Hazel McHaffie

Arts, crafts and literature

August. Hard to believe but it’s Festival time in Edinburgh yet again.  Other commitments and limited time are forcing me to divide my allegiance roughly into three divisions: this week – arts and crafts; next week – drama; the following week – literature.

Wooden penSo this week I’ve visited exhibitions and craft fairs, and as ever been hugely impressed by the skilled hands and eyes which create fabulous works of art of so many types.  I couldn’t resist this beautifully turned wooden pen which is destined to become my signing-books tool from hereon in.

It seemed fitting then, in snatched odd moments, to read The Iceberg: a true-life memoir of an artistic family by Marion Coutts which I bought soon after it came out last year … an author for whom ‘August from its first to its last day has been like this, a designated disaster zone, dates crossed out on the calendar like grazes or scars and dotted with emergency notes scribbled in pen.

At the heart of the book, its context, its object and its subject, is art critic and bibliophile, Tom Lubbock. Buying books is his habit; reading them is his work and life. His house is stacked high with them. He can go with practised ease to any title, any quote. His living depends on speaking and writing. How cruel then that he should develop a grade four tumour in the area of the brain controlling speech and language, which will gradually but inexorably rob him of the ability to communicate verbally.

The IcebergVisual artist wife, Marion Coutts, on the other hand, finds she is unable to read since learning that her husband is terminally ill. Words have become irrelevant except insofar as Tom needs them. If he is searching she will find and feed the words back to him until they reach a perfect understanding. In time she becomes Tom’s mouth, although without his brain she feels something of a fraud.

Son, Ev, is a toddler, absorbing language and coordination; learning to understand the world at breathtaking speed. The accelerating forces in his life are a counterweight to the deterioration in his father’s condition. ‘Both are engaged in a work of beyond-the-brink resourcefulness, an improvisatory balancing act, an enforced making up as they go along.’

The family as a unit are also feeling their way in uncharted territory. ‘Tom’s is a high-speed disease with full, motorway pile-up repercussions. It does not pause to allow you to admire the view from anywhere, How many times do I think, Now we really are in trouble?’ And each time the family look back at all the preceding occasions when they’ve said exactly that and realise they seem manageable and benign in retrospect compared with the present calamity.

Marion charts Tom’s decline and her reactions and Ev’s development with an unvarnished and unflinching honesty. Short staccato sentences somehow capture the moments of panic, the heart-stopping dread, the breathless anticipation of what’s coming. Descriptions devoid of self-pity make the enormity all the more raw.

‘In the giant city State of the hospital, new doctors take up their posts in early August and the convulsion of their arrival continues until the end of the month when gone-away staff return from the beaches and rocks of France and Croatia to face the great wave of September’s fresh sick and maimed. Emails go unanswered, messages do not get passed on, dates for procedures come and go, Post-it notes go missing and questions float wistfully in the air. Meanwhile we, outside the institution, outside of everything, are well under way on our own steam. We howl along, all three of us together, with knocks and shocks and sudden up-speedings round curves skewed tight enough to spill us right out, and our bones and skin are broken and torn but there is always more bones and skin to be mangled. Like a miraculous Catholic bloody endurance sport, there is always more. In the space of three weeks, between us we have had hospital stays, fits, diarrhoea, speech loss, tonsillitis, swollen feet, mobility loss, demoralisation, ambulances, glue ear and holidays – everything happens always and forever, on holiday. But we are not tourists. We travel tightly baggaged with our lives. There is nothing left at home.’

Her very writing style, confident and semi-detached and analytical, sets her apart as in control; but the half-buried casual confessions reveal her vulnerability. As she finds: ‘The weak are held close and given tea. They are hugged and warmed by the fire. The strong are revered but kept at a distance.’

Published last year, The Iceberg has been shortlisted for three major literary prizes and longlisted for another one. Wow! Tom, familiar with the literary world, would have been proud of his wife’s achievement. I, for my part, found some aspects of the book irritating, some bewildering, but in many other ways it echoed my own account of a slow death in Right to Die; a kind of real-life authentication of my fiction.

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