Hazel McHaffie

Man’s Search for Meaning

HEALTH WARNING: This week’s post may not be easy or desirable reading for those who are finding life tough right now.

In a week where the headlines revolve around the financial implications of a global pandemic, bitter in-fighting in the Scottish government, and the revelations of a woman who found the burden of royal life too much after a couple of years, coming at a time when a proud 99-year-old prince who gave up a successful career and the next 70-odd years of his personal ambitions, to always walk two steps behind his wife, lies ill in hospital … well, I, for one, was looking for perspective.

And I found it in the depths of the Holocaust.

During WWII, psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps – as an inmate, not as a doctor. But he survived and went on to be professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School until his death in 1997, the author of thirty books. So when he speaks about the importance of finding meaning in life, we ought, at the very least, to sit up and listen.

I certainly did.  Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust – written in 1945 – has been described as ‘profoundly honest’ … ‘inspiring’ … ‘deeply sensitive’ … ‘influential and eloquent’ …’wise, kind, and comforting’. It’s all of those things. And it’s eminently readable to boot.

The bulk of this slim volume is not so much a fascinating account of his own three years of appalling treatment in one concentration camp after another, but his analysis of what suffering of this depth and magnitude reveals about mankind, and what he learned about himself through the experiences. Here he was, ‘stripped to naked existence‘, quite literally. With the exception of his sister, his entire family – father, mother, brother, wife – perished in the camps.
How could he – every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination – how could he find life worth preserving?
He dug deep to discover why.

He unpicked, with a kind of detached professional interest, the gradual dulling of emotion, which inured prisoners to horrific sights, sounds, smells and tastes, as well as a brutality and sadism normally unknown to them. He watched the apathy and blunted sensitivities helping his fellow inmates acquire a protective shell – a mechanism of self-defence which eventually detached them from the frequent beatings. He observed the detail of human behaviour in these appalling circumstances, translated it into psychopathological terms, and explained the ‘Why?’- why they followed like sheep; why they sought the centre of the group during marches; why they ripped clothes and food from still warm corpses; why they secreted their meagre ration of bread in their pocket, taking a crumb at a time throughout the day. Throughout his incarceration, he retained this sense of medical curiosity, pitting received wisdom against lived reality in these uniquely horrific conditions, and sometimes he found both medical texts and his own reservoir of knowledge wanting.

And gradually, over time, he discovered first hand ‘the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.’ And that ‘love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.’ Even though he had no means of knowing whether she was alive or dead, nothing could touch the strength of his love for his young wife (she had in fact died aged just 23).

But good does not always prevail, and he saw his fair share of evil, before concluding that everyone has a choice as to how they deal with adversity. ‘The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or, in a bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.‘ Dr Frankl himself found the courage and resources to make a victory of the experiences, to turn this humiliating life into an inner triumph.

One of the tactics he adopted to gain this inner strength and mastery over his present adversity, was to imagine himself giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! By this method he somehow rose above the present situation and observed the sufferings as if they were already in the past. Nevertheless, he remained humble and understanding and forgiving of others’ less robust approach. When he saw them steal, or act meanly or brutally, he refused to condemn: ‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’ Nor would he judge any group as a whole, not even those who routinely harmed him. None were made up of all angels or all devils; indeed, in his thinking, there are only two races of men in this world – the ‘decent‘ and the ‘indecent‘.

But of course, he saw utter despair and hopelessness elsewhere in Auschwitz and Dachau. And it was through the inmates who were at rock bottom, contemplating suicide, that the psychiatrist in him recognised a fundamental truth. ‘When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized‘ – it could be a father to his child; or an author to his unfinished creative or scientific work – ‘it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude … He knows the “why” of his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.‘ An understanding shared with Nietzsche.

And it was by this route, that Dr Frankl honed his own version of existential analysis – ‘logotherapy‘. Essentially logotherapy involves searching for the thing that stops a person committing suicide, the one thing that anchors him to life, and using this as the guide-line for psychotherapy, to help him find meaning in life. One is moved to ask, Who better to steer others away from the torments that are devouring them, than this exceptional man?

Part 2 of this little book is a brief capsule version of Viktor Frankl’s therapeutic doctrine: Logotherapy in a Nutshell. As he says himself, it’s a pretty hopeless task to try to collapse twenty volumes in German into thirty small pages in English! Not much hope I can do it in a couple of sentences, then. In essence though, logotherapy focuses on the meaning to be fulfilled by the patient in the future. Man inherently needs ‘something’ for the sake of which to live, and he desires a life that is as meaningful as possible. Using logotherapy, a patient is assisted to identify what this ‘something’ is, and is then reorientated towards the meaning of his life. Dr Frankl himself felt a deep desire to write the manuscript he had started before he was taken to the camps. That helped him survive.

Not your average Holocaust book; but a remarkable tribute to the triumph of hope and endurance against insuperable odds, and a potential doorway towards finding meaning and purpose in our own lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

A Christmas indulgence for me in a year of social isolation was watching period drama set in the 18th century. Pure escapism. Exactly what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the stresses generated by the pandemic. But by chance, a fitting introduction to a biography I’ve had in my tbr pile for ages, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman; rather like an undemanding crash course in the life, times and customs of aristocratic families and high society in that era. So, time to get stuck in to the more serious business of reading the book.

I felt a degree of investment already in this particular family story. I’ve twice visited Chatsworth House (the Derbyshire seat of the Cavendish family through 16 generations); watched the present Duke and Duchess in action on more than one occasion; listened to Debo, the Dowager Duchess, speaking at a literary event (the real live variety!). And of course, we all know the story of Lady Diana Spencer (Georgiana’s great great great great niece) who went on to marry and later divorce the heir to the throne in our lifetime, and whose own life mirrors much of her forebear’s – the similarities will be obvious in my short review.

This acclaimed biography was the result of years of painstaking research (mostly for a PhD) and published in 1999 – two years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Running to nearly 500 pages of small print, it’s not for the fainthearted, but I found it fascinating and eminently readable, although I confess I did get lost in the complicated political shenanigans sometimes. The upside of that is heightened admiration for the author who has steered a steady course through mountains of data and a turbulent period in history. Small wonder that she’s wheeled out on as an authority in various documentaries relating to the royals or the Spencer family.

Born at Althorp (Diana’s home), on 7 June 1757, Georgiana was the eldest child of the first Earl and Countess Spencer. Beloved of her mother, she grew up in an exceptionally sophisticated milieu of writers, politicians and artists, and was from her childhood encouraged in the social skills. She dabbled in writing – prose, poetry and plays – as well as music. Striking and stylish rather than lovely, she was natural, with an unconscious charm, giving herself no airs, and entirely without snobbery. Unsurprisingly she became the darling of society, combining a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval wherever she went.

Thrust into public life at 16, naturally vibrant and attractive and appealing, adored and feted by so many, an acclaimed hostess and leader of fashion, she nevertheless endured a chaotic and chequered marriage, having little in common with the fabulously wealthy but reserved and shy fifth Duke of Devonshire. Neither understood the other.

Sexual freedom and licentiousness were common and accepted amongst the ton at this time, and both parties were serially unfaithful. Before their marriage, the Duke had a mistress and a child (a girl, Charlotte, whom Georgiana took into her family when the mother died before Georgiana had any children of her own), and he continued this liaison. To her chagrin, and that of her in-laws, however, motherhood remained elusive for Georgiana for some nine years. She suffered a number of miscarriages, partially laid at the door of her reckless living, drinking and gambling to excess, and her bulimia. In spite of her position and appeal, in spite of moving in the highest circles at home and abroad, she was tormented by self-doubt and loneliness, always seeking attention and praise. A woman of contradictions.

Within two years of becoming the Duchess she was thoroughly disillusioned with her marriage, and fashionable life, and the dissipation within her high society circle, as well as frustrated by the convention of her time that restricted women in so many ways. One relationship however, had a profound influence on her: that of a brilliant though flawed politician, Charles Fox, who led her into a life in politics. It was politics indeed that lifted her out of her meaningless life of parties and fashion, and gave her purpose. Within the space of five years she matured into an adept political campaigner and negotiator in her own right, although she was vilified for her too-modern-for-18th-century-sensibilities practical involvement in electioneering – about 100 years ahead of her time.

Hugely influential in her direction of travel too, were powerful ambivalent relationships with two women – Mrs Mary Graham, with whom she formed an intimate bond and could really be herself; and Lady Elizabeth Foster (Bess) who became her constant companion and confidante, but who also struck up a liaison with the Duke, whom she later married. Ironically they both conceived children by the Duke within days of each other.

In spite of enormous wealth, status, exalted connections, moving in the highest circles of royalty and aristocracy, innate abilities, advantages, time and opportunities, Georgiana’s life spun out of control as she sank into her addiction to gambling, and accrued ruinous debts. The Duke grew more and more intolerant and variously demanded a separation, or exiled her abroad. But Georgiana held one trump card; the Duke still needed a legitimate male heir.

With so many affairs and illegitimate children on the part of the Duke and Duchess and Bess (who formed the third side of their ménage à trois), elaborate arrangements had to be made to preserve a facade of respectability and to ensure the children were adequately cared for and protected. I was unaware that in the 18th century fathers were automatically given custody, but so it was. However, Georgiana’s maternal affection shines through, and even when she was banished abroad, she set about educating herself so that she could help her children learn. (Shades of parents today struggling to stay abreast of their children’s schooling during lockdown!) In so doing, she developed a keen interest in matters scientific and geological, becoming accepted into professional circles and acquiring a valuable collection of minerals and fossils for a museum within Chatsworth. It was only her scientific studies that stopped her craving for gambling.

Overall the book leaves one with a distaste for the rudimentary medical knowledge and lax morality and tumultuous politicking of the 18th century. Descriptions of Georgiana’s treatment for an eye infection, and her agonising death, are positively nauseating. Our modern sensibilities balk at the blatant infidelities and machinations in the marriage markets amongst the ton, too. The hapless children are passed around like parcels to disguise their parentage.

On the other hand the practice of writing letters to all and sundry has much to commend it. They have provided a rich mine of information which gives colour and depth to their stories, and they make fascinating reading. By comparison, today’s electronic messages pale into insignificance. It was rather shocking then to read, As a general rule, the Victorian descendants who took it upon themselves to preserve their grandparents’ papers employed a rigorous policy of sexual segregation: women’s letters were destroyed, men’s letters were preserved.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, then, was full of contradictions, perhaps best summed up by the author in her epilogue as …
an acknowledged beauty yet unappreciated by her husband,
a popular leader of the
ton who saw through its hypocrisy,
a woman whom people loved who was yet so insecure in her ability to command love that she became dependent upon the suspect devotion of Lady Elizabeth Foster,
a generous contributor to charitable causes who nevertheless stole from her friends,
a writer who never published under her own name,
a devoted mother who sacrificed one child to save three,
a celebrity and patron of the arts in an era when married women had no legal status,
a politician without a vote
and a skilled tactician a generation before the development of professional party politics.
A remarkable woman indeed.

If you want a potted sanitised version there’s always the film version!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s in a name?

You know that point when you think … life can’t get any weirder ….? And it does. Well, I had such a moment this week.

You might have noticed that my beautiful homeland, Cornwall, has been high profile for months – TV programmes, news items, holiday recommendations … now it’s in the spotlight again, this time for re-naming its fish to make them sound more appealing on restaurant menus. Spider crabs become king crab; megrim become Cornish sole. Pilchards have already become Cornish sardine. Made me think about names and what they conjure up. And about competing rights and interests.

But that’s when the ultimate craziness hit me. And it relates to another of my old stamping turfs: the maternity hospital. Midwives in one University Hospitals NHS Trust (Brighton and Sussex) are now being told to stop using terms like ‘breastfeeding’ and ‘breast milk’, and even ‘mothers’ without a qualifying add-on …! Like I say … Hello? OK, I accept that there’s an above average percentage of LGBTQ folk in that area of England, with sensitivities, but still … Has the world gone mad? In a hospital where women are naturally and normally having babies and feeding them from their breasts?

Why, you might well ask. Well, apparently such gender-exclusive terms might cause offence and upset non-binary people.

So, out goes ‘mothers’; in comes ‘mothers or birthing parents’
Out goes ‘breastfeeding’; in comes ‘chestfeeding’
Out goes ‘maternity services department’; in comes ‘perinatal services’
Out goes ‘breastmilk’; in comes ‘human milk’ or ‘chestmilk’ or ‘milk from the feeding mother or parent’
Out goes ‘woman’; in comes ‘woman or person’
Out goes ‘father’; in comes ‘co-parent’ or ‘second biological parent’
Out goes ‘maternal’; in comes ‘maternal and parental’

To begin with, are the folk behind this drive unaware of the facts?
– that men have breastbones
– that men can get breast cancer
– that it’s a biological fact that only women can give birth to babies
– that, in the excitement and responsibility of assisting the delivery of a baby, it’s hard enough to always use acceptable words, without this additional layer of prohibition and verbal diligence
– that in seeking not to offend an Infinitesimally small percentage of the population who object to exclusively female words, they are probably losing the goodwill of the vast majority
– that this attempt to be politically correct and woke, is most likely to put hackles up against the very people it purports to speak for.

I have no wish to attract the venom JK Rowling endured when she challenged a decision to use the expression ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ‘women’, so I will merely leave the matter in your capable hands. As for me, I’m still in recovery stage, and in danger of being left behind with the old dogs beyond learning new tricks.

 

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Hmm. This is most definitely not a book I would have loved in my youth. But then, I was an unsophisticated country girl, born during WW2, with an over-active imagination that got me into a whole lot of trouble, and back then I knew nothing of the Holocaust which forms the foundation of the tale.

The book hovers somewhere between YA and adult fiction, fantasy and fiction, shape-shifting ghosts and boy-swallowing bogs, past and present, coerlfolc and syndrigasts, time travel and murder, which might just explain the mixed reviews. Difficult to pigeon-hole. Shades of JK Rowling meets Stephen King meets Philip Pullman.

But it was the story’s origins that fascinated me most. The author, Ransom Riggs, started collecting vintage snapshots from flea markets, and antique shops, and fellow-collectors, as a casual hobby, but became increasingly mesmerised by the ones of strange-looking children. There was no way of knowing the true stories behind these pictures, so he made up his own, and it’s a selection (50) of these actual photographs that illustrate the book and give it an air of authenticity and intrigue. Having attended film school prior to writing Miss Peregrine, Riggs was already inclined to think in pictures, and a certain cinematic quality pervades the book. (It was actually made into a film in 2016.)

Vintage photos in Miss Peregrine

The teenage narrator, Jacob, only son of extremely wealthy parents, (the kind that gets a car for his 16th birthday), from a very privileged background, is destined to move into the family drugs business – a ‘corporate cage’. He has grown up listening to his grandfather’s fantastical tales of a colourful past, and magical powers, and monsters and oddities. Indeed, Grandpa Portman keeps a collection of old photos in an ancient cigar box to illustrate his accounts, and these add to Jacob’s pervasive sense of hovering between two worlds. As a child, he’s unaware that these stories have foundation in the dark experiences of persecution of the Polish Jews in WW2 during the 1940s, and escape to a remote island. Or that Grandpa Portman faced double genocide – for being a Jew, and a peculiar, and has carried the weight of those experiences for the rest of his life, burdened by the compulsion to do his bit to fight against both the Nazi and ‘the monsters’.

As dementia sets in, these stories become completely and oppressively real to the old man, even as Jacob’s credulity wanes. But when he’s at the point of death at the hands of an unseen attacker, Grandpa Portman speaks clearly and lucidly, extracting a promise from Jacob that he’ll ‘go to the island’ where he’ll be safe.  He’s to ‘Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third,1940.’

Appalled to be witness to his grandfather’s violent and inexplicable death, Jacob gives his word he will do so. But immediately ‘the strangest feeling came over me. I let go of my grandfather’s body and stood up, every nerve tingling with an instinct I didn’t know I had. There was something in the woods, all right – I could feel it.’ Something from his childhood nightmares, that ‘stared back with eyes that swam in dark liquid, furrowed trenches of carbon-black flesh loose on its hunched frame, its mouth hinged open grotesquely so that a mass of long eel-like tongues could wriggle out.’ It’s an image that tips Jacob over the edge into a paranoid delusional state/acute stress reaction, wracked with guilt that he hadn’t believed his grandfather’s fears.

Recovering from his mental breakdown he’s given an old book with an inscription from his grandfather to Jacob, and inside a photo and letter than confirm he needs to go to the Welsh Island Grandpa talked about to seek the children’s home to which he allegedly escaped. His psychologist recommends Jacob does go, on the basis that a visit could serve to demystify the place that’s been so mythologised by his grandfather. To combat fantasy with reality.

But once there, Jacob unravels a picture of a different dimension. He does Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but it’s been wrecked by a single bomb, and is now a crumbled ruin, overgrown and disused. Much more than that, he enters a world that defies logic and confirms so much of what Grandpa Portman told him. ‘This was the enchanted island; these were the magical children’ he’d heard about and seen in the photographs. Far from being a ‘paranoiac gun nut or a secret philanderer’ as he’d suspected, his grandfather had straddled two worlds; he was some kind of hero fighting a war few could or would understand, a wandering knight risking his life for others.

Now I’ve read it, my sense is that it’s those amazing vintage photographs that give this book it’s strongest appeal. These were real children. Riggs has given them a pedigree. At some level we have to believe in their reality, but at what point precisely do we stop believing their peculiarity?

Oh, and I love the decoration at the foot of every page. Seems to captures the love and care that went into its production.

 

 

 

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Hell on earth

Evin prison in Tehran has a worse reputation than Alcatraz, and it was this nightmarish place I was reading about when I sent last week’s post. Coincidentally, it came up in the news only a couple of days ago, in an interview with a dual national, Kurdish/British, academic, an anthropologist, who recently escaped while out on bail from Evin, trekking on foot through the mountains, and has now taken refuge in Britain. He had already undergone three months of psychological torture, and couldn’t face another 10 years.

Built during the reign of the Shah of Iran, this notorious compound, Evin prison, was originally intended to hold opponents to his regime. Since his fall from power in 1979, it’s been used for political prisoners, solitary confinement, and torture of those deemed to be enemies of the Islamic state. It has an horrific record in serious human rights abuses. Originally designed to house 320 inmates — 20 in solitary cells and 300 in two large communal blocks — by 1977 it had expanded to hold more than 1,500 prisoners, including 100 solitary cells for political prisoners. It has its own execution yard and courtroom on site, which probably says a lot.

And yet, two Iranian women, Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour, found it easier to experience God’s presence and peace there, and for their Christian faith to thrive, than in the outside world. Why?

Because inside this dark hell they turned on the light for so many others, and saw the amazing opportunities for witness that incarceration offered. In the deepest recesses of the most feared ward in the most notorious prison in one of the most oppressed nations in the world they could pray with and for their fellow prisoners and their captors openly and courageously.
… how easy it was to witness behind bars compared to the work we had done on the outside. [We] didn’t have to look for prospects or sneak New Testaments into their mailboxes. We could talk to them openly rather than hiding behind closed doors or in basements. Our fellow prisoners were hungry for the truth. Desperate for it.

And they used every opportunity they could. As Anne Graham Lotz says in her foreword:
Their love for the least, their kindness to the meanest, their gentleness to the roughest, their willingness to serve in the dirtiest place imaginable is truly a stunningly clear reflection of the Jesus they love, as well as evidence of His presence inside those walls,
and they (with John Perry) have recounted what life was like in that hell hole in Captive in Iran.

Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour were both born into Muslim families in Iran. They became Christians in 1998, and met while studying Christian theology in Turkey in 2005. They extended their ministry to India, S Korea and Turkey. When they returned to Iran, they began spreading the gospel message to anyone who would listen, handing out 20,000 New Testaments, and starting two house churches in their apartment in Tehran – one for young people, one for prostitutes. But after three years, in March 2009, they were arrested and imprisoned for 259 days in Evin Prison on charges of apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy. There was ample evidence of their activities.

Technically it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Iran, but converting from Islam to another faith, as well as evangelising on behalf of that faith, are considered crimes of apostasy punishable by death. Accordingly the threat of execution hung over these two young women throughout their detention in Evin. But in spite of it, and in defiance of the squalor, the stench, the overcrowding, the terrible food, the incompetent medical care, the punitive routines, they continued to share their deep faith and hope, and found responsive hearts and minds amongst the drug addicts, the murderers, the political rebels, the staunch Muslims, the abused, even amongst some of the guards.
Never in our lives would we form friendships as deep and rich as the ones God had blessed us with behind the high and foreboding walls of Evin Prison.
To their surprise, they found a common bond: they were united by their fierce opposition to the injustice and brutality of the prevailing oppressive regime, that has destroyed the body and soul of the Iranian people.

And outside, a growing movement was publicising their plight and seeking justice. Thousands around the world prayed for their freedom. International pressure was brought to bear on their behalf. Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Vatican all got involved. But even when it was clear the charges against them could not be upheld, somehow a way needed to be found that allowed the authorities to release them without losing face. After many false starts, it was eventually found.

After their release they faced a new and real danger. Not only would they be constantly observed for any infringement of the law, no matter how slight, but anyone they met or fraternised with was in jeopardy. They were torn.
Despite what the government did to us, we continue to love our country very much and pray for the freedom of our fellow Iranians …
They so much wanted to help everyone to find freedom in faith, but the prospect of being instrumental in the death or imprisonment of their fellow Iranians was too much for them. In the end they elected to emigrate to the USA.

Captive in Iran is at one a damning indictment of a harsh and punitive regime, and a triumph of good over evil. Would I have had the courage to see incarceration in this prison hell as a God-given opportunity? I very much doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Light in the darkness

‘Be the light in the darkness’

That’s the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 (yesterday: 27 January), encouraging everyone to reflect on the depths to which humanity can sink, remembering especially the six million Jews, and thousands of other minority peoples, who were killed under Nazi persecutions, as well as those who’ve lost their lives in subsequent genocides. But importantly, to also consider ways in which we can individually and as a community shine a light in the darkness and resist hatred, persecution, injustice, prejudice and misinformation.

It’s 76 years since the gates of Auschwitz swung open on 27 January 1945, and the remaining prisoners were liberated, the unimaginable slaughter revealed. The world today is much changed in so many ways, but still riven with huge inequalities and cruelty. Even in our own relatively civilised society, what a grim milestone we passed this very week: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19; disproportionately high amongst the poor and disadvantaged. What chance for the refugees huddled in camps, those in war-torn countries, or caught up in brutal and repressive dictatorships? I’m deep in a book about the oppressive regime in Iran which makes me ask some very difficult questions of myself.

There is still much to ponder and to protest. A candle in the window last night is a mere token.

Let’s not forget the lessons of the past; let’s not pass by on the other side today.

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Online presence

Phew, how the weeks fly by! I’ve just noted my tally … well over 600 posts.

So, a moment to pause and ask myself, why do I even have a blog? and why do I continue to write it every week? Initially, of course, it was set up to give me a profile (sounds so grand, doesn’t it?) which people could consult to see who I am, how I operate, why I write my style of novels, what I stand for. Some form of online presence is a prerequisite for authors nowadays, and the advice is: choose the ones with which you feel most comfortable. I’m at ease with this format.

But in my case, it’s more than that.

 

 

 

 

 

In my medical ethics novels, I make a point of leaving lots of breathing space for readers to form their own conclusions about the issues that provide the backdrop to each story. They aren’t polemics; they aren’t a vehicle for my opinions; they’re novels … although it’s not uncommon for readers to ask me what my personal views are. If I give nothing away about myself I can come across as a blank canvas. A blog gives me a vehicle to occasionally declare my hand in a controlled kind of way. It may be what I think of a piece of legislation, or a world event, or a book, or what someone has said, or an experience I’ve had. Anything really which has made me think, about which I have something to say. Reading back over some of it, I hardly recognise myself!! Did I actually formulate that argument, or articulate that thought?

Life can be so full, that it’s all too easy to skim read, only half-attend when listening to a programme/lecture/seminar or going to an event/function. But if I know I’m going to print on the topic, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. ‘I write to find out what I think!‘, as Stephen King said. Knowing my thoughts will be shared with others somehow allows me the mental bandwidth to think things through properly and reach a logical conclusion that I’d be prepared to defend. And it’s good for me personally to keep the little grey cells nudging one another.

If you too find what I have to say of interest, that’s a bonus! Thanks for visiting.

 

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The Vanishing Year

Well, I can’t imagine many people will have been sorry to see 2020 vanish into the mists of history; some indeed are willing 2021 away now, given the dire statistics and predictions. A thousand deaths each day in the UK; a total now exceeding 80,000 – the worst statistics in Europe; 2 million lives lost worldwide. Our NHS struggling to cope; long term problems accruing with the overall health of the nation.

Watching this horror emerging, we’ve all had to find ways of keeping hope alive and maintaining mental well-being. Icy conditions make even outdoor exercise treacherous, another lockdown forces us to stay at home … Eeh dear! Not surprisingly, for me – as well as countless others – books have played a major part in this struggle. It’s well recognised they offer escape and a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Indeed, several people who took advantage of our pandemic bookcase went so far as to say books had saved their sanity.

Not surprising then, that one novel should pop into my head as we watched 2020 disappear in our rear view mirrors: this thriller, The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti. Apposite title, but nothing to do with the pandemic, so forgive the tenuous link.

Sometimes I feel as if I am made up almost entirely of secrets.‘ That pretty much sums up the main protagonist, Zoe Whittaker.

Outwardly, Zoe has an enviable life – not yet thirty, a fabulous Manhattan home, a rich and charming husband, influence, looks, wealth, connections. But untethered, with too little to do. She feels like a marble in a huge jar, suffocating under the sense that she is accomplishing nothing. Useless, apart from her charity work supporting orphaned and disadvantaged children.

What’s more, in spite of her privileged life, she is haunted by her past, living in fear of being recognised. Because five years ago, Zoe wasn’t Zoe at all. And even her husband Henry doesn’t know her real name. Nor that she was penniless, unable to afford to bury her own mother, until that is, she became a drug dealer, addicted herself to pills and drink, peddling her wares in the presence of children. Until she confessed all to the police, testifying against two human traffickers to a grand jury. Before vanishing.

And now an attempt has been made on the life of the reinvented Zoe. Her home has been ransacked. Her credit card is missing. Someone from her past has come back for her. Threats are being made.

The old classic trademarks are there – control, manipulation, layers of issues, rags-to-riches, fear for life. And the plotting is so devious that, once you know the truth, you want to go back and read it again to see all the clues you missed first time around. An excellent diversion. And a good illustration of how books can give us respite from the stresses of real life, transport us into a different world and time and place – an invaluable bonus during this time of national crisis and mental fragility.

Speaking of a different world and being transported … this opportunity to tramp in a winter wonderland does wonders for my own mental health, too. And yep, it’s well within the current rules of staying local!

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Volunteering … or not

Heroism, self sacrifice, commitment … 2020 highlighted the best in people, didn’t it? Inspirational stories of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things for love of their fellow man. Making a difference. Altruism was very much alive and well.

So why, oh why, were so many generous offers greeted with lukewarm responses and endless obstacles from officialdom? I’ve lost count of the stories of frustration on the part of those who wanted to give their time and expertise in the cause. No response, excessive bureaucracy, endless form-filling, wasted talent. My own experience was no different, so I totally sympathise. And we’re seeing it again, even now, when the situation here in the UK is worse than it’s ever been, the real-life statistics like those of some horror story … thousands of highly-motivated experienced medical professionals, newly retired, wanting to help with the vaccination campaign, but being required to complete umpteen forms, undertake irrelevant courses, submit to multiple layers of scrutiny, put off by absurd caveats. Ordinary, completely unskilled relatives are given crash courses in wielding medical syringes when the need arises, you know!!  They aren’t sent off to do five on-line courses!

Is it fear of litigation, suspicion of intent, lack of knowledge, or sheer administrative incompetence? I know not. But it’s certainly no way to foster goodwill and community spirit, that’s for sure. Nor is it helping to deliver the promised way out of this ghastly pandemic. And I know for certain some volunteers have given up the unequal struggle and sunk back into retirement, disillusioned and unfulfilled. OK, rant over.

Of course, in the total scheme of things it’s a small gripe. You only need to see pictures of starving women holding newborn babies in war-torn Yemen, or exhausted health care workers in tears in our overstretched Intensive Care Units, or the battered and bleeding face of an abused woman running down the street clutching her terrified children, to see there are bigger battles to be fought. But in my enforced isolation, faced with yet another unnecessary form to fill in online, this one is currently raising my blood pressure and focusing my reaction to so much that’s been badly handled in this public health crisis.

And please don’t point me in the direction of the bunch of folk (note restraint!) who deny the very existence of COVID19. My answer to them is:
We have just the job for you at least! Ideal. Tailor made. Transporting patients, attending to their personal toileting, disposing of their waste, cleaning their surfaces, carrying out the dead. In a COVID ward.
You’ll save the NHS a fortune in PPE because you won’t need it; you don’t believe it’s necessary. You won’t need any counselling or stress management or time off isolating. You’d be perfect for purpose.

Thank you, yes. How soon can you start?

 

 

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To 2021

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”
T.S. Eliot

Here’s to a much brighter 2021.

Path to Straiton Pond

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