“The older you get the more new memories get wiped out, and you end up remembering more about your early life than what you did last week.” Ken Loach
I’ve just started listening to Richard Armitage’s new audiobook Geneva. Here are some thoughts I wanted to capture. Firstly above is a song from my teenage years about remembering the past, which has become an earworm whilst I write this, and my blog title. There will be some spoilers throughout this post so no offence taken if you want to scroll past and revisit this post after you’ve heard the audiobook. I’m nearing the end of chapter 6 of this work. The narration
(should I say performances – Audible seem to swap between the two?) are by Richard Armitage and Nicola Walker in alternative chapters (so far).
I actually hate listening to trailers and finding out anything about a project before I see it, if I can avoid it. I’ve seen a few posts on social media reviewing this work, and I’m having to quickly scroll past them as I really don’t want to find out anything more about the work before I’ve finished hearing it! It’s rare that I get to watch a film without having seen any trailers or knowing anything about it. So yes, I do realise my discussions here make me a terrible hypocrite!
Before listening to the story I already knew that Walker
(edited – looked it up from the end credits – Jane Perry as Terri Landau) were joining Armitage in the narration. From an earlier interview, I also knew that this was going to be a thriller along the lines of Before I Go To Sleep. I had happened to have bought that DVD before lockdown and hadn’t watched it, so after hearing Armitage mention this film, I popped it into my DVD player. The movie stars Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, with Anne-Marie Duff in a supporting / cameo role. I think it’s interesting to note here that this was the debut novel of (Steve) S J Watson, and the film rights were acquired by Ridley Scott’s production company before the novel had even been published. An NHS audiologist, Watson would write in his spare time. He attended a course called ‘Writing a novel’ and was clearly very successful on the course because at the end of it he was introduced to the person who would become his literary agent. I mention this here as I hope Watson’s story is a good indication for Armitage and how his debut work might succeed? Can we call Armitage’s work a novel yet if it has only come out in audio format so far? He has certainly said he has written a novel, so I guess we can? Let’s hope all the positive reviews and downloads of his debut leads to the work being accepted for print and e-publication soon too!
The plot of Before I Go To Sleep is a thriller that involves an amnesiac (Kidman) wondering who she can trust, with lots of twists and turns. A ‘nail biting psychological chiller’ (and 4 stars) is what’s written on the back of the DVD. The DVD includes behind the scenes (BTS) interviews with the actors, second-time director Rowan Joffe and a Q&A with Joffe (who also adapted the novel for the film). Joffe had previously directed a remake of Brighton Rock starring Andy Serkis. It was from watching the BTS that I found out about the original book being a debut. Joffe also spoke about how generous and understanding Watson was when certain parts of the plot were adapted for the film. Things that can be made suspenseful on paper just can’t work in a visual medium and Watson accepted that with good grace.
So we have some clues then to what Geneva will be like – a psychological thriller, with lots of twists and plot surprises?
(Prologue starts up on the mountain in the snow, so should we call it a chiller?) From the more recent trailers and interviews, we know it is about a woman scientist who is suffering some kind of early onset dementia, and so she isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. One of the best interviews I’ve seen so far on Armitage’s Geneva was this one where Richard wrote his own questions (whilst apparently drunk! Not drunk when answering though, I guess!)
The topic of early onset dementia is certainly one that interests me. I was diagnosed with diabetes (type 2) in 2018 but had felt unwell for a couple of years before then, needing to go back at least 3 times to the GP before diagnosis. My symptoms had included the classic ‘brain fog’ and dehydration manifesting as dry lips. I didn’t even know what to call my brain symptom when I first went to my doctor. I was used to keeping several things in my head at once. With the fog I have difficulty retaining even one thing in my short term memory. This is where ‘ctrl+c’ (copy) and ‘ctrl+v’ paste become my best work buddies! Initial blood tests were fine, so it was put down to stress or peri-menopause. But as this and other symptoms got worse, the real cause of my fogginess was finally detectable in the screening blood tests they offered me. I am very, very lucky that simple medication was able to assist me and I live in a country where I don’t have to worry about paying for such medicine out of my paycheck (I pay national insurance and income tax instead). Earlier this year the diabetes specialist nurse insisted I was doing so well I could come off my medication. I wasn’t happy and inevitably my brain fog and other symptoms came back. I’ve been back on the meds now for a few weeks and am starting to feel less
mucky murky in my thoughts. Diabetes causes damage to red blood cells – they become glycated (glucose molecules stick to them so they become less efficient). The glycation can’t be removed but we fortunately do renew our blood cells. I’ll need to go through at least 2 red blood cell production cycles (4 – 6 months?) for my symptoms to improve. So I must be patient and accept my dreadful memory for now.
Brain fog has been a common symptom for those infected with Covid-19. So it’s something that I see more younger people and more middle-aged men nod sagely at me about. They get it – they’ve experienced it – they understand what it is, and are more sympathetic to those of us who suffer from it. It’s a small positive take from this pandemic that took so many lives and has caused long-term suffering for many.
Dementia is a complicated health issue. My Mum has been diagnosed with it, may be 5 or more years ago? We are blessed that it has progressed slowly with her for now. My parents live together and potter along well. They visit my sister and her son weekly and I am fortunate to be able to ‘work from home’ from their house once a fortnight or so, so we can keep an eye on them and help out a little. My father encourages my mother to keep cooking, though her culinary skills have simplified over the last few years. She’s able to venture out alone again to the shops too, something she used to do regularly before lockdown. Both are frailer now, and she’s not used to walking far now though. The impact is minimal on me so far – repeated questions about ‘how were the roads?’ are the only symptoms that are overt to me. I try to answer each repetition with the same light wording on the 5th repeat as I do the first time around. I do wonder if she might plummet one of these days? My neighbour (a retired nurse in her mid to late 80s) has just had to put her dear husband in a nursing home due to dementia. He had been a healthy, strong retiree, even running marathons in his early 70s. Now in his mid to late 80s, he shuffles along refusing to learn to use the walking frame the home have offered him. He is like a disgruntled toddler, she tells me, but worse because he is of course adult sized and with adult-sized obstinacy. She visits as often as she can. In his world now he thinks he is on leave from the army and will need to return to Germany soon (he did national service as a young man). Most recently he asked her when they would be returning to their home in a certain street. She didn’t recognise the road name and so did some digging with family members – it was a home he had lived in on return to his mother after living in a children’s home for a few years – he was seven years old when he moved into that street.
Dementia has been a theme of a lot of movies recently; Father, starring Antony Hopkins; and Supernova starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci being another from last year. There are other movies on this theme too. I’ve seen none of them yet, but writing this post has reminded me I really ought to do a bit more ‘preparation’ and learning about dementia. I have reminded myself that I had attended a 2 hour Dementia Friends training course at work several years ago, but really it’s time for a refresher for me. If you don’t know about this charity, I would ask you to take a look – here’s a 1 minute video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VD3epu4SB2Y
Dementia Friends is a charity offering free learning so people can help others in their community just by understanding more about this illness (actually several different types of illnesses). All you need to do to become a Dementia Friend is to watch a 5 minute video (you’ll need to enter a name and an email address to watch it) to join 3.5 m other Dementia Friends. There’s a 40 minute video option too, if you want to learn more too – all free.
I have a colleague who is a neurobiologist and just a day ago she posted on a workplace social media site about Nobel prize winner Prof Eric Kandel. He had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons alongside Professors Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. A biopic of Kandel was made in 2009 – In Search of Memory. I thought the serendipity was perfect for me as I was wondering when I’d start to listen to Geneva. With the audiobook in mind, I had a quick search on youtube and found something from Kandel to watch that was easy-ish to understand and engaging
(to me). Here’s that 35 min video. It gives me hope about current research and treatments for age related dementia, but he also starts with some early history into the science of memory research.
Armitage has spoken about his fictional work being inspired by Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert DBE, and that his protagonist, Sarah Collier, is named after her. Gilbert’s team at the Oxford Vaccine Group developed an effective vaccine against Covid-19 (the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine). More than 2.5 bn doses of that vaccine have been released to over 170 countries. She was interviewed by Prof Jim Al-Khalili on The Life Scientific, which can be heard here for those who can access it. She was honoured with a damehood in 2021 but does not have a Nobel Prize. I read on Wikipedia that she gave birth to triplets in 1998, and ‘as of 2020, all of the triplets are studying biochemistry at university’. She has written a book about the development of the vaccine with Catherine Green called ‘Vaxxers: a pioneering moment in Scientific History’, published in 2021.
In Armitage’s work he mentions the security guard at the Schiller Institute sitting behind a bullet proof screen. This set me on thoughts of my pre-uni work
gap year. I was fortunate to have been able to work in pharmaceutical research as a biochemistry lab assistant before going to uni. My work involved screening hundreds of drugs supplied by our chemical lab team for their effects on mammalian brain tissue, specifically the hippocampus. As an organisation that did animal research, safety and security was drummed into us. Several of the team had worked in another organisation previously where their boss had been murdered by animal rights terrorists some 5 to 10 years before – a bomb under his car. We were barred from going to the nearest pub to the lab after work. We were told that activists were staking out that pub and we weren’t to go there, certainly not on a regular basis. So obviously ‘our local’ became the 2nd nearest. No work logos or ID cards were to be shown outside of work, and strictly no work related talk in places where we could be overheard by the public. Once in awhile we’d be notified that the activists (presumably bored by the lack of interesting people in the closest pub) were trying out the other local pubs to identify the lab workers. So then we’d move to the 3rd closest pub, or in extremis the 4th pub, but this would only be for a week or two, then we’d hear we could return to our local. We presumed there was at least one undercover officer within the local animal rights groups passing intel back to the police. Occasionally word would get back to someone that they had been too loud in the pub about where they worked and that it had been overheard (by someone also keeping an eye on us). Yup, spooks are real!
One of the characters in Armitage’s work mentions an image of Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake. Blake is an artist that has inspired Armitage previously – Lucas North has Blake pictures on his wall. Armitage then portrayed Francis Dolahyde in the tv series Hannibal, who was also
inspired haunted by some of Blake’s images. So I am grateful that a member of the Armitage Army kindly posted the Nebuchadnezzar image on Twitter. I see from Wikipedia (hyperlink above) that there are very slightly different print impressions held by different museum and art galleries of this work.
Back to audiobook Geneva – am only one-fifth of the way through so far. If I hadn’t known it was a debut novel by Richard Armitage, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that it wasn’t by a ‘professional’. It gripped me from the start, and I guess all the main characters of the book have now been introduced, so now the main story will start? It’s a 4 star beginning for me and am looking forward to hearing some more so want to finish this post quickly so I can start listening to it again!
But I have a couple of very minor niggles. So if you don’t like to read anything negative, you can stop here.
The Schiller Institute of course doesn’t exist really in Geneva – Armitage had to create this entity. Browsing I see there are Schiller Institutes around the world though in other places, so hopefully there won’t be any complaints to Armitage or Audible from them. The Institute’s location – up a single track mountain path and built into a rock face is rather preposterous! Certainly not a practical location! Has Armitage been watching too many James Bond or Austen Power movies! May be there’s a good reason the building is half buried inside a mountain – like some research laboratories that have to be deep underground? We’ll see, but I do imagine the staff cursing on their daily commutes into work, they would all need sturdy 4×4 vehicles. And the Institute would need a one-way timing system to get in and out along that single track road as it doesn’t sound like there are many passing places on that mountain? Arrangements for overnight stays would be needed too in the event of poor weather! Sorry if I’ve over-thunk this!
Secondly, Nicola Walker’s accent is distracting to me. Her character, Sarah, comes from Barnsley, a market town in South Yorkshire, but Walker speaks with a southern received pronunciation (RP) accent in this narration. I’m confused and if I’m honest a little bit disappointed. May be the change of accent will be explained later – perhaps she was born there but then the family quickly moved away in her early childhood? It’s a bit of a trope to think that clever scientists speak with posh accents. It negates the possibility of social mobility and that people from up north can be clever, could be scientists. As someone who studied and worked ‘up north’ for some years, I know that is very bad stereotyping.
Nicola Walker worked with Armitage in the BBC tv series Spooks (known as MI-5 in some countries), or rather he joined her in the series, arriving in Season 7, whilst she had been in it from Season 2. I looked her up on Wikipedia, which claims her son, with husband actor Barnaby Kay was named Harry, after the character Harry Pearce played by Peter Firth in the series. I have to take that story with a pinch of salt as Harry is a common
(and princely) name. The relationship between Harry and Ruth (Walker’s character) was an interesting part of the day to day lives of the show, in between the action where Lucas North and others save the world! Another connection Walker and Armitage have is that they have both performed in Big Finish audioplays of Doctor Who, though in different episodes.
Nicola is a BAFTA nominated (Last Tango in Halifax) and Olivier (Matilda) award winning actress. In Last Tango in Halifax, she plays Derek Jacobi’s daughter. It’s set
unsurprisingly in Halifax, Yorkshire, and she uses an authentic (to me) accent. The series were written by Sally Wainwright OBE, who wrote Sparkhouse (where Richard played John Standring), and most notably more recently wrote the series Gentleman Jack. The reason I mention all this (apart from the connections to Armitage), is that Walker can obviously do a ‘Yorkshire’ accent, so why she didn’t in this case intrigues me. It may all be revealed later and I will say ‘ah yes, that is why’, but currently I’m thinking mmmmm, and it is distRActing me from the narration. I will try to push that aside as I listen on.
These are really very minor bug bears so I hope I don’t disappoint avid fans. And am happy and excited to carry on with listening to the story.
Thanks for reading this far!