Hazel McHaffie

The power of storytelling

Last year, during lockdown, I did a short online course in oral storytelling. Stories do indeed have a power and appeal of their own, and I’ve personally gained confidence and courage as I’ve used the techniques I learned in various contexts since.

So I was delighted to find a collection of stories told in a fascinating way and used to make important points. It was while listening to an online talk given by philosopher/sociologist/theologian Elaine Storkey, that I heard her reference one of her own books: Women in a Patriarchal World, and I was intrigued enough to order a copy. I expected it to be deeply erudite and scholarly and a one-chapter-at-a-time kind of volume. Not a bit of it! It’s based on her erudition certainly, but presented in a light and eminently accessible form.

Her initial statement, instantly got me – a fellow storyteller – on side:
Storytelling is a powerful form of communication.
Wahey. Tick.
At the very least, it presents us with characters, a location and a plot and invites us to listen in.
I’m listening …
Good storytelling goes much further.
Go on …
It opens up the shared humanity of others so that we get inside their life situation, travel with them and learn from their experiences.

And that’s exactly what her ‘good storytelling’ does. In twenty five chapters she tells the stories of women in the patriarchal world of Bible times – the midwives in the time of Moses, the five daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab the prostitute, Deborah the prophetess, the wise woman of Abel Beth Maakah, Huldah the prophetess, Lydia, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, to name but a few. From these stories she draws out compelling lessons for us today; lessons that challenge us to see the issues of our own time, and think about what we could do to alleviate suffering, right wrongs, make the world a safer and kinder place. Every chapter, every story, has a section bringing important issues right up to date – Facing our challenges today, followed by a couple of Questions to ponder.

And those twenty-first century challenges include a wide range of big issues like leadership, oppression, injustice, commitment, resisting wrong, prostitution, nationalism, life and death decision making, morality, risk-taking, infertility, conflict resolution, safeguarding of children, whistle-blowing, climate change, empowerment of women. Impressive, huh?

But also disturbing stuff. What exactly am I doing to address the problems that beset our nation, our world, our time? And where I do ‘dabble’, how can I be more effective?

This writer is indeed a powerful storyteller. She’s also a strong example of someone who lives what she teaches. Multi-talented, esteemed and productive, but with a humility borne of her own deep faith.

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From the Edge of the Couch

When I was a student I made a conscious decision not to do a stint in psychiatry. Why? I was acutely conscious of the fine dividing line between what’s ‘normal’ and what’s ‘abnormal’, and had a sneaking suspicion I was too close to the edge for comfort myself at times. Decades on, I’m more sanguine about my own mental resilience, and more sympathetic to others’ strengths and weaknesses, and I guess, more curious about how the mind works.

Why am I re-living this decision now? Let me explain.

I was at a bit of a loss as to what book to take for eight hours sitting on a train with weighty matters on my mind. I needed something that I could dip in and out of, but something sufficiently absorbing to hold my interest. Ahah! Time maybe to tackle From the Edge of the Couch: Bizarre psychiatric cases and what they teach us about ourselves. The author: Dr Raj Persaud, a consultant psychiatrist, writer and TV personality.

It’s disturbing (as expected) and raises all sorts of questions about the way the mind functions, the variety of delusions and distorted beliefs that can lurk in its hinterland, and the cracks and flaws that can derail the psyche. More than that, it shows how delusions are far more common than we might imagine, and probing them can reveal much more understanding of how the ‘normal’ mind works.

From werewolves and vampires, to phantom lovers and stalkers, to Munchausens and gender issues, to various distorted perceptions relating to parts of the body, Dr Persaud unravels the problems, the possible causes, and the treatments, through the lives of real people amassed from reported cases over many countries, many years, and from many clinicians. It’s detailed, it’s research based, and it corroborates my remembered feeling that the line between the healthy and the disordered can indeed be thin.

Which of us doesn’t feel unworthy at times?
But most of us don’t resort to eating animal faeces as penitence, or slicing off a hand with a chain saw.

Which of us has not at times disliked a part of our appearance, or experienced anxiety about something untoward happening to cause us acute embarrassment or public humiliation?
But most of us don’t shut ourselves away from society altogether, or deliberately inflict injuries to ourselves and then infect them in order to get a limb amputated.

Which of us has not at some stage tried to alter their body image by something like dieting or exercise?
But most of us don’t eat industrial quantities of toilet paper or our own hair.

Which of us does not have some an experience in our childhood that was fairly traumatic?
But most of us don’t deliberately mutilate our face, amputate limbs, castrate ourselves or enucleate our eyes.

Which of us has not worried about body odour of some kind?
But most of us don’t opt our of work/school to obsessively wash our clothes, and avoid all social and domestic excursions out of the house.

Which of us has not known someone who had a stroke?
But most of us don’t react by becoming pathologically obsessed with eating fine haute cuisine food ourselves.

The list goes on and on. Puts our normal little anxieties into perspective, doesn’t it?

Dr Persaud takes delusions very seriously – sometimes indeed more seriously that the disturbed patient! Furthermore, for him, anything we can learn from them is valuable, as he points out in the postscript:
… dialogue with the delusional has much to offer us. It will not only assist in the specialized scientific enterprise of understanding the brain and mind, but such people’s experience should inform our personal understanding of what it is to be human … If we can grope towards some understanding of the most bizarre and incomprehensible ideas of all, then surely there is more hope for us to understand what each other thinks.
Many have said the most complex entity in the known universe is the human brain, but in fact there is something much more intricate and elaborate: human society – or groups of brains interacting. What is produced when minds try to understand and manipulate each other is where the real mystery and excitement of the human sciences lie.

From the Edge of the Couch is a lengthy tome, and holds a wealth of information – 59 pages of footnotes alone! All made viable by the bringing together of cases from so many sources, enabling deductions to be generated which would not be possible from the occasional single example that comes the way of any specific clinician. It’s perhaps small comfort that, as Dr Persaud admits, psychiatry is far from being an exact science, and relies heavily on objective interpretation of symptoms. That’s part of my worry!

Yep, I’ve no regrets at bypassing psychiatry! But after finishing this book, I’ve got the gratitude-for-what-life-has-dealt-me T-shirt and the mug.



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Theory versus practice

There’s nothing like experience for teaching you that theory only takes you so far.

For a few weeks now I’ve been living through a situation that in essence could well be fraught with ethical difficulties and conundrums. My sister had a catastrophic stroke in mid-October. She is now without the power of speech, paralysed, and with limited capacity to comprehend fine nuances. Totally dependent on others. Extremely frail with multiple co-morbidities. Furthermore, at times, she has appeared unaware of her surroundings and unresponsive to conversation. Unreachable.

I am her next of kin and her authorised health proxy. She and I together made sure some years back that we had all the paperwork for this in place; signed, sealed and delivered. We also prepared her Advanced Directive, revisited several times to ensure it represents her sustained wish. I am confident it does.

So, here we are, in one fell swoop, in exactly the kind of situation envisaged when the directive might become critical to decision making on her behalf. The consultant taking care of her in the first few weeks has been exemplary – a brilliant communicator as well as so kind and caring. He and I talked about the directive, and a copy is in her medical notes.

But, when exactly does the theoretical become the real? When does treatment become more burdensome than beneficial? When does the prospect of a life of dependence and indignity become so bad that death is a better option?  Who is going to suggest withholding medication in a crisis to ‘let nature take its course’? At what point does someone start that conversation? And who should have the casting vote?

We aren’t there yet. Currently we’re tiptoeing along establishing baselines, testing limits, waiting, watching, thinking. And right now, this week, starting all over again communicating remotely with a new team of professionals in a different ward since she tested positive for Covid-19. Putting someone’s wishes into effect in these circumstances is a far far harder thing in reality than in theory. And I’m so grateful for people like our dedicated consultant with experience and wisdom to guide us. The NHS has come in for some heavy criticism over the past couple of years; I want to shout out for people like him, like every person in the vast team who has made a difference in the care of my beloved relative … a patient who ticks none of the celebrity high-profile boxes, but who has all her life made the world a better place.

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Turkish delight? Not so much.

Way back in 2017 I read my first novel by much-garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red. It was shortly after I’d visited Turkey myself, and I reviewed it on this blog.
Verdict? Brilliant and well worth the time spent.
I’ve just read a second one of his: Snow, which I bought on the strength of the first experience.
Verdict? Much harder work and not so gripping.
However, I’m game for a challenge, so I persevered through this labyrinthine story, all 436 pages of tiny font, densely packed, precise, slow moving prose.

Journalist and poet, Ka, has travelled to a mountainous border city called Kars – one of the poorest and most overlooked corners of Turkey – ostensibly to investigate an epidemic of suicides amongst young women. He is both shocked and frightened by the manner of deaths: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines, one minute jostling normally with siblings or playing with babies, the next lying dead from shotguns or pills or nooses. The speed and efficiency of the deaths convinces him that they had been carrying suicidal thoughts around with them for some time.  But why?

Local reaction is powerful. Posters proclaim: Human beings are God’s masterpieces and suicide is blasphemy. Pamphlets are circulated. Such is the sensitivity around this issue that Ka himself is offered police protection. As he unravels attitudes and mores underpinning both religion and atheism, Ka also writes poems that come to him in blinding flashes – a significant development after a very fallow period in his creative energies.

He’s also looking for answers to his own existential questions. He’s searching for a God who doesn’t ask me to take off my shoes in His presence, and who doesn’t make me fall to my knees to kiss people’s hands. I want a God who understands my need for solitude. But he knows this is dangerous territory and is highly sensitive to the threat on all sides.

The story wanders into some pretty serious territory: the existence of God, why are we here, the problem of suffering, life after death, the importance of headscarves, religious fanaticism, media ethics … But the author, Pamuk himself, describes the heart of the story thus:
How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another’s heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known? Even if the world’s rich and powerful should ever try to put themselves in the shoes of the rest, how much would they really understand the wretched millions suffering around them?

Maybe, after all, the right book to read in this second week of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where we see such grave inequalities exposed between ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the wretched millions’.

It’s a fact universally acknowledge that I rarely have more than one book on the go at once. Simple mind! So, it’s probably a measure of the density of this particular novel that I dipped into two others in the time it took to complete it. My companion on a long train journey – Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichsrequired no effort or analysis, and was pure mindless distraction during a time of significant mental and emotional turmoil. A more serious alternative to Snow was Lies Lies Lies! by Michael Green, which looks at claims against Christianity. It provided a fascinating contrast with the religious bigotry and fanaticism within the Muslim world in Turkey depicted in Pamuk’s novel.


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My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, The Serial Killer is not a book I would have been drawn to normally, but having listened to the author Oyinksan Braithwaite speaking at the Hay Book Festival back in June, I was intrigued enough to order it immediately. And I read it in a sitting. It’s a very slim volume so no credit to me. (What’s hard to believe is that it’s taken me five months to post a comment about it!)

The plot is perfectly summarised on the back cover:
When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in ‘self-defence’ and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other …

Both sisters are vividly captured. The younger one, Ayoola, a clothing designer, is staggeringly beautiful, self-centred, inconsiderate, reckless, entirely without scruples. She begins her murderous career at the age of 17.
Ayoola lives in a world where things must always go her way. It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.
Her mother can see no wrong in her and always blames Korede for anything untoward.
That’s how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her go hungry…. I am the older sister – I am responsible for Ayoola.
Ayoola uses men without pity.

Korede herself – our narrator – on the other hand, is plain, self-deprecating, honest, conscientious, loyal, caring, a nurse. Her essential loneliness is poignantly conveyed by her habit of slipping into a ward to confide in a comatose patient. Oh, and she’s obsessive about cleanliness too.
The cabinet under the sink is filled with everything required to tackle dirt and disease – gloves, bleach, disinfectant wipes, disinfectant spray, sponge, toilet bowl cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, multi-surface cleaner, bowl brush plunger and caddy, and odor-shield trash bags.
All perfect for covering up a bloody murder … or three. Her sense of responsibility drives her to do just that, and to create alternative scenarios, lying repeatedly to protect her sister. But Korede is more haunted by her sister’s crimes than Ayoola is.

These sisters are at the heart of the novel, and it’s their love for each other than is tested to its limits. The brutal father, the prejudiced mother, the nurses, the cleaners, the doctor, the unconscious patient, the relatives, the third mainland bridge lagoon  … all leave their mark, colour in another corner of the jigsaw, shape their destiny, provide the backdrop for what happens. But it’s the sisters who hold centre stage.

And then a fourth boyfriend dies – this time supposedly of food poisoning/drug overdose. Korede is promoted to head nurse. The comatose patient wakes up … whoops! Aytoola tries one more time … and suddenly sisterly love is stretched in an entirely different direction.

The book has been hailed as a literary sensation, and was even longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019. I can see why. Extremely short chapters give the plot pace; occasional dialectic expressions anchor it to place; crisp dialogue makes the language sing; sparse prose tells the story with deft strokes. Compulsive reading.

Particularly fascinating to me, on a personal level, was hearing the author, herself a church goer, felt some disquiet about writing such a ‘godless’  book, and the reaction of her fellow Christians. Her family have misgivings too, her father telling her, ‘I don’t think they should be putting darkness back into the world. You need to own your responsibility as a creator.’ Braithwaite is exercised by the tension between her faith and the moral ambiguity of her fiction, but she takes comfort from the knowledge that readers laugh at her humour, and by that means she is bringing some joy into the world. I too empathise with her ambivalence; I too justify the fiction by the purpose it serves; just not in quite the same way.

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All in the name of art

The things folk will do for their art!

Author Peter May found himself in the People’s Republic on China by pure chance, taking advantage of a one-day trip advertised in his hotel. It was 1983, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. So taken was he with its otherworldliness, that he spent the next eight years reading everything he could about the country – its history, its politics, its culture, its cuisine.

He returned in 1991, this time deliberately, in search of a story. Aware that no one had ever set a crime thriller in Beijing up to that point, he was determined to be the one to do so.

It took another six years for him to go back again, this time with the germ of a story, plus a ‘precious’ introduction to the Chinese police from an American criminologist, formerly detective, revered by the country’s most high profile law enforcers. Thanks to this man’s influence, May was admitted to the world of oriental policing, and over the next seven years was given privileged insights into every aspect of policing he needed. And so The China Thrillers series was born and grew, featuring Chinese detective Li Yan, and American pathologist Margaret Campbell.

So many years, so much patient spade work, such commitment. He continued visiting right up till 2004 and produced no less than six books in the series.

It was almost exactly a year ago, in October 2020, that I reviewed the last book in the series, Chinese Whispers. Perversely, I’m just now reading the first, The Firemaker, published in 1999, which I bought during the pandemic, sufficiently intrigued as to want to join the dots.

This one is packed with detail about Chinese psychology, geography, habits, customs, reactions, life, much of it cleverly conveyed through the medium of Margaret Campbell’s struggles to understand Chinese ways when she’s invited to work in Beijing. It even strays into my territory – genetics and viruses! I have to confess, in places for me if feels a bit too heavily researched, but I reckon if I’d spent that long on a voyage of discovery, I’d want to use the information too!

[Many many thanks to the generous souls who place their fabulous photos on Unsplash for others to enjoy. Rafik Wahba and Kit Sanchez, I salute you.]






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Truth and ethics

I’m suffering from a troubled conscience as I write this post.

Nobody surely could have failed to be horrified at what happened to Sarah Everard in March this year. Her brutal kidnap and murder stirred the anger and sorrow of the nation, compounded by the fact that her killer was a police officer. – a police officer using his privileges and knowledge to desecrate and murder an innocent young woman. We’ve all been taught to trust the police, so it erodes the very fabric of our security. And the links between other sexual offences such as flashing, and subsequent rape and murder, brought the crime closer to us all.

Small wonder then that I felt sick to the pit of my stomach at the opening to Cold Kill by Neil White. Chapter 1 launches straight into the murder of a young woman, experienced through the eyes of the killer … wearing heavy boots, a polo shirt, a police crest on his breast, a black and white check ribbon around his cap, handcuffs dangling from his belt. By page 4 ethical questions are screaming in my head. Should I even read this fiction? Should writers write purely for entertainment about what is a living nightmare for some families?

I should explain I was led to the book by blurb about the author. Neil White failed all his exams at school, but in his 20s returned to education, qualified as a solicitor in his 30s, and now spends his days in the courtroom and his evenings writing crime fiction – a story of triumph through hard work and application. I was intrigued to know just how able this writer is. And yes, he’s certainly able! His brilliant capture of the first murder caught me unawares and raised all manner of qualms.

And boy, did this whole book challenge me! Moral dilemmas aplenty. Reporters wheedle their way into the living rooms of the distraught and grieving families, as they share intimate stories about the victim and the relatives, as they seek to titillate public curiosity. Just how morally right is it for reporters to intrude on private horror and pain in the interests of selling newspapers or raising viewing figures? One of the reporters is in a relationship with a police officer … where does that place them when it comes to a collision between personal and professional loyalties?

The public gather – like knitters at the guillotine. To what extent should their ghoulish interest be exploited? The fathers of the murdered girls have backstories; one an ex cop, the other heading up a dark underworld. How much of their past histories should be exposed to public scrutiny?

A retired child psychologist has confidential information that could prove vital in the murder inquiry … but which principle trumps which? Old confidences from a child patient, or the young women this killer is targetting now?

In the case of Cold Kill, there’s an extra level of revulsion knowing that the killer is there, unnoticed, invisible, privy to what the detectives are thinking, what the police are searching for, what the lawyers are advising. Part of their world. Secretly smirking. Laughing up his sleeve at their blindness, his own cleverness. And his ubiquitous presence is conveyed so effectively by occasional sections devoted to his perspective, amidst the narrative relating to the investigators. He is merely ‘he’. Sent shivers down my spine, feeling those cold eyes everywhere, watching, waiting, plotting, exacting terrible revenge, seeing his macabre MO like a signature at each killing. 

I did read to the end in spite of my reservations, and indeed this author is a compelling storyteller. But nevertheless I felt guilty for having been ‘entertained’ by crimes that have devastated the lives of real families. I’m still analysing this surprising development. Have I lost the art of differentiating fact from fiction? Or is this a matter of timing?


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No experience wasted

It’s a well-known fact that there are two types of readers: those who insist on persevering to the bitter end once they start reading (that’s me), and those who abandon a book if it doesn’t grab their attention within a few pages or chapters. Apparently at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this month, crime writer Mark Billingham urged his audience to adopt the 20-pages rule – if you aren’t hooked in 20 pages, don’t bother continuing. Hmmm.

There’s also a well-known saying that no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And that’s why I persisted with Fire and Rain. Now, I’m a bit of a fan of Diane Chamberlain. She writes about issues close to my heart, and her medical social worker background takes her into my kind of territory. But I have to confess this one didn’t rivet me.

After a rather laboured first stab, I decided to change tack. Instead of looking for a gripping tale, I’d study her technique. You see? No experience needs to be wasted.

From that angle, the most valuable lesson came through the character of Carmen Perez, a journalist who’s had a serious breakdown and attempted to end her life. Not only has she learned that her longed-for baby son has serious disabilities – brain damage, blindness, deafness, inability to speak – from which he will never recover; but she now knows that her husband is to blame. She can’t forgive him. Her marriage is over. She refuses even to visit her son. What’s more, when she finally returns to work, she’s seen as fragile, unsuited to the rigours of hard reporting, and her career is in jeopardy. She sees potential in the appearance of a strange reclusive man, calling himself Jeff Cabrio, who occupies one of her rental properties, and claims to be able to manufacture rain for a valley devastated by drought and wild fires. Fired up by renewed hope of reclaiming her position in the world of work, she begins to search for the secrets she’s convinced will lead her to criminal behaviour of some kind. Her desperate need to succeed drives her to extreme lengths at the expense of his safety and security and privacy.

Occupying another two properties Carmen owns are her ex-husband Chris Garrett, acting mayor of Valle Rosa, and his secretary, Mia Tanner, who is also a talented clay sculptor. Everyone carries the scars of past traumas. Everyone is hiding something. When Mia forms a relationship with ‘the rainmaker ‘ things get even more complicated. When her own interest in Chris is reignited it becomes an even more tangled web

Gradually Carmen uncovers facts about Jeff Cabrio, aka Robert Blackwell, which lead her to vulnerable and unsuspecting sources of information. Each time she must weigh up the ethical questions behind who she approaches, how she presents herself, and what she does with the information they divulge. Initially her ambition drives her to step beyond the boundaries of common decency, alienating those involved, but earning the admiration of viewers and producers. At what point is eroding another person’s privacy too high a price to pay? Time will tell.

It’s a neat tactic. We, the readers, gradually learn more and more about the characters, their chequered histories, their secrets, their lies, as she unravels the past. We begin to piece together a story which links these characters in bizarre and tender ways. We are carried along by the desire to know and understand more. Taken from this perspective, in the end it was worth the effort of ploughing through a rather improbable tale that didn’t appeal as much as most of Chamberlain’s work has done hitherto. Certainly not a waste of time. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that I started reading it in the Emergency Department of a hospital had something to do with my reactions.

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Wigtown 2021 revisited

Continued from last week …

Yep, the rest of my Wigtown Book Festival experience this year lived up to expectation.

Fiona Sampson – poet cum biographer – was commendably animated and enthusiastic, and impressively fluent about her subject: the life and times of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a contemporary of Dickens. Indeed, she gave such detailed and comprehensive responses that the chairperson, Lee Randall, several times found her questions pre-empted, but Lee kept pace brilliantly, and maintained her usual sangfroid, steering the event beautifully. The title of the book under discussion, Two Way Mirror,  comes from the author’s belief that Barrett Browning’s work is both a mirror for her life and a mirror for us today. It’s 30 years since a biography last came out on this canonical figure, and Sampson has exploded a few myths about her, explaining why she has been devalued and misrepresented. She maintains that, in spite of EBB’s constant ill health, and the constraints on women of her era, she was actually strong and wilful, a driven perfectionist, clever and precocious, exhibiting a highly developed social conscience from the age of 6, even though her education was limited to listening in to lessons from her brother’s tutor, and despite her own family’s wealth being built on slave trading. Through her written work she changed what society thought about child labour, rape, poverty, women, slavery. A  laudable legacy indeed.

Journalist, author and broadcaster, Sarfraz Mazoor rounded off my time with writers in Wigtown this year and he didn’t disappoint. Weaving together history, reportage and memoir, in his book, They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong about Each Other, Manzoor journeyed around Britain in search of the roots of the feelings about Muslims in this country. He is himself a Pakistani Muslim married to a white British woman, with two daughters who straddle races and cultures, so it’s unsurprising that his personal story is woven through his account. He explores the doubts and fears that are sometimes peddled about violence and fanaticism and radicalisation; religion and ethnicity; education and religious illiteracy; socialising and separation; the price to be paid for a liberal attitude; the clash of tradition and modern thinking. He doesn’t shy away from difficult issues – sexual exploitation, misogyny, homosexuality, arranged marriages, anti-semitism. They is also Manzoor’s search for a more positive future, for hope and inspiration, for a more tolerant faith, more progressive attitudes, and that search took him to heart-warming stories of people doing good deeds, leading to a conclusion that we all have it within ourselves to make things better, to build bridges across the chasm of mutual mistrust. They is the story of modern, Muslim Britain, the migrant experience told from both sides, both deeply personal and a challenge to all who have attributed to religion things that shouldn’t be laid at its door.

Reviewing the sessions I attended, I’m struck by the common theme: how can we make society a better place?; how can we cultivate goodness and altruism and kindness? I didn’t consciously choose them for that reason, but it’s a reflection of my own biases. Huge thanks again to Wigtown Book Festival for a brilliant programme and some very thought-provoking events that will continue to challenge long after the tents have folded and the speakers returned to their everyday walking-around lives.

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Wigtown Book Festival 2021

Here I am again like a pig in muck! Another book festival; another opportunity to attend online; hours spent listening to writers talking about their writing. What’s not to love?

And because I’ve visited Wigtown (Scotland’s National Book Town), walked its streets, and met some of its characters, I feel to actually be there. Even the photos that precede each session take me to the independent bookshops and immerse me in the atmosphere of the place.

This year a particular bonus has been  topics very dear to my heart: death and dying, altruism, ethics, equality.

Salena Godden is one of the foremost performance poets in the UK, but on this occasion she was promoting her first novel, Mrs Death Misses Death, and wow! did she promote it! I’m not normally a huge fan of readings, but in this case the three short readings she did were a major selling point. The writing is lyrical in the best sense of the word, and only enhanced by Godden’s expressive voice and pacing. What’s more, she herself came across as deeply sensitive to the nuances of death and grief. Her own father took his life when she was only a young child, and she has recently lost someone dear to her to Covid 19. She was also unafraid to show her emotion in response to a question about closure from a widow in the audience who has had to leave her husband’s ashes on the other side of the world following his sudden unexpected death. The book is fiction, but explores grief and mourning, invisible missing women, and the relationship the living have with the dead. In the story, Mrs Death takes the form of a black, working class, shape-shifting woman, and she forms an alliance with Wolf, a young, bisexual, living writer well acquainted with death. Together they debate and document experiences and consequences and the meaning of death. The book gives breathing space for the reader to be part of the story too, and Godden has left six blank pages at the end for anyone to add photos or names or tributes to those they have personally loved and lost. She wants these books to be shared and inherited and passed on, to keep those names alive – much as she wants the names of those lost to Covid to be remembered and respected as individuals mourned by family and friends, not as stark numerical statistics. It’s inspired.

Larissa MacFarquhar was in New York but spoke to a live audience in Wigtown eloquently and with real feeling. Her book, Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help, is about people who live morally-driven lives from choice, people with an extraordinary sense of duty and decency, people MacFarquhar found ‘unquestionably admirable’, who would challenge readers to think about their own attitudes and responses. The people she studied might be loosely described as ‘do-gooders’ (although she conceded that term tends to have a certain kind of stigma attached to it). The stories she shared included altruistic organ donors, an Indian aristocratic lawyer who founded a leper colony on the basis of a fellowship of suffering; a woman who fostered twenty children with special needs; a young couple who struggled with the question of how right/wrong it would be to have a child and spend money on them at the expense of the lives of many many children in underprivileged families; a man who made it his mission to save chickens. In the book she confronts wider issues, such as the conflict beneath how far a person is prepared to go at the expense of their families; how much we may devalue the quiet smaller efforts of those who work with small numbers or build on the work of others as opposed to the titans and entrepreneurs who blaze new trails. It was a fantastic session. And yes, immensely challenging.

Jill Hopper‘s book, The Mahogany Pod, is a memoir about her experience of falling in love in her twenties with a dying man and deciding not to walk away. Now around 50 and herself the mother of a teenage son, she felt ready, after 25 years, to analyse and probe and make sense of what happened to her young self, and in so doing to lay certain things to rest, to stop worrying about forgetting the detail, and to make peace with Arif’s mother. It’s a tender account of what it means to live and love fully in exceptional circumstances, and the changing quality of the grief that follows great loss, and which put her at odds with her peers. It’s surely a tribute to her present husband that he encouraged and supported her in this endeavour. The title comes from the only tangible gift from Arif she was left with once his family had removed everything of his after his death. It’s the distinctive pod of a tree which he picked up in his travels in Zimbabwe, but which is actually native to South America, and the misperception about its origins is symbolic of a number of things which were misunderstood or reinvented in their relationship. Hopper has a lovely gentle manner of speaking and the hour zipped by. Another superb event.

I feel so fortunate to have been able to attend this marvellous festival this week. And a big shout out for the amazing interviewers who were thoroughly well prepared and asked all the right questions. With a couple more sessions booked and still to come I might well be sharing more with you next Thursday too!

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