Hazel McHaffie

The Lake District

There’s nothing quite like reading a book about an area you’re currently inhabiting or have just explored, to bring a story to life.

So on a short break to the Lake District this month I snapped up two novels based in the very area where we were staying. They’re written by Rebecca Tope, who makes a virtue of identifying real places – not just towns and rivers, but hotels and monuments and shops in her scene-setting.

The Windermere Witness is set against the stunning landscape around Grasmere, Ambleside, Conniston, amidst the very mountains and fells and lanes we were walking in, alongside the history and ghosts of famous writers and painters we were hearing about.

Following a personal tragedy, Persimmon Brown has moved to the Lake District and built a more peaceful life for herself as a florist running Persimmon Petals, but finds being part of key events in the lives of her new neighbours gives her insights normally denied to incomers.

As a florist, Simmy understood that she was assumed to be on the side of froth. She was expected to focus on matching shades of peachy pink, and the exact drop of a swag of autumn leaves – and she diligently fulfilled such expectations. … Few people grasped that a florist has to listen to stories of sudden deaths and inconvenient births. They had to take enormous care over wording on cards and timing of deliveries. The wrong flowers could cause decades of offence. They were invisible but crucial bystanders at the major life events that overtook every family in the land. Where a wedding demanded far more labour than any other occasion, Simmy was fully aware that the really important work lay with a funeral.

But with one of her customers – the millionaire Baxter family – deaths and weddings seem to be inextricably interwoven, and Simmy is sucked into their intricacies and affairs almost against her better judgement.  Who exactly were these people with their overt affluence but impoverished relationships? They include …
… a jet-set couple, carelessly creating a child between other relationships, the mother virtually forgetting about him
… five unmarried men and one girl, friends for years, with their own secrets and passions impenetrable to an outsider
 … the bride’s brother, insured for millions, found dead in the lake on her wedding day
 … the bride’s father shot dead the following day
… the chief suspects all intimidating, volatile and secretive.

And how come that she, Simmy, is embroiled in both murders? She’d encountered the murdered boy hours before his death, and felt an inexplicable sense of dread. Why had he singled her, a stranger, out for special attention? And why had she been invited to a specific place the following day, and hence been actually present at the second murder? Suddenly everyone wants to talk to Simmy: she is the principal witness. The sense of personal menace grows stronger.

Ambleside Alibi finds Simmy an unwitting witness again. First for a man suspected of having something to do with a murdered old lady, Nancy Clark. Then the innocent provider of flowers to another elderly lady, Mary Joseph, who’s received the sub-standard bouquet from someone claiming to be a granddaughter about whom she would be unaware. When unexpected links emerge between the two, unease and suspicion mount.

By now, with a second case in their area, she’s in an established ‘gang of three’ with a very bright teenage boy, Ben, and her own one-eyed part-time shop assistant, Melanie, and she shares her misgivings and dilemmas with them. Much of their analysis in the days leading up to Christmas, when snow and ice turn the beautiful area into a treacherous location, is more conjecture than evidence of anything sinister … until, that is, an attempt is made on Simmy’s own life. Two people she has instinctively liked are in the frame. Who can she trust?

Neither tale would have appealed to me without the link to my visit to the Lake District. But they were an easy read and I could easily overlook the improbable elements, and enjoy visualising the locations.

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The world of the writer

All authors feel like giving up, sometimes. In the last year, though, I have heard more authors than usual saying they are going to do it. Or, if not that, then saying that they want to work but can’t. For some, strain and anxiety have smothered the spark, not least the strain of seeing income – from festivals, school visits and theatrical work, say – disappear. … survival conditions are not often conducive to creativity.
For others, the issue is, or has been, isolation and lack of stimulation …
(Think libraries and archives shut … conversation difficult … travel almost impossible.)
I suspect though that what has most sapped authors’ creativity has been a lurking sense of triviality and irrelevance … It can be hard to believe that what you are doing matters when the world, a country or your family is in a life-endangering crisis.

So said James Connachie, Editor of the Society of Authors’ journal, The Author, writing in Summer 2021. And comments on the effect of the pandemic have bobbed up repeatedly throughout the last year. It has had a major effect on writers, including me. Nonetheless, there is far more to feel positive about in our lives and reach, and that too has been a recurrent theme in the journal.

None of us, however modest our sales, should forget how fortunate we are, to possess a power of self-expression that is denied to all but a minute fraction of the human race. (Max Hastings, Summer 2021)

We all have the power in our actions to move the dial towards the society we would wish to build. Hope lives and dies in the hands of individuals and the choices we make, and it requires all of us to venture beyond our silos of certainty. (Sarfraz Manzoor, Autumn 2021)

Isn’t that the job of writers and artists after all? To explore, reimagine and re-present the world in all its strangeness and banality? (Dan Richards, Winter 2021)

It is reading that refuels and restores us. You can’t pour out words without restocking the tanks. Sentences in, sentences (different ones, hopefully better, usually not) out. The cycle can’t be broken. (Lucy Mangan, Spring 2022)

The world of the career writer is a rarefied one, crazy, discombobulating at times, but I am enormously grateful for the beautifully crafted prose which consummate masters of our trade contribute to our very own magazine. Thank you for another year of excellent thought-provoking articles and all the encouragement to persevere.

 

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HM Queen Elizabeth II

Thank you, Ma’am, for a lifetime of service, and your example of faith and commitment.

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The Covid pandemic – fact and fiction

It’s some years since I read a Jodi Picoult book, but this one, Wish You were Here, seemed to challenge me to overcome my personal reservations about fictionalising the horrors of Covid-19 – all that fear and death and loss and trauma. So I swallowed hard and bought it, and I read it immediately before I could chicken out. OK, yes, I have hangups here which might prejudice my review; I declare them openly.

The story is set at the beginning of the pandemic and features a couple separated by it. Diana, an art specialist, is marooned on an island in the Galápagos that has closed down almost completely against the virus, while her doctor boyfriend, Finn, is marooned in a hospital in New York City as Covid rushes through and over them like a tsunami.

Virtually cut off from her former life, Diana finds herself examining everything that has brought her to this point, and wondering just what the future holds.

… you don’t often get to pause and reflect on [your life]. It’s just really hard to sit in the moment, and not worry if pause is going to turn into stop.

In a strange way, being stripped of everything – my job, my significant other, even my clothing and my language – has left only the essential pert of me, and it feels more real than everything I have tried to be for years. It’s almost as if I had to stop running in order to see myself clearly, and what I see is a person who’s been driving towards a goal for so long she can’t remember why she set it in the first place.

Thus far, so Picoult! She’s famous for her psychological takes after all.

Half way through I’m getting bored. It all feels too contrived. The medical updates Finn sends to Diana smack of an author wanting to cram the facts she’s learned during her research into her story somewhere. We’ve all had our fill of what Covid did in real life and that so recently; we know the facts. And surely no man worth his salt would bore his girlfriend with so much inappropriate information in an email when she’s on holiday … would he? So I was beginning to consider abandoning the book … when, uh-oh, page 183, and Picoult changes the narrative in one fell swoop.

I won’t spoil the story-line for others, but suffice it to say the rest of the book gave me a second wind because I was mentally revising the impressions of the preceding half. But a big bit of me was thinking, Did she just commit the cardinal sin on a par with ‘It was all a dream’? Even if not, it’s the impact Covid has had on our lives that dominates. However, Picoult is adopting a fairly unusual angle – the psychological legacy, and this might well be appealing to readers coming from a different background from mine.

So, what did I conclude? Well, I was interested to read she too was reluctant to write during her time of quarantine and isolation, and I have to admire her ability and determination in rising above that resistance. But I’m afraid my personal reservations about making this real-life horror into a made-up story so close to the lived experience prevented me from really entering into it. The actual emotional and mental trauma has been too great. Sorry, Jodi, this one wasn’t for me.

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A Book-Handling Service

How about this for a brilliantly amusing idea?

And yes, it was actually once proposed by a satirist called Flann O’Brien in the Irish Times. Noticing that wealthy men acquired vast libraries as a status symbol, but the books were clearly not read, and some of the owners were indeed actually illiterate, he conjured up a scheme to give them more credibility: a Book-handling Service. It’s beautifully outlined in this post.

In a nutshell, it was designed to make the owners of the said impressive libraries look erudite and knowledgeable. There were four levels of service.

Popular Handling:
Books to be well handled, four leaves in each volume to be dog-eared and things like tram tickets and cloakroom dockets inserted at strategic points as forgotten bookmarks.

Premier Handling:
Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight pages to be dog-eared, significant passages to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French to be inserted as a bookmark.

De Luxe handling:
Each tome to be mauled savagely, spines damaged, passages underlined in red pencil, with exclamations and interrogations inserted in the margins. Theatre programmes to be inserted as forgotten bookmarks. As least thirty volumes to be stained with beverages ranging from coffee to whiskey. No less than five to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors.

Le Traitemente Superbe:
Every volume to be loused up by expert handlers. Underlining of significant passages in quality red ink, with comments in the margins such as ‘How true, how true!’, ‘I don’t agree at all’, ‘Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151‘. Affectionate inscriptions and expressions of gratitude supposedly from the author to appear in at least six volumes.

Hilarious concept, huh? As absurd as it is ostentatious and sacrilegious.

Reminds me a little of the practice that emerged early on in the pandemic where people could buy books by the yard to put behind them onscreen to make them look studious and well-read.

For us today, of course, literate, and with ample access to affordable books, the value of the contents of our bookshelves lies not in how worn the physical book appears, nor how we acquired it, but the way the words inside made us think and feel. And that’s the magic for me. One person (the author) covers the pages with little black squiggles; the other person (the reader) absorbs the meaning and significance of those little squiggles, and lo and behold, the experience can influence attitudes, understanding and lives, without the two parties ever meeting or exchanging a single verbal word. And the best books do indeed change us – writer and reader both.

 

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Rogue Lawyer

When the Edinburgh International Book Festival is in full swing in my home city, days are pretty fragmented, so reading is spasmodic. What to choose for the in-between times?

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham (2015) exactly fitted the bill. The eponymous hero is Sebastian Rudd, an unconventional criminal defence lawyer, and a one off.

My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages. I don’t pay to be seen on television, though I am often there. My name is not listed in any phone book. I do not maintain a traditional office. I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don’t mind using them. I live alone, usually sleep alone, and do not possess the patience and understanding necessary to maintain friendships. The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling. I wouldn’t call it a “jealous mistress” as some forgotten person once famously did. It’s more like an overbearing wife who controls the checkbook.

He has an acrimonious divorce behind him; a son of 7 whom he rarely gets to spend time with. His apartment, his office, his car, his associates, are all of dubious worth and credibility, and his methods are irregular to say the least. He has a dismally low opinion of the whole law enforcement establishment, but he is passionate about his clients. Whether they are totally innocent or totally guilty he will serve them to the best of his ability, fighting with every ounce of skill and energy and wile against a corrupt and self-serving system and any shade of injustice. As he says: every defendant, regardless of how despicable the person or his crime, is entitled to a lawyer.

The book is divided into parts, each one initially dealing with a different case, later picking up all the outstanding threads, the discreet entities making it perfect for my purposes. Clever, detailed, mesmerising, fast-paced stories that leave the reader awed by Rudd’s devilish tactics and rogue methods. He takes on unscrupulous judges, corrupt policemen, criminals on death row, and his aggressive ex. He reaches out a helping hand to juvenile wrong doers, underprivileged families, wronged members of the public. He surrounds himself with people from all shades of the underworld whose loyalty he trusts completely.

He is indeed a rogue lawyer. And Grisham manages to pack the tales with so much American lawyerly wisdom that I was caught up in wondering what I would have done in the circumstances of each dilemma – within and outside the law – and being profoundly grateful for British justice.

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Festival time again

It’s that time of year again: the Edinburgh International Book Festival is in full swing. My happy place!

On Saturday I had the pure delight of listening to three excellent speakers all dealing with topics very dear to my heart, all having just published or just written new books.

Retired neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, talked about the lessons he learned from admitting his mistakes as a surgeon, and how vulnerable he’s been facing up to his own diagnosis of advanced cancer and his impending death. The transition from one side of the consultation table to the other has proved surprisingly difficult, he admits.  Given his stature and experience, his honesty and humility are compelling, and somehow give us all permission to feel vulnerable and afraid. I’ve read his earlier books and listened to him several times, but with his latest one called And Finally, I fear he might just have laid down his pen.

Abi Morgan, is an award winning screenwriter, with brilliant TV series like The Split, and films like The Iron Lady, to her credit. She’s also dealing with treatment for cancer, but the main message she was sharing at the Festival was the experience of her husband, Jacob, developing a condition known as brain on fire, a form of encephalitis, which caused him to believe she was some kind of imposter. It has taken eighteen months and a long stay in hospital for him to recognise her. She too talked with such frankness and insight. The film rights to this most unusual love story have been sold, with Morgan herself writing the screenplay, and already thinking of POVs and actors – I’m already eagerly anticipating it.

Nihal Arthanayake, an Asian BBC radio presenter, used his wealth of experience interviewing celebrities and interesting people to talk about the art of making conversation. In this digital age where social media is cultivating an increasing sense of narcissism, he feels, we need to learn to take a real interest in people, engage in meaningful empathetic dialogue, and ‘listen to understand’ rather than ‘listening to talk’, as he put it. I totally agree. He’d be just the kind of person you’d want beside you at a long dinner party!

Then, on Monday, this was followed by Amy Bloom talking about her husband Brian’s Alzheimer’s and taking him from the USA to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. She’s an author, screenwriter, teacher, therapist, social worker, and spoke so eloquently of the slow realisation of what was going wrong with him, and his passionate wish for autonomy and agency in death as in life, which she respected. In her State of California there is no right-to-die provision, and she vividly captured the hoops they needed to go through to establish his capacity to make this choice even when dementia was taking away so much of his true potential. I loved her robust no-nonsense approach.

Medical ethics is alive and very well in the world of books! What a fabulous opportunity to listen, without interruption or distraction, to these fascinating super-articulate people, for whom writing has been therapeutic and cathartic, to travel with them into some most intimate and troubling places, and to do so from my own home, at an affordable price, choosing just those topics that really float my boat. A brilliant facility which has come out of the pandemic – thank you EIBF.

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Reflections

James McConnachie, the editor of our professional journal, The Author, summed up my feelings exactly in the latest Summer edition:
Many authors I know have been struggling of late with feelings of triviality or even irrelevance. First it was Covid. Then Putin, with his murderous war in Europe. How can authors justify what we do while our colleagues in the east – authors, journalists and artists, alongside a population of 40 million people – are fleeing their homes? When they are starving in basements? When they are being shot and shelled?

But through the articles chosen for this special point in history, he goes on to demonstrate that the work of poets and writers has the capacity to invent a language to express
anger, pain,grief, longing, gratitude and hope; making sense of the broken, mutilated world; affirming life,
and to underline the importance of culture in the lives of individuals and countries, in explaining who we are and where we belong – all beautifully illustrated with contributions from Ukraine’s own poets, illustrators and writers.

The whole ethos of our journal is to be a place where light is brought into deeper places, rather than generating dissension or inflaming tempers by reacting to contentious divisive issues. As the editor says himself:
‘I am determined that every issue of The Author should offer inspiration as well as instruction.’
This edition, more perhaps than most, highlights that lovely approach.

McConnachie also asks the question: How can authors approach topics that invite polarisation? and that is exactly the question I’m asking myself in preparing the ground for my own next novel … on abortion. I think … I hope … Maybe …

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Escape

Every now and then there comes a patch in life where a complete break away feels imperative. One reason after another (all legitimate and unavoidable) has prevented escape for me up till now, but this past week a snatched few days away helped to recharge the batteries.

What to take in the way of books? – well, reading has to feature in recuperation, doesn’t it? Something undemanding that might well incidentally teach me things about writing, but the real aim is to lose myself effortlessly in a fictional world. Escapist indulgence, pure and simple.

The answer came in a special deal of three books by Harlan Coben in a local bargain store: Back Spin, Fade Away and Drop Shot, lumped together I suspect because they’re all sport-related: golf, basketball and tennis respectively. I’ve got a fair collection of (some still unread) books by this American crime writer, acquired since I read and was impressed by Tell No One. He’s easy reading, fast paced, witty, clever with his plots, entertaining without too much hard work, with a nice line in self-deprecation and sarcasm. In his acknowledgements, he ascribes all errors to those who helped him! – so a guy with a nice line in humour then; someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Just the kind of chap to help me de-stress.

And indeed these three novels served the purpose very nicely. Something I could just pick up and put down at will, without needing to analyse technique or remember detail. Coben has the confidence and street-cred to break plenty of writing-course rules, but somehow it all adds immediacy and appeal. The pages just kept turning; the twists just kept coming till the very end.

I’ve returned to ‘normal’ life refreshed and unwound. Not just from reading, but from wandering through intriguing mansions and fabulous gardens too (a little glimpse below). A real get-away-from-it-all break. Just what the doctor ordered.

 

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Theory v practice

I’ve studied the ethical issues around the subject;
I’ve talked to many many people with practical experience as either clinicians or patients or relatives;
I’ve even written a book on the subject – Over My Dead Body.
Yes, I’m talking about organ donation and transplantation.
So I knew the facts in theory, but this past week, I’ve had personal experience of the process, and I am impressed in a new and much more profound way by those who commit to this.

Years ago I wrote my own Advance Directive, and to witness it I chose a dear friend, a doctor, who would understand the significance of what I wanted in the event I couldn’t speak for myself – someone I could trust to ensure everything was legal and watertight and fully carried out. We shared so many values. He was twenty years younger than I, so I expected him to outlive me. But last week it was he who suffered a catastrophic haemorrhage in his brain from which there could be no meaningful recovery – exactly the kind of scenario I had envisaged for myself – and it was I who stood at his bedside and alongside his family.

He wanted his organs donated, and was on the register. Of course he did; that was the kind of altruistic person he was. But as I well knew, relatives can veto this request if they can’t bear the prospect. This family didn’t hesitate; they were behind his wishes one hundred percent, instantly comforted by the thought that this selfless act would bring new hope to other families. Now, though, I saw at first hand what they must endure in these circumstances. When we offer our organs in this way, how many of us really think what that will mean to our nearest and dearest? In the midst of their shock and grief, they must listen to and answer so many questions, they must spend so much time waiting and watching, and then have that last goodbye controlled by others.

I saw too, the sensitivity, the professionalism, of ICU staff who maintain the body in optimal condition for as long as needed, and of the transplant team who walk the family through the steps, gently, sensitive to their timing as well as the shelf-life of the organs and the desperate need of potential recipients.

In this case neither the family nor the staff could have handled things better. I was in awe of their commitment, their dedication and skill. My friend would have been so proud of them all, personally and professionally. And I have a new respect for anyone who commits to this delicate and painful transaction. They deserve our utmost respect and gratitude.

Farewell, my kind and gentle friend; you have done a most noble thing.

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