The Man Who Lost His Language by Sheila Hale - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

An Invisible Bullet

The Man Who Lost His Language


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 256pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Professor Sir John Hale was a brilliant scholar, teacher and writer. He was also a famously delightful man, loved and admired by everybody who knew him. In July 1992, just as he finished his magnum opus, The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, he suffered a massive stroke. He was taken to the local accident and emergency department, where he lay untended on a trolley for hours. After finally being given a bed in a filthy ward, he was kept alive. But he was offered no treatment or hope. When, after a week, the consultant finally deigned to speak to his wife, Sheila Hale, it was to tell her that it would be a waste of time to try to rehabilitate John. ‘You’re still relatively young, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life tied to an infarct. Take my advice. Put him in a home.’

Instead, Sheila fought to get him away, first to another, better hospital, then back to their own home. For although the stroke had deprived John of the ability to speak or write, it had not destroyed his brain or personality. In this heartfelt, passionate account of the years that followed, she explains that she had taken her husband’s superior intellect and imagination for granted for more than half her life, and right until the end it remained an essential article of faith for her that John could think as clearly as ever, and understood what people said to him. In fact, she found that he still could, without uttering a single intelligible word, follow and take part in the most rapid and demanding conversations. But he remained speechless: aphasic.

Before John’s stroke and for some time afterwards neither of us had more than a very vague idea of what the word aphasia describes or entails … neither of us had never knowingly met an aphasic. If we had we would probably have dismissed that person as stupid or mad,

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