Mentored by a Madman by A.J. Lees

One of the things I love about small and indie publishers is the sheer variety of books they publish. I love the quirky or the unusual or the frankly left of centre, and there’s often little of that to be found from mainstream books nowadays. A favourite imprint is Notting Hill Editions, and I’ve read and reviewed any number of their beautiful hardback essay collections – they really are a treat. However, they publish some of their works in very lovely paperback editions, with French flaps and slightly deckled edges; and a fascinating volume popped through my door recently, which turned out to be a quite marvellous, stimulating and rather unusual book!

The book is subtitled “The William Burroughs Experiment” which is actually the key to what this book is about. Lees is an award-winning neurologist, currently serving as Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London and University College London. According to Wikipedia, he’s been named in the past as the world’s most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researcher, and a quick look down their entry for him reveals that he’s been responsible for a number of breakthroughs in the treatment of that disease, as well as overseeing all manner of different branches of research,

“Mentored…” is a kind of memoir, where Lees looks back over his life and career, pinpointing the various junctures in his life where he’s had lightbulb moments, gone down dead ends, come back to follow a different path to then make those imaginative leaps that take research forward into uncharted territory. And running through all of this is the presence of author (and addict!) William S. Burroughs, creator of the alarming character of Dr. Benway, amongst other manic medics! (Here’s Burroughs/Benway in action – not for the faint-hearted!)

So taking your medical guidance from WSB might be regarded as the height of madness (which I suppose is where the title of this book comes from!); however as Lees reveals, while tracing his career, Burroughs actually turned out to be a surprisingly good guide when it came to exploring the possibilities of developing new drugs for use in the treatment of Parkinson’s. In particular, WSB’s championing of apomorphine (which he used to wean himself off junk) eventually lead to Lees exploring the use of that drug for treating the effects of Parkinson’s with some success…

Lees and Burroughs never met, though the former was an avid reader of the latter, and in later years made contact with a number of Burroughs’ friends and associates, often in serendipitous ways. And Lees obviously regards the presence of Burroughs in his life to be a constant, a thread always returned to and always providing guidance. As the author traces the line of his life and career, that willingness of Burroughs to look outside the box is reflected in Lees’ desire to explore the unusual and use his intuition, as well as refusing to be hidebound by bureaucracy when it comes to research; a tendency which has obviously borne fruit!

As a layperson, I did wonder whether I would be a bit overwhelmed by jargon when reading this book (a worry that has made me a little nervous also about approaching Oliver Sacks; coincidentally a friend and contact of Lees). However, the narrative is always clear and understandable, and absolutely fascinating. I followed Lees’ attempts to find solutions for his patients as anxiously as the families involved must have, cheering at successes and disappointed by set-backs; it’s an involving read. Lees also draws on the history of his field, looking back at the work of those who came before him; and reveals the influence, perhaps surprisingly, of Sherlock Holmes! One particularly valuable aspect seemed to be Burroughs’ understanding of the form addiction takes in humans, which was particularly relevant when Lees was dealing with addition issues arising from some treatments. As Lees reminds us:

He believed that all humans were hard-wired to be insatiable wanting machines. Sugar, laxatives and even shoplifting had the potential to become external objects of false satisfaction. Provided a novelty factor was introduced almost anything could be turned into a consumable. Corporations increased their stranglehold on the masses by alluring advertising. Junk was the ultimate merchandise and, in his paranoid but prescient world, a part of the global conspiracy.

Looking around at our rabid capitalist society, he’s not wrong, is he? 😦

What shone through very forcibly, however, was Lees’ humanity; at the root of all of his work is his care for his patients and (a rarity in my experience) he feels strongly that those being treated deserve compassion, understanding and respect. He also decries the control exerted by the pharmaceutical companies, who are only motivated by making huge profits and whose interests restrict the research process. It’s nowadays harder to take risks or imaginative leaps to try to find better cures for disease simply because if there isn’t big money in it, the companies have no interest. He laments the high prices they charge for some drugs, and certainly I’ve seen issues surrounding colleagues who need a particular medication but it’s expensive or impossible to source because of the control of the manufacturing companies. Lees rightly lambasts rigid, inflexible thinking and the concern only for money being the factors which control the development of new medicine, and he’s right; imagination and inventiveness are needed for exploration, and that’s sadly lacking nowadays, with attempts at innovation being drowned in red tape.

… I felt uncomfortable about a system where money was made out of illness and where the patient was treated as a customer. The company knew the price but not the value to the patients.

“Mentored by a Madman” was an absolutely fascinating read, and even if you know nothing about Burroughs I think you would get a lot out of this book (though personally, I read tons of his work back in the day and I’m a huge fan of his dark, dry wit and drawling delivery). Lees comes across as a humane and committed man, determined to do his best for his fellows and obviously frustrated by the modern money-men and the outsourcing of the NHS. As well as that, the book reflects the times, from the opening steps of his journey in the 1960s through the changing times of the end of the twentieth century and into our corporate modern world. I’m old enough to remember some of that, and it made me realise that although we’ve made many gains with progress, we’ve also lost so much individuality.

And, very importantly, Lees writes marvellously, proving that science and literature can combine in a work of art. His compassion shines through, his erudition is worn lightly and his book is never less than engrossing. “Mentored by a Madman” is not a book I would necessarily have stumbled across had it not been for Notting Hill Editions, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – a wonderful, subversive, enlightening and often moving reading experience.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

*****

Whilst noodling around online in prep for this post, I came across a number of interesting interviews with, and videos featuring, Andrew Lees talking about his life and work and books. These two – a conversation, and a reading plus interview session at Shakespeare and Co – are particularly fascinating for anyone wanting to explore further. There’s also plenty of Burroughs online, but you can find that yourself! 😀