Treading the Boards

If I’d asked my friends whether I should consider a debut on the West End stage I know what they would have said. So instead this week I did Cancer Crystal Ball for Robin Ince’s Christmas Science Ghosts at the Bloomsbury Theatre.

Here’s what Bruce Dessau of the London Evening Standard made of proceedings, although the review scarcely does justice to an astonishingly eclectic show!

Bruce Dessau:

Most comedy gigs offer audiences something to laugh about. Robin Ince’s annual Bloomsbury package also offers something to think about. This year’s five-night stint mixes stand-ups and scientists. With a seasonal nod to A Christmas Carol, last night’s show looked at the future.

Ince compered briskly, doing little more than pithy impressions of Brians Blessed and Cox. Having booked a preposterously epic 16 acts he exercised impressive restraint to keep the gig under three hours.

Among the experts doing some crystal ball-gazing were Ben Goldacre, who mounted a persuasive argument for more testing of statins, and cancer specialist Robin Hesketh, who had blood taken onstage — a first for a comedy gig.

Swotty storyteller Josie Long invited fans to do her A-level maths test, while Stewart Lee read from a letter supposedly penned by his 11-year-old self about the future: “There will be even more TV channels … seven. One will be just firework displays.” Joanna Neary’s Björk impersonation skirted around the futuristic theme but was so accurately nutty it hardly mattered.

It was not only the comics who raised a laugh. If you ever wondered what it would be like if Eminem rapped about the brain, catch Baba Brinkman, who closed proceedings by freestyling about neuroscience with his wife Heather Berlin. Conclusive proof that it is possible to be funny and clever.

Water Street Press Speaks

Writing a pop science book (or more precisely, getting one published) has, to use the contemporary argot, been something of a life-changing experience. That simply means finding yourself doing strange things and meeting wonderful people that otherwise you would never have encountered. In the former category comes giving a stand-up routine on the stage of The Cambridge Union Society  as part of a Science Festival show compered by the comedian Robin Ince. In the latter comes Lynn Vannucci. An author herself, she was simply amazing in editing the final version of the book, and from this has blossomed a friendship that I treasure. She has since set up her own publishing company, Water Street Press, the aims of which promise a new world for authors. This review is from the WSP website.

Water Street Press review of Betrayed by Nature: The War on Cancer:

“When one door closes another opens but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us” – Alexander Graham Bell.

Lynn Vannucci, founder of Water Street Press

Lynn Vannucci, founder of Water Street Press

The fall of 2011 was a time of closing doors. Some of those doors I pulled shut myself. I was just starting to get a grip on both the enormous workload of, and the enormous opportunity in, becoming a publisher; clarity of purpose brought with it the need to clean house or clear paths or otherwise remove obstacles, and cleaning and clearing, while sometimes necessary, are time sucks and can be absolute spirit sappers.

Other doors felt as if they were being slammed in my face. A man named Daniel G. Reinhold—biologist, silversmith, computer genius, art collector, raconteur, crack shot, dog lover, father figure and (affectionately) Ogre—passed away, as did, in his absence, a part of my youth.

In the midst, then, of what was not a little bit of personal turmoil, I was asked to work on a book that was, at the time, called “Delinquent Genes,” about understanding cancer from the perspective of genetics—both the history of the disease and the strides that have been made in treating it. Now, if any of my old high school science teachers are reading this, they will be guffawing at the notion that I would be asked to work on such a book; none of them will remember me as their best student. But that’s exactly the value I bring to a book like this: I’m a filter. If I can understand the science, then the vast reading public, who are like me and not scientists, are going to understand it, too.

That doesn’t mean that biochemistry isn’t a stretch for me. But Robin Hesketh, the author of the book, has been a teacher in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Selwyn College for over twenty-five years; fortunately for me, and for his readers, he is a very, very good teacher.

The best part of working on the book, however—indeed, the best part of the book itself—is Robin, himself. The life of one out of every three people is going to be impacted by cancer; Robin was passionate about writing a book that would be of use to them—people who needed to understand the disease but who started out, as I had, with very little scientific background. When I didn’t understand a piece of the material, he was not only patient about explaining it yet again, his enthusiasm to do so never faltered. Cancer can be a devastating disease; Robin has spent his life studying it—has, like so many of us, suffered loss from it—and yet has not lost a charming, open optimism.

Optimism, like passion, is contagious. In the midst of a few tough months, working on a book about cancer was exactly the cure I needed. Betrayed by Nature is an important book—and it opened the door to a new and wonderful friendship.

Go here to buy Robin’s book,, and go here, to his blog, for ever more information from this tireless and excellent teacher