Hazel McHaffie

The life of an Empress in China

Our British literature abounds with tales of royal intrigue across the ages in the UK and Europe, but how much do we know of other nations’ history? In my case, precious little, so reading a very engaging story of China’s last Empress proved fascinating.

OK, Henry VIII rather fancied he was above the laws of the land and could change the rules to suit his whims, but imagine if the king/emperor is deemed an infallible god! … he’s known as the ‘Son of Heaven’ – ‘whatever he does is Heaven’s will.’ From childhood he has the notion drummed into him that everyone in the Forbidden City lives to attend to his needs. So removed from reality is he, indeed, that he grows up spoilt and with no appreciation of suffering in others; he believes in and consults the gods and his ancestors, but when they don’t fulfill his wishes he is left with an enormous burden of responsibility and guilt. An unenviable inheritance.

Empress Orchid by Chinese American author, Anchee Min, starts at the time when the ruler in question is Emperor Hsein Feng, ninth Emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and the seventh Qing emperor to rule over China proper. We’re talking 1850 to 1861.

It’s hard to conceive of a court so opulent and extravagant and yet so cruel and superstitious. Strict rules of etiquette, ritual and ceremony apply to everyone, with horrific punishments meted out to those who infringe them. Wives and concubines are arbitrarily beheaded or ordered to hang themselves; younger sons can be exalted above older ones without challenge; torture is commonplace.

Emperor Hsein Feng is actually ‘delicate and sensitive’ as well as fearful and ‘deeply insecure’, but he hides this under a façade of ‘arrogance and decisiveness’. He is fabulously wealthy, but outside of his numerous palaces there is abject poverty – frozen bodies left in the streets after ice-storms; families unable to afford essential food or bury their loved ones; people stinking because they are unable to wash or change their clothes; girls forced to marry totally unsuitable men to rescue their families from destitution.

One such girl is Orchid, a poverty-stricken girl from an aristocratic background, on the verge of entering a forced marriage with an unattractive and mentally-challenged cousin, to save her family from penury. The story is told through her eyes and begins with an event which changes her life for ever: the Selection of Imperial Consorts. The new Emperor is looking for a new harem, his mother, Grand Empress Lady Jin, a powerful influence in his choices. The task is to select seven official wives who will be given magnificent palaces to live in all with exotic names – Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, Palace of Universal Inheritance, Palace of Eternal Peace, Palace of Great Mercy, etc.

All Manchu girls between 13 and 17 are required to register to become part of the Imperial household of 3000 concubines – in the Imperial garden of beauty; 18 is considered a ‘flower on its way to withering’. None of these teenagers can marry until the Emperor has ‘passed them up.’ Representing the Emperor in the initial stages is the chief eunuch who inspects all the girls carefully. The finalists are kept locked away in the Forbidden City, guaranteed a lifetime of annual payment based on title and rank, but always one false move away from execution. Humiliating experiences and ferocious vetting procedures (sometimes naked in front of several eunuchs) to eliminate defects such as sloping shoulders, slight smells, a graceless walk, await them.

2000 eunuchs are a constant presence within the Forbidden City, poised to remove any girl who loses control or betrays any behaviour outside the strict etiquette required inside those sacred walls. These men – more than 50 thousand added annually – are quick-witted boys often from impoverished backgrounds who are castrated at a young age to guarantee the Emperor is the ‘sole seed-planter’, regimented, punished, severely disciplined, all in the hope of becoming the Imperial favourite, a legend above the nation. Anger and brutality are rife amongst them. So too is inspirational loyalty.

Orchid is kitted out in regal clothes and glides through the selection process until she is one of two hundred girls competing to be one of the seven royal wives. Though competing with the rich and famous and royally connected, she is chosen by the eunuchs, an honour beyond the family’s wildest dreams; or, as her mother puts it before the Gate of Zenith slams shut on her old life and her family, ‘Consider yourself boarding a ship of mercy on the sea of suffering’. Aged just 17, knowing nothing of how to pleasure a man, she is taken by a family friend to a ‘whorehouse’ to learn the tricks of their trade. But the young Emperor is neither as highly sexed nor as fertile as his fathers, and Orchid waits in vain to be summonsed to the royal bed. In desperation she bribes the head eunuch who negotiates her an invitation, and she quickly becomes the favoured concubine. However, this in turn stirs up huge jealousies and threatens her security; punishments for monopolising the Emperor are brutal. One such concubine had all her limbs hacked off and her living torso kept in a jar as a warning to others.

Thousands of years of tradition lie behind many of these arcane customs and rituals. My medical sensitivities recoiled from the method of diagnosing illness. No male apart from the eunuchs and the Emperor is allowed to see any of the females in the Forbidden City, so doctors have to make a diagnosis from nothing more than feeling a pulse behind a curtain. And it’s in this bizarre way that Orchid finds out what’s ailing her: ‘My lady, the dragon’s seed has sprouted!’ At last! But reality hits home all too soon. Her pregnancy makes her the object of jealousy and envy, evil intent and vicious plots. Not only does she face falling out of royal favour herself, but her child is in danger if he doesn’t perform to order as a baby or toddler.

Penetrating deeper and deeper into these ancient practices and superstitions gives us an insight into why the people perceived Christianity and any attempt to save the souls of the Chinese, to be an insult to their age-old traditions and beliefs and gods.

Immersed in the elaborate, secluded and extravagant lives women lead inside the Forbidden City, Orchid struggles to understand what’s going on in the rest of the country. But she’s inquisitive, and intelligent and persistent. She objects inwardly to the diktat that the role of Empresses is to feel not to rule, so seizes an opportunity when the Emperor becomes too ill and frail to rule effectively, to become in effect his secretary, and consequently privy to his official papers and activities; she helps to couch his responses and edicts, sharing His Majesty’s dream of reviving China. But Orchid doesn’t suffer from a god-complex; she’s wise enough to listen to others. As his health fails, the Emperor, still in his 20s, becomes depressed, in pain and pessimistic, taking less and less interest in state affairs, and almost imperceptibly Orchid takes over writing the edicts herself, making them more encouraging and positive, less dictatorial and punitive.

But this is the 1850s, the time of the opium wars, China’s power and influence is waning, the economy shrinking. She is increasingly under threat from the Allies – Russia, Britain, France. Ancient Chinese ways of fighting wars – fortified earthworks, bamboo stakes, ditches and dykes, martial arts – are an embarrassment in the face of the cannons and guns and warships of the Westerners. Disaster looms.

Orchid is appalled when the Emperor decides he will desert Peking and his people, ostensibly to ‘go hunting’, but her protestations meet with a wall of regal immovability. Her husband even threatens to send her a silk rope to hang herself if she persists. His brothers too, all risk their lives to protest against his departure, but the sick king is a coward, and insists not only on going but on doing so with the usual enormous pomp and ostentation. Even in desertion etiquette must be observed – ‘the Imperial household stretched for three miles’ – leaving despair and chaos behind it.

The Forbidden City is ransacked and destroyed and looted. Emperor Hsein Feng dies, still a young man in his early 30s. At the eleventh hour, and then only under severe pressure, he names his only son the next Emperor. Orchid, the Emperor’s biological mother, and her senior sister-wife Nuharoo, together act as regents. Their brother-in-law, Prince Kung, negotiates with the Allies for a freer society, and a kinder more tolerant regime replaces the old order.

In telling the story of the last Empress, Min really brings history alive and captures the absurdities and traditions vividly. My main difficulty was separating out the characters – the Chinese names are hard to remember and keep track of. Nevertheless it’s a tale well told.

 

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Georgiana, Lady Chatterton – writer

We writers are always thrilled to find unexpected literary treasures.

So, when I visited the moated National Trust property,  Baddesley Clinton Hall, in Warwickshire, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover a hitherto unknown-to-me writer associated with it, and enthusiastic volunteer guides only too ready to tell us all about her. Georgiana, Lady Chatterton is one of the three aristocratic ladies being promoted there just now. Who? do I hear you cry?

Henrietta Georgiana Marcia Lascelles Iremonger was born in London, on 11 November 1806 and at the tender age of 17, she married Sir William Abraham Chatterton, 2nd Baronet of Castle Mahon, County Cork, who was eighteen years her senior. Their circle included the literary intelligentsia as well as royals, but Georgina coupled a busy social life with writing, producing 29 novels and travel books between 1837 and 1876. In 1859, now a widow, she married Edward Dering, a fellow writer. The story (which may be apocryphal) is told with some glee that Edward was actually asking permission to marry Georgiana’s niece, but the older lady misheard and thought he was proposing to her. She accepted, so he gallantly went along with the misunderstanding.

Baddesley Clinton has books and quotes by Georgina and information about her, tastefully scattered around the rooms, as well as many glorious paintings by her aforementioned niece, Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen, the second lady highlighted at the Hall.

This exquisite portrait of Georgiana by her, sits on an easel in the room where Rebecca continued to paint until she was in her 90s. (Apologies the lighting was tricky.)

Georgiana loved the idea of her thoughts and words being retained for posterity, preferably entombed in a library …

… and I’m sure would have thought the one at Baddesley Clinton a perfect resting place.

Whilst friends and acquaintances would forget her and vanish in their turn, she reflected, her words would continue to be read sympathetically by strangers for generations to come, granting her a very special kind of immortality.

What a lovely and unexpected find.

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Finishing touches

Writing in Mslexia (the magazine for women who write), author Meg Clothier says ‘books finish themselves in their own bittersweet time.‘ Yes, indeed. And to rush the process is to sacrifice security and satisfaction with the end result. I’ve just completed yet another (you may well groan!) revision of my current novel Killing me Gently, and I believe/think/hope it’s almost complete. But even once it’s prepared for publication, I’ll be checking it one more time – for anomalies that may be introduced by the person formatting it, as well as infelicities that show up at this point in the process.

Even at this stage, though, once the actual text of the story has been submitted, my work is far from over. There’s the small matter of strap line/pithy saying for the front cover, blurb for the back cover, relevant information for the cover designer, questions for bookclubs, acknowledgements, reviews/endorsements … each piece of the jigsaw has to be slotted in seamlessly.

Which brings me to a matter that’s been exercising my mind rather a lot this week. I’ve been reading surveys and articles and opinion columns about women writers, and it’s clear the odds are stacked against us. We are under-represented at most levels and in most areas. It’s notoriously difficult for us to find the time and emotional energy to write, and to prioritise our writing, when our lives are already split between day job and caring responsibilities. It took me years to accept that my writing was important enough to be allocated dedicated uninterrupted time, to respect it as a real job, not something that would always play second fiddle to the demands of others. Thankfully I’m at an age and stage now when it’s much more do-able. The older generation within our family have died; the younger ones are standing on their own two feet; my responsibilities for other people are more circumscribed. I’m also fortunate enough to have a partner who shoulders his share of the domestic tasks and supports me in my career (well, most of the time anyway!). But my heart goes out to all those talented people who’re weighed down by the burdens of life, and who feel they have no choice but to let their talents and dreams fall off the edge of their days. If you know any, please do your best to cherish and support and encourage them.

Oh, and by the way, while we’re talking home truths, writing as a career is not the dream job, the leisurely activity, the doddle, many people seem to think it is. The potential health hazards lying in weight for the serious writer are legion: stress, depression, weight gain, anxiety, sleep problems, eye strain, back strain, repetitive strain injury, digestive problems, back troubles, headaches, loneliness, insecurity, disappointment, despair, self-doubt  … to name but a few. So how come I’m still obsessed with doing it long after normal retirement age? Because I feel bereft when I’m not writing, that’s why!

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Baroness Mary Warnock

It’s almost eleven years since I shared a platform with Baroness Mary Warnock, but I’ve never forgotten it. We’d both just published books about assisted dying: hers, An Easeful Death (with Dr Elisabeth MacDonald); mine, Right to Die, and we were appearing together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

She was already very well known, an established and influential figure in the world of philosophy, and author of The Warnock Report on Human Fertility and Embryology, an outspoken and at times rather intimidating person, who had strong opinions of her own. I recall she wasn’t too impressed when I questioned her statement that assisted death was not killing, and dismissed my quibble out of hand. She was sitting in her philosopher’s ivory tower well away from human reality; I was speaking from the viewpoint of a clinician at the sharp end.

Though known for her sharp mind and fearless debating, in great demand for committee work, she was widely criticised for being an ‘instant expert’, for having no truck with those who held strong immovable moral principles, for voicing shockingly derogatory comments based on social class and personal prejudice. Her certainty that she was always right stemmed from her childhood and sense of personal superiority. ‘In my mother’s family,‘ she said, ‘we were brought up to believe we were the best; there was simply no doubt about it and that sort of conviction resists evidence.’ I confess I caved in more than once in the face of her dogmatic assertions, even though in my heart of hearts I disagreed strongly. Somehow her reputation and self-confidence left scant room for challenge, especially from people as far down the food-chain as me!

One of the most outrageous statements she made was, ‘If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service’. She advocated encouraging such people to end their own lives to avoid being ‘a burden‘. To my shame I never did summon the courage to take her to task on that, though I’ve spent years working alongside people with dementia and wholeheartedly supporting efforts to enrich rather than end their lives.

Having said all that, I was touched by her generosity in endorsing my own writing. Emboldened by our brief acquaintance and pleasant exchanges, I rather trepidatiously sent her the draft of my novel, Saving Sebastian, which overlapped with her interest in genetics and embryology, and she was kind enough to endorse it warmly:
‘Problems in medical ethics are not just for doctors but for everyone,’ she wrote. ‘Hazel McHaffie has found a way to bring them before a wide public. You are gripped from the very beginning. but as you turn the pages, you are compelled to think about the issues. It is an excellent formula.’
I forgave her much!

She was made a DBE in 1984, a life peer in 1985, a Companion of Honour in 2017. The last time I saw her in the flesh she was a much diminished figure, so hard of hearing she missed much of what was said, and at times her comments fell like stones into a pond; sad to witness. She died this week, on March 20, aged 94, after a fall, a richly decorated though hugely controversial figure. Perhaps, in the world of medical ethics at least, we need such characters to provoke discussion and sharpen our own opinions.

 

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Future possibilities

There will never be a shortage of subjects for me to write about! I lose tracks of scientific breakthroughs and medical marvels. And today, given the breadth and range of material available, I’m not going to even attempt to link everything I mention to scientific papers – Google the key words and you’ll get the information if you’re interested.

When HIV/AIDS first came to our attention in the 80s there were doomsday predictions of biblical plague proportions and real-life devastating statistics. I was a researcher at the time and saw it, wrote about it, first hand. Then came huge public awareness campaigns … followed by the development of anti-retroviral wonder drugs … then combination therapies, that could hold the disease at bay. Now here we are, with stories of stem cell donations from people with ‘natural immunity’ rendering patients free from the virus. You could weave a pretty complex plot with that one! And in 2019 my file marked HIV/AIDS looks completely different from the slim wallet of 30 years ago.

Inside of Me coverThen there’s the transgender issue. Wow! So many dimensions. About young children wanting to transition. About people wanting to reverse the process; the irreversibility of some therapies. About misleading statistics. Eebie jeebie – how crazily tortuous a plot could you construct in that area. The imagination goes into overdrive. Makes my little sally into that world in Inside of Me, pale into banality.

It’s 41 years since the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was created, and infertility was very much top of my pile when it came to choosing subjects for my set of novels. Now despite widespread opposition, criticism, vilification, stigma, as many as 8 million babies have been born by IVF. And the endless thirst for knowledge and understanding, coupled with a bottomless pit of compassion, drives researchers and clinicians in this area to seek more and more solutions to the problems couples have in conceiving, or avoiding perpetuating deadly genetic diseases. There’s mileage for several more books to follow on from Paternity, Double Trouble and Saving Sebastian. Did you know, for example, that the success rate for assisted fertility is way way higher (50%) than for natural conception (25%) … plenty of scope to work up a story-line there, huh? Imagine a gang of 35-year-old career girls going to the freezer to select artificially-created sperm … or genetically screened/modified embryos … ticking selection boxes along the way for green eyes, athletic ability, fiery temperament …? Endless possibilities!

The statistics on abortion reflect changes in society’s mores and values; programmes like Call the Midwife have increased public awareness of how things have developed in a generation. Add in dating apps, modern career paths, cohabitation, social expectation, fertility statistics … I feel an historical reflective story coming on! I well remember, in the 70s/80s soon after the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced, women coming in for a second, perhaps even third, abortion were looked upon askance. Recent Government figures have highlighted that of almost 68000 abortions carried out in 2017, 1049 were undergoing their fifth abortion and 72 their ninth! And there’s a story behind every one.

Then there’s the horrific topic of female genital mutation … don’t get me started! The recent story of the first person to be convicted in Britain briefly reported in the national press was shocking enough – the little girl was three years old; the mother cut the child herself in her London home; indecent images and animal pornography were involved. I absolutely couldn’t go there with fiction. But … should our collective conscience be prodded?

Resources, caps on the cost of medical and social care … I’m somewhat allergic to numbers, but reading about the human consequences of budgetary restrictions brings out the indignant in me. And might just compel me to write about it if I’m around long enough to get to that file.

Even the topic of assisted dying – a recurring hot potato – has subtly changed since I published my novel on the subject, Right to Die, eleven years ago. The issue’s been described by lawyers for the Royal College of Physicians as ‘one of the most controversial and morally contentious issues in medicine’, but ongoing polls of both medical and public opinion show a definite move towards accepting the need for some change. This might be simply taking a neutral professional stand as against opposing it; or a swing towards legalising some form of assisted suicide in the UK. A novel today could look very different.

Yep, I’m endlessly adding to the possibilities in my files as medicine and science reveal more and more, and society’s tolerances and expectations change. This is just a superficial skim. Anyone out there keen to pick up the gauntlet?

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Calling all would-be crime writers

Anything that advocates books and reading gets my vote. And we writers are trained to look out for those anniversaries and special commemorative dates which might be useful hooks. Unsurprisingly, then, certain days this past week jumped out at me.

World Book Day was on 7 March, the day before International Women’s Day. Plenty of people and publications and organisations jumped on the bandwagon, with the usual plethora of articles and events. Quite rightly so. Universal appeal. Books open the mind … and transport … and educate … and improve the ability to empathise … and … but you know all that.

Did you know, though, how often The Big Issue extols the benefits of reading? Impressively often, actually. Over the years, as part of their mission to ‘dismantle poverty through creating opportunity‘, they’ve championed many causes: better literacy, keeping libraries open, tax freedoms for independent bookshops, reading lists, more book reviews, reading for pleasure for children, taking books into prisons … to name but a few. So, again unsurprisingly, this special edition devotes a large part of its pages to literary matters as its nod in the direction of the official World Book Day.

What’s more, this week they also launch a competition to find a new crime writer. Ambitious, huh? And no lightweight tokenism, either; there’s a two-book deal with HarperCollins for the winner – not to be sniffed at. They’re looking for ‘heart-stopping writing and nail-shredding suspense’. Any takers? Hats off to The Big Issue, I say. Most of us probably buy it to support their  efforts to drive social change, but it’s worth much more than a toss straight into the recycling box. As well as the competition details, for example, there’s a fascinating interview with Tim Waterstone who founded the biggest high street bookchain we know so well today. Now there’s a man who totally loves books! Even though he grew up in a 3-book household. Given his empire today he can afford to be generous, but nontheless, I like his healthy approach to the issue of bricks-and-mortar-shop versus online: ‘If you know what you want, you’re going to go to Amazon. I do it myself numerous times a year! But we all know online can’t replicate the same feeling of pleasure you get in a great bookshop.’ Well said, that man. And let’s support the independent bookstores in particular who don’t have all Waterstone’s advantages.

As for my own writing, well, I’m at the last-revisions-before proof-reading stage with Killing me Gently – when I’m not hurtling up and down the country, that is. Crazy month, chez nous. Must crack on …

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Absolute Proof

It was an article in the daily newspaper that first alerted me to the publication of this unusual book:  Absolute Proof by internationally bestselling crime writer, Peter James. It’s noteworthy that, back in 1989, James was not the success he is today, neither had he shown any great interest in religion, when, out of the blue, he received a phone call from an elderly gentleman claiming to have been given irrefutable evidence of God’s existence, and saying that Peter James was the man to help him get it taken seriously. That call was the start of a 29 year exploration into exactly what the consequences of such proof might be. It fed into James’ personal obsession with why we’re here, what happens after death, what is good/evil, and his innate passion for the subject drove him to pursue the idea. The end result is a 560 page novel which challenges and informs, troubles and intrigues, in equal measure. And I was delighted to receive a hot-off-the-press hardback copy from DJ as an unexpected gift!

Theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274, said that ‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,’ and I suspect the beliefs and opinions of each reader will influence how they approach and interpret this tale, but knowing its origins does give it some added mystery and appeal. And the author himself declares that writing the book left him believing in an ‘informed intelligent design’ of some kind.

So, to the story-line. Ross Hunter is no stranger to weird or terrifying experiences. He’s an investigative journalist who likes to push his own limits, dig deep in the murk. But even he is taken aback when Dr Harry Cook – former RAF officer and retired professor of history of art – contacts him, saying he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence. He’s been advised that Ross is the man to get it taken seriously. Ringing bells so far?

Intrigued, Ross meets the man. Dr Cook seems utterly and touchingly sincere; he really believes that together they can save the world. What’s more he brings with him three persuasive inducements: a written text from God, running to 1,247 pages; messages from Nicky, Ross’ dead twin brother, that not another living soul could possibly know; and three compass coordinates. These coordinates are the locations for three lost religious treasures: the Holy Grail; the DNA of the Lord Jesus Christ; and something related to the Second Coming … So far, so Dan Brown, huh? But religious advisors tell Ross that it would take more than three compass coordinates to prove God exists. What would it take? A miracle which defies the laws of physics, beyond human replication, seen by all the world. Furthermore the advice comes with a dire warning: anyone finding such proof would be in grave danger of being assassinated so high are the stakes for both religious and political leaders.

Naturally enough, given that this is a Peter James’ creation, there are several unscrupulous groups of people who will stop at nothing to get their hands on these invaluable objects. And also as you’d expect, all the ingredients of a crime thriller are there …
– a vast cast of characters – aesthetes and penitents, ruthless businessmen and serious scientists, atheists and devout believers
– complicated backstories which gradually unravel
– dark secrets, disturbances or psychological damage in the past histories
– a secret people will kill for
– mortal danger, chases, threats, murders
– all the unprovability of faith and religion pitted against science and medicine, economics and mathematics
– a smattering of drug dealing, sexual depravity, extortion, blackmail, addiction, greed.

The long list of acknowledgements pays tribute to the thoroughness of almost three decades of research, and the detailed insights into the Bible as well as scientific thought and understanding are indeed impressive. And yet, James leaves room for something in between – ?coincidences – ? ‘God’s calling cards‘ as Einstein put it. And when you’re hunting down the Son of God, anticipating his impact on the world today, that seems entirely feasible and appropriate!

The caller who planted the seeds of an idea in Peter James’ mind back in the 1980s said that God was very concerned about the state of the world, and mankind needed to have its faith in him reaffirmed. Plenty of people today would agree. Whether this book would contribute to that high aim is more debatable.

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Ludwig Eisenberg was born on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942 and tattooed with the number 32407. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is his story, a salutary reminder that ‘every one of the unimaginably large number of Holocaust victims was an individual with a unique story …’ ; another window on one of the most barbaric events in human history.

It took the author Heather Morris three years to untangle, as she built up a special friendship with this extraordinary man, now Lale Sokolov. Trust took time to establish. For him, memory and history were closely intertwined, and overlaid with a burden of guilt lest he be seen as a collaborator in these crimes. And Morris has captured his truth: he did what he did in order simply to survive, and in so doing, found little ways to bring compassion and humanity into the lives of others.

When he’s first assigned the task of tattooing numbers on each new batch of inmates, he recoils from the prospect of defiling hundreds of innocent people, but he quickly realises that he could put soul into the task, hurt them less than someone with no sensitivity for their pain and degradation.

And being the Tätowierer brings privileges – a room to himself, freedom to circulate, extra food rations – benefits he’s determined to share with his previous bunk mates and his assistant. He becomes a conduit for goods in both directions – jewels, medicines, food, luxuries – smuggling necessities to those who fall ill, bribing guards in order to gain advantages for others. And as he stealthily does what he can, he witnesses many other examples of courage and humanity and selflessness, even in the face of brutality of incomprehensible proportions.

One of the most sinister and chilling sections relates to Lale’s encounters with Herr Doktor Josef Mengele whose ‘soul is colder than his scalpel’. Watching the tattooist at work, the doctor stands before the parades of young women prisoners queueing to be assigned a number, deciding their fate with a flick of his hand – right, left, right, right, left, left, right – no obvious logic since they’re all in the prime of their lives, fit and healthy. And by and by his eye falls on Lale’s young assistant, Leon. He is whisked away, returned some time later without his testicles, cut off in the name of Mengele’s infamous medical experiments.

As Lale sinks deeper and deeper into scenes of unparalleled inhumanity, he feels he is drowning in hell. Even the walls seem to be weeping for those who leave a room in the morning and do not return at night. He befriends a whole consignment of Romani people who share his block of rooms, only to see every last one of them rounded up and reduced to ash.

At one point he’s called to the very centre of the horror, to one of the ovens in the Crematorium, to identify the correct owner of a given number when two corpses appear to bear the same one. He steps into a cavernous room …
‘Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old; children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine, faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space.’
The SS officer with him teases him that he’s probably the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked out again, but for Lale, this is one step farther into the abyss.

As a privileged person himself, Lale is also personally vulnerable – he must be wary of  people’s motives for befriending him, for confiding in him, alert to the threat of backstabbing and false accusations, of being seen to be collaborating with the enemy. And again and again he asks himself, what has he been saved for?

‘Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism … I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator.’

Nor is he free from the constant fear of his own death or degradation. His personal safety is at the whim of the armed guard assigned to monitor him, his mood, his thirst for disposable fodder. When someone betrays Lale for the stash of gems (bargaining chips) under his mattress, he undergoes severe torture and starvation, now reliant on others to rally to his support and cherish him. And falling in love with prisoner 34902, Gita, renders him vulnerable in many new and delicate ways.

Originally a screenplay, this debut novel often reads like a script for actors, or the descriptive overlays on TV programmes designed for those with hearing- or visual-impairment. I wanted to edit it severely!! But what it lacks in literary merit it makes up for in the poignancy of a life lived in the face of inhumanity beyond reason. A sobering lesson for us all.

When his Romani friends were summarily cremated, Lale sank into a deep depression, but Gita told him ‘you will honour them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here‘. He has indeed honoured them. The cost to him can only be dimly imagined. No one could possibly survive such an experience without being terribly traumatised. In his case ‘everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss.’

Let us never forget.

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Splinter the Silence

In Splinter the Silence, Val McDermid explores the issue of internet trolling/hate mail/harassment/villification/abuse of women who put their heads above the parapet to speak about discrimination and injustice. In this fictional case, the public figures are apparently hounded to the point of suicide, although the reader knows from the outset that they are actually being murdered, each killing disguised to mimic the suicides of famous feminists. The murderer has his own reasons for objecting to women who step outside their domestic role and tell men what’s right or wrong.

Well, sadly, I know people in real life who would still tether women to the kitchen sink if they could. I have myself come in for criticism for being a woman and daring to voice and defend an opinion; for having ideas above my subservient station. Fortunately, positive responses have far, far outweighed the negative, so it hasn’t been that difficult to maintain perspective, but then, I’m not an A-list celebrity, so such pernicious or malicious activities don’t hit the headlines, the number of critics doesn’t reach stratospheric levels. Nevertheless, I can vouch for the discomfort of being on the receiving end of such unjust vitriol. It’s not as far fetched as you might imagine.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the matter of standing up and being accountable, and about all the cases coming to public attention right now that lend themselves to strong column inches. I’ll itemise a few, but please note, I have no privileged access to information on any of them, so the facts I include are as subject to distortion and prejudice as any other media-generated stories.

OK, serious time, folks. And in every case multiply the questions many times over.

Ten days after legally completing his transition from female to male, a transgender man, TT, underwent intrauterine insemination, resulting in a pregnancy. He has now taken his case to the High Court in an effort to be the first to have no ‘mother’ registered on the birth certificate. Hello? ‘Cake’ and ‘eat’ instantly spring to mind. Expensive legal and parliamentary resources are to be deployed to look into the ramifications of the current laws governing fertility treatment.
One British doctor is reported as saying, now that it is medically possible to transplant a womb into biological males, it would be illegal to deny them access to this opportunity to carry a child to birth. What do you think? Would it?
What about the rights of the unborn child?
One author of a letter to the Telegraph outlined the scenario and concluded, ‘The lunatics truly have taken over the asylum.‘ Do you agree? Or is this a case of establishing the deep-seated needs of people who have struggled all their lives with their dysphoria?

Then there’s the issue of rights and dignity and bodily integrity and mental welfare of female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels? Renewed calls have been made for such women to be given drugs to lower their levels before they compete, or for them to be channelled into other categories such as intersex competition.
What about the effect on these sportswomen of the abuse and accusations levelled at them?
Is it a fair playing field?
Other scientists have cast serious doubt on the integrity of the research behind this latest demand; how many people either know of this or have the scientific or mental wherewithal to judge the issue fairly?

Exactly four years ago, on their half-term break, Shamima Begum and two school friends fled this country, aged only 15, to join Isil and become jihadi brides. In those years, Begum has borne three children, two of whom died of illness and malnourishment. She has told the world she doesn’t regret her actions, that she was unfazed by the sight of severed heads, that’s she’s into retaliation, but wants to bring baby number three back to her home country.
We have no way of knowing just how much coercion lies behind her public pronouncements, but her responses to interviewers chill the blood. The government have refused to jeopardise more lives by sending anyone to rescue her, but at first the lawyers told us, she’s a British citizen, she cannot be rendered stateless, so legally speaking, there is no choice; we must have her back. Then a couple of days later we hear that no, the government are not obliged to repatriate her … and indeed the Home Secretary has revoked her British citizenship … she has dual Bangladeshi nationality … the baby has a Dutch father  …
What consequences should this girl’s actions have?
Whose rights take precedence?
What kind of a future lies in front of her or her baby son?
Who should assume responsibility?
Is it a measure of our own more civilised behaviour that we rise above the terrorists’ creed and show compassion now towards this girl?
What of all the other people who’ve dabbled in terrorism but who now want to return?And a zillion other questions.
No wonder opinion is divided.

Retired accountant, 80-year-old Geoff Whaley, diagnosed with MND two years ago, decided that an agonising and undignified death was not for him; he would go to Dignitas in Switzerland for a controlled end to his life. But his careful planning was threatened days before his proposed departure by the appearance of police at his door, interviewing his wife of 52 years under caution, in response to an anonymous tip-off. It was this unwelcome intrusion, coupled with the laws of this country opposing assisted suicide, not his impending suicide, that engendered fear and anguish in this man, provoking him to protest to the BBC and MPs:
‘The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding.’
Put aside for a moment your personal views on assisted dying, and ask, what could possibly have motivated someone to blow the whistle in this way at the Whaley’s eleventh hour? Genuine concern, self-righteousness, extreme religious views, a sense of public duty, malice? Or what?
Should other people’s private scruples be allowed to control the rights of families in such tragic circumstances?

Imagine being born in war-ravaged Yemen, stranded in a hospital in a country where social, political, economic and health care systems have all collapsed, where about half of the 28 million inhabitants are living on the brink of famine. Now add to that the babies being conjoined twins. Their picture appeared in the British press; the Yemeni doctors appealing for help from the UN to get them to Saudi Arabia.
What should our response be?
What is our responsibility in such cases?
What chance did they realistically have?
At least 6,800 civilians have been killed and 10,700 injured in the war, according to UN statistics. Did these two extremely vulnerable boys warrant such an exceptional rescue mission?
In the event they died in their homeland, but the questions remain.

I could go on … and on …

All the youngsters who become victims of disturbing material on line … the BBC being criticised for not offering abortion advice after an episode of Call the Midwife featuring a backstreet abortion … impecunious students being paid to contract dangerous tropical diseases like typhoid and malaria in the search for new effective vaccines … the matter of a 97-year-old Duke of Edinburgh flouting the country’s law on the wearing of seatbelts …

I have opinions on all these issues. You don’t have to listen to me. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with me – fundamentally and even vociferously. But you ought not to shut me up! Especially not in a threatening or damaging way.

 

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Parallels

A long time ago – 12 April last year, to be precise – I showed you the beginnings of a new project to create a fair-isle jacket using authentic Shetland Island techniques and wool. Progress has been slow because it could only be knitted with full concentration on the task; not the kind of easy creativity to accompany reading or watching TV.

Well, it’s now finished.

And I’m very conscious that, as at the beginning, it has continued to be a kind of allegory for my writing. All the colours (in this case 15 different shades) have to be in the right place at the right time, just as plot threads do.

Any loose ends must be tucked in neatly so there are no stray strands anywhere – that task alone took weeks of painstaking work.

The patterns must align and form a cohesive whole. No one must be able to see the workings.

And the end result stands or falls on the overall effect.

Interestingly the book has taken rather longer than the knitting, and certainly far more hours, but, whilst I’m confident the jacket will attract lots of comments about the time, effort, skill involved, I’m equally sure that few, if any, will appreciate the same aspects behind Killing me Gently! And yet … I’m simply following instructions for the jacket; the novel is entirely my own design and creation. But, hey, nobody ever told us life would be fair!

I’m pleased to report that the fifth draft of Killing me Gently is shorter, tighter and more tense than version four. Both the beginning and ending have been completely re-written. All the helpful comments from my raft of critics and experts have been taken seriously and have paid dividends. The book is now within a whisker of being ready for the last (I hope!) round of critical comments, inching inexorably towards that day when I say it’s mature enough to leave the nest for good. Maybe the day for wearing that Shetland jacket, huh?!

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