Peter Batten is amazed by what he’s discovered about Oliver Sacks . . .
These three words form the title of one of the most famous English poems of the 1950s. It was written by Thom Gunn, who went on to spend most of his life in the United States. He became a well-known resident of San Francisco.
Recently, I was surprised to find the same three words used as the title of the autobiography by Oliver Sacks. You may remember him as the author of a book which became the successful film ‘Awakenings’ or of the best-selling collection of essays, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’. I was even more surprised to see on the book’s cover a picture of a young and handsome Dr Sacks seated astride a motorcycle (pictured).
One of many revelations in the book is the fact that Sacks, who died in 2015, had a life-long love of ‘Bikes’. What is more, he was himself a ‘Biker’, owned several powerful motorcycles, and even had at least one sexual relationship with a fellow enthusiast. He might well have been one of the ‘Boys’ described in the poem, ‘On The Move’. He met the poet, Thom Gunn, when he spent some time in San Francisco. They continued to meet and to discuss their writing until Gunn died in 2003.
Until I began to read ‘On The Move’ I knew nothing of Sacks’ private life. His most personal book, ‘A Leg To Stand On’, about a near-fatal accident, reveals little about his background or friendships. I discovered that he came from a very distinguished medical family and respected his Jewish background, enjoying the weekly Sabbath celebrations and the major festivals. Although his mother was shocked to discover his sexual orientation, he maintained a very loving relationship with his parents. His life as a gay man was very discreet, but never concealed. I learned that he was quite shy, something I had not expected.
You will be surprised to learn that he spent some time training as a weight lifter. This enthusiasm began at a Maccabi club in London in the 1950s. He was able to develop at the famous “Muscle Beach” in California. He became so proficient that he even set a record for a particularly unusual lift. For quite a long time he explored psychedelic drugs and survived some dangerous experiences.
This book is full of surprises. One minor fact is his great passion for swimming, which he was able to enjoy to the full when he lived for some years on New York’s City Island. I discovered that he was related to a distinguished old boy of my Grammar School, St Olave’s, Abba Eban, who held several top posts in the Government of Israel. They were said to be remarkably alike physically, and in later life became close friends.
If you have read any of Dr Sacks’ earlier books you will know that his career as a neurologist and his enquiring mind led him to explore some of the most unusual mental conditions. He established close and caring relationships with many of the sufferers. This book is packed with similar information and descriptions of his interaction with an amazing cast of people. At last, and to my amazement, I learned something of Dr Sacks himself. It will be some time before I recover from the shock.
‘On the Move’ by Thom Gunn
The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Has nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt – by hiding it, robust –
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.
Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tyres press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.
It is a part solution, after all.
One is not necessarily discord
On earth; or damned because, half animal,
One lacks direct instinct, because one wakes
Afloat on movement that divides and breaks.
One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward.
A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-defined, astride the created will
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither bird nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.