Genius enchained by the bodyThe Man Who Lost His Languageby Sheila HaleAllen Lane ?14.99, pp302If you ever need convincing that our brains are organs of baffling intricacy, consider what happens when they go awry. A simple cranial blood blockage can trigger a cascade of bizarre effects, as is revealed by the case of art historian Sir John Hale, who suffered a stroke aged 69, an arterial insult that left him unable to walk, look after himself or articulate anything but the sounds ‘da woahs, da woahs’.With heartbreaking patience, his wife Sheila, aided by friends, coaxed him towards recovery. He learnt to walk and care for himself, but never regained the speech with which he had once dazzled audiences. Indeed, his attempts to communicate often had odd side effects: Hale could write in missing words in any phrase or sentence put in front of him – unless they were titles of Christmas carols, which he ended up labelling ‘Good Royal Wenceslas’ or ‘Little Angel of Bethlehem’.It took a year to coax him to speak his first word, stuttered after a Herculean effort. ‘Vermeer,’ he cried. After that, improvements came slowly, though Hale still captivated listeners through a combination of mime and impressive vocal style, despite the fact that most of his words were nonsense. The machinery of his mind may have been crippled, but Hale’s intellect and charm pulled him through until his death in 1999, seven years after the stroke.It is an endearing tale, though Sheila Hale’s book is far more than a mere monograph to a remarkable academic. Beneath the sketches and anecdotes lies a resolute, angry book in which the author lambasts the health service that so badly let down her husband. She says of the ward, a place that smelled of ‘urine and stale cigarettes’ into which Hale was dumped after his stroke: ‘It was the closest place to hell I’d ever been to in all my privileged, overprotected, trusting life.’For this, the author seems to put most of the blame on doctors, though, in truth, the shambles of Britain’s hospitals has much more to do with political indifference than medical failure. Sheila Hale is nevertheless to be congratulated for writing this timely, charged reminder about the general disgrace of our hospitals, and about the particular shame of our neglect of a condition that afflicts one in four over the age of 55. She also gives the reader a moving insight into the redemption of a great man and war hero. The effect is provocative – and uplifting.