s see how long that lasts...

Did I say 5th rate? Didn’t quite have the heart to write ‘15th rate fiction’ but, well… here’s my short story, PIANO MAN, from 2018. Incredibly, some nurturing but possibly misguided soul considered it good enough at the time to print publish in their literary magazine. No accounting for taste, right?

Last night, my world turned grey and my face along with it. I know now what happened was no accident. It was, rather, a most deliberate attempt on my life. In its aftermath I have set in motion a scheme to rid myself of this most horrible place and as well the person I have called my roommate these past five months – the treacherous old sea dog known as Captain Drake McNally.

The whole sorry ordeal was sparked some four weeks earlier when the Captain (I have always wondered whether this rank was real or imagined) deigned that we should welcome into our midst no less a fixture than a Steinway grand piano. Given that we were both working as the caretakers of a remote island lighthouse known as Owl’s Head, located some sixty nautical miles off the east coast of Wales, this presented some degree of challenge; most especially to the three intrepid furniture removalists tasked with delivering the polished wooden monstrosity.

The challenge, such as it was, involved lugging the thing up sixty-eight winding, crumbling concrete steps, every one of them encrusted in black scale and sea salt. Once in place, so began my endless nights of being forced to listen to the most awful attempts at music making any pitiful soul has ever had to endure.

After several weeks of this I wondered to myself if the hightop ‘concerts’ were not being done in such quantity and at such irregular times as to constitute an effort to irritate me and hasten my leaving.

Late one afternoon when I could stand no more, I politely asked the ‘Captain’ to take a break from his noise making. This was so I could get some rest in preparation for the coming nightshift. He did not take kindly to such a request. Later that same night, with a storm brewing in the west, I went outside to bolt the boat shed door.

On returning I found the lighthouse door locked. I hammered on it with my fists as waves smashed over the rocks behind me and the waters began to rise. I saved myself from drowning by eventually locating a rope and hoisting it high on to an outside ledge of the tower near the gantry.

I sit here now waiting for the supply ship to come. It is three days overdue. When it arrives I will bid this wretched place farewell, never to return. The painful sound of yet another of the mad Captain’s ‘performances’ of “Chopsticks” echoes down from his upper quarters as I write. Forgive me if I describe it as  like some kind of slow drip strain of syphilis for the ears.

With his fingers thicker than beef sausages, mention must come also it is by no means unusual to overhear the nerve-jangling sound of several keys being struck at once, adding to my torture.  Wax earplugs dull the pain. They and the last bottle of rum is all that sustain me. I pray my deliverance will be soon.

Ps. This short story appeared in the March 2018 edition of BALLOON’S LIT JOURNAL. If you’d like to read it directly from the on-line version of the magazine (because.. well…um…actually, come to think of it I don’t know why anyone would really want to do that – but just in case anyone did) click HERE.

Pss. I’ve long been in amazement at people given to populating their personal blogs with mundane holiday snaps boring-er than dry toast believing they are of interest to anyone outside of themselves and their immediate family.

So before I go ahead and do exactly the same I’ll at least have the courtesy to place a ‘Boring Content’ warning for all to see. Would it be too bold of me to suggest if more people did this the blogosphere would have every chance of transforming into a far more reader-friendly thing of beauty overnight?

The photo above left of Bruny Island Lighthouse was taken on our trip to Tasmania four months ago. I include it here as It’s now the last OFFICIAL pleasant memory of lighthouses I HAVE.

Psss. How’s this for serendipity? The screensaver we have decorating our computer screen showcases a different enshrinably beautiful nature scene every four days. The delish piece of eye-candy that popped up yesterday was this —

Mad, Bad and Glad when it was over!

Art-house movies and I have never really been what you’d call the best of friends.

Same goes with historical costume dramas.

So what was I thinking taking myself off to see THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, which, as it turns out, is both art-house movie and died-in-the-wool costume biopic – set in 19th century London?

What was I thinking? Quite a lot actually, and up to the point of the movie theatre lights going down in that time-honored, sped-up sun-set kind of way, it was all positive.

AND THEN THE FILM STARTED...

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN is really two based-on-fact stories rolled into one. The first centers around the 70 year long project – begun in 1857 – of compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. In real life this monumental task – the equivalent back in its day of mapping every star in the heavens – was helmed by Scottish schoolteacher and self taught linguist (he was fluent in more than a dozen languages) James Murray, played by Mel Gibson.

The second story concerns real-life American Army surgeon Dr Chester William Minor – played by Sean Penn. He spent 38 years in the infamous English mental asylum for the criminally insane Broadmoor. While incarcerated there he sent more than 10 000 submissions to James Murray for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A film about a dictionary compiler was always going to be a tough ask shaping it into something marketable and even mildly watchable for the general public. The inclusion of the numerous psychiatric institution scenes was an attempt to inject some drama and pathos, yet this film remains strangely lacking in energy.

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN manages to generate as much tension as a broken guitar string. It’s ability to generate emotion is likewise on a par with a 2am multi-folding-ladder info-commercial.

Every character with a speaking part is saddled with delivering speech-long, overly serious monologues that have you wishing time would somehow magically speed up. And it’s all set to a wearying, sappy soundtrack that alternates between full-on opera and a mega-blast from the strings section of the London Philharmonic.

Two hours with this movie felt like two days. Managing dutifully to avoid reading a single review before seeing the movie, I poured over a heap of them afterwards. “A film which ends up being only mildly more interesting than reading an actual dictionary” was a reoccurring lambasting quip from a number of paid opinion-givers.

Going into the movie I held genuine curiosity. After enduring 124 minutes of near unrelenting tedium, I came out with eyeballs feeling like this –

If all that sounds a bit harsh, I can agree – it feels harsh saying it and writing it. Though perhaps not as harsh as Mel Gibson unsuccessfully suing the production company in a valiant attempt to wrestle back creative control of the project, and thus saving it from the commercial and critical disaster it has ended up becoming.

Nor maybe as harsh as both Gibson’s and Sean Penn’s decision to abstain from doing any interviews to promote the movie, less they somehow convey the false impression that they in anyway approve of the final product.

I really wanted to like this movie. Yet I’ve concluded what would probably be far more to my liking is the 1998 book which the movie is based on. The Surgeon of Crowthorne was written by British author (and Oxford graduate) Simon Winchester, a journalist with more than three decades of experience.

As a final note I should add that perhaps I could have recognized the writing was on the wall with me and this movie long before I actually took my seat and the lights went dark. The theater I ventured to see THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN at (The Regal at Graceville) has history for me. Bad history.

The last time I lined up to buy a movie ticket there was 16 years ago. That sadly lackluster occasion also ended with the eyeballs madly spinning and the smelling salts having to be brought out to revive me. And before anyone tries telling me what a marvelous viewing spectacle the Bill Murray/ Scarlett Johansson movie LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) was, I say this…

Ps. Every cloud has a silver lining (except apparently the mushroom shaped ones which have a lining of Iridium and Strontium 90) so watching THE MADMAN AND THE PROFESSOR wasn’t a total loss.

Seeing this film set me on track to unearthing some pretty interesting facts and figures about the English language. You’ve borne the brunt already of my version of the madman. Now comes the Professor

The English language passed the MILLION WORD mark back in 2009 (at 10:22am GMT on June 10th, to be precise).

As of this writing, there are currently 171 476 words in use in English.

The average adult knows the meanings of approximately 30 000 words.

3000 words will cover 95% of everyday writing. 1000 words will cover 90% of everyday writing.

The English language adds a new word every 98 minutes.

Arabic is a language reputed to have over 12 million words.

The word “dictionary” first came into the English lexicon in 1220.