Hazel McHaffie

Blue sky thinking

Ten days of wall-to-wall visitors staying chez nous effectively put paid to focused writing, but happily the brain has still been ticking over in the region of the back-burner.

As I strolled in beautiful gardens …

and wandered through castles and mansions …

the plot thickened for my current novel (working title Killing me Softly).

Summary of non-spoiler points to weave in
* The reader doesn’t know who to trust
* More than one character doesn’t get what he/she wants and their situations just get worse and worse
* Authority figures are confused
* Conflict between the good guys further muddies the water

All elements of storytelling that increase tension and keep the reader gripped. Ahhah, itemising them reinforces one salient conclusion: the book is still on track for being a thriller then! Good to clarify that.

I anticipated this book would take some time to write, since I’m researching technique as well as specific subject matter, but maybe not as long as Archie Cotterell‘s novel which came out this month. As his wife said: ‘Everyone says they want to leave the City and write a novel … but I married the idiot who did.’ It has taken 17 years for him to get What Alice Knew published – as long as James Joyce took to write Finnegan’s Wake. I’m devoutly hoping I don’t have to struggle that long! Time will tell.

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Let’s hear it for the book!

It’s May … Christian Aid week again … which means the monarch of all secondhand book sales. Each year the St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in George Street in Edinburgh hosts this fantastic week long event to help address world poverty. Since it started in 1974 the sale has raised in excess of £2m for the charity.

Preparation goes on for weeks beforehand involving over 500 volunteers, local authors bring along signed copies of their work, some people bequeath whole libraries to them, countless anonymous people donate their discard-able tomes. And by the time the doors open to the public, over 100,000 books of every kind fill the sanctuary, balconies and both courtyards, rare and valuable items rubbing shoulders with the run-of-the-mill. 100,000 books! Bliss.

Unusually this year I went along on Saturday’s opening day just half an hour after the doors opened. There was already an excited buzz outside on the pavement …

as well as inside …

Plenty of ‘excuse me’s, jostling elbows/large bags, competitive reaching. Long arms and good vision a definite advantage.

This early on there was good evidence of order with books by the same author gathered into boxes, and I could only dimly conceive of the mammoth task that involved. And yet I still heard one customer asking if they were arranged in alphabetical order! The remarkably tolerant volunteer said apologetically, ‘Sorry. There just wasn’t time for that.’ Bless her. Of course, it was the beginning of the week long effort … and the rain was holding off … and the snell east wind had abated. She could still feel her fingers and toes and didn’t have rain dripping off the polythene covers onto her trousers. But even so.

So the customer must tour the tables, row after row after row of them, grouped under banner signposts to find the titles they’re after. Specialised non-fiction tomes and sets varying in price; most hard-cover novels £2 a pop; paperbacks £1. Amazing bargains. And I’m sure many people cheerfully stump up far more than the asking price.

Inside the stalls range from the obscure to the classical and there are phenomenal bargains to be had. Having just read about the illuminators of ancient Turkey, this intriguing book held my attention.

But despite the serious temptation, I limited my own purchases to one carriable-home-on-the-bus bag which included these novels …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But my biggest kick came from standing on the balcony watching all these earnest browsers digging into boxes on every topic you can think of. Wanting, buying, loving books! Yep, the real hold-in-your-hand hard copy book is certainly nowhere near in terminal decline. Half-way round I beat a retreat to the basement cafe to fortify myself for a second wave of literary rummaging and then discovering more lovely and unusual finds in the antiques and collectables department.

Huge congratulations to all who sustain this brilliant endeavour.

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Turkish delight

‘I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.’

How’s that for an opening line? Brilliant, isn’t it? And the first paragraph sucks you in still further:

‘Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.’

Wow! Who … where … why … what … how …? More please.

I’ve been to Turkey where this beautiful calligraphy was created for me personally by a talented artist just a stone’s throw from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The whole experience was utterly fascinating, so I’ve been keen to read something by the much garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and what better book than one about calligraphers in Istanbul! It just needed a decent slot of time without too many other distractions – it’s over 500 pages of dense small print. Imagine translating something that long! Hats off to Professor Erdağ Göknar who I imagine is often forgotten; his command of English has to be exceptional.

First then, the official blurb about My Name is Red to give you an overview: it’s the late 1590s …

‘The Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and the Ottoman Empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day – in the European manner. In Istanbul at a time of violent fundamentalism, however, this is a dangerous proposition. Even the illustrious circle of artists are not allowed to know for whom they are working. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their Master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?
With the Sultan demanding an answer within three days, perhaps the clue lies somewhere in the half-finished pictures . . .’

The now-dead man, Elegant Effendi as he is known, is one of the select few responsible for painting and embellishing books – illuminating the edges of pages, the borders – in Our Sultan’s workshop under the eagle eye of the Head Illuminator, Master Osman. Elegant is an undisputed master of his craft. But he has now been missing for four days, and his fellow miniaturists – Butterfly, Stork and Olive – are the prime suspects. The question is, which one? And why? Was the motive professional, romantic or religious? The man asking the questions, Effendi Black, is also pursuing his own love interests in delicate and difficult circumstances (his lady love, Shekure’s husband is missing in action not yet declared dead, and her father-in-law and brother-in-law are exerting a lot of pressure on her to stay within their family where she will in all probability become a sexual and domestic slave) giving the book a feeling of subtle layers and stories within stories which necessitate keeping all your wits about you to retain a firm hold on all the threads. Added to that, each chapter is written in the first person by a range of different players (20 in total) in this drama – not all of them human – so we know a great deal about motives and actions and dreams from all sides.

My Name is Red is at once a murder mystery and a meditation on love, artistic devotion, religious conviction, and the tensions between East and West. Tall order, huh? It has the ring of a long involved parable designed to explore deep truths – albeit in the Muslim rather than Christian tradition.

‘Allah created this worldly realm the way an intelligent seven-year-old boy would want to see it; what’s more Allah created this worldly realm so that, above all, it might be seen. Afterward, He provided us with words so that we might share and discuss with one another what we’ve seen.’

Sight/blindness, time/infinity, books/paintings are all recurring symbols.

‘Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of the blank page.
Blindness is a realm of bliss from which the Devil and guilt are barred.’

Europeans are ‘infidels‘ and their beliefs and practices are abhorrent to these people. They must take great care not to be tainted by such influences. So, it’s necessary for us to understand the strict rules laid down in the ‘Glorious Koran’ prohibiting the representation of the human image; divine will forbids ‘objects that mimic mankind’ and thus ‘compete with Allah’s creations’. Women’s faces must not be seen outside the family.

The writing is lyrical (thanks to both author and translator), the concepts deep and rich giving much to ponder. The minute detail Pamuk invests in this work, the delicate and subtle descriptions, seem in a way to reflect the exquisitely fine artistry of the illustrations demanded by the sultans, refined by the masters, every stroke given importance and meaning; a combination of inspiration, talent and patience. Though this level of minutiae makes the book long and complex, it needs to be savoured slowly, each idea given due weight – the fine line between right and wrong, good and evil, reality and fantasy, truth and lies, marriage and divorce, beauty and ugliness, life and death.

‘Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.’

It might be expected that these highly sensitive artists working for the Sultan would lead cossetted and protected lives, surrounded as they are by fabulous art and sumptuous wealth. Not so. The master binders and calligraphers whose ‘brushes made horses gallop at full speed and whose butterflies fluttered off the page‘ have suffered for their art. Their lives are fiercely controlled.

‘Only true artists like us who’d suffered throughout our apprenticeships merciless bastinados, random pummelings and fists so that the irritable master who drew a line incorrectly might feel better – not to mention hours of blows from sticks and rulers so that the devil within us would perish to be reborn as the jinn of inspiration – only we could feel such extreme joy by depicting bastinados and tortures,only we could color these implements with the gaiety of coloring a child’s kite.’

Perspectives and insights are the product of this upbringing. And over time, when these apprentices in turn become experts, and then masters themselves, with experience and the study of tomes of illustrations painted over hundreds of years, they come to possess a special kind of knowledge and understanding.

‘I came to know which artist had learned what from whom, in which workshop under which shah’s patronage the thing we now call ‘style’ first took shape, which fabled master had worked for whom, and how, for example, the curling Chinese clouds I knew had spread throughout Persia from Herat under Chinese influence were also used in Kazvin … but an agony lurked deeper within me, a melancholy and regret I can scarcely share with you for the belittled, tormented, pretty, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed, sapling thin painters – battered by masters – who suffered for their art, yet remained full of excitement and hope, enjoying the affection that developed between them and their masters and their shared love of painting, before succumbing to anonymity and blindness after long years of toil.’

For generations, for centuries, these rare skills have been taught in secret using vicious means of control and submission; rivalry, jealousy and backstabbing the norm. But when these highly specialised workmen fall victim to bitter fighting amongst the ruling and political classes, they become ‘penniless and destitute, homeless and bereft’, their rarefied world collapses, and in consequence ‘rapidly transcribed, hastily painted, cheap books appeared everywhere, matching the tastes of common soldiers, boorish pashas and spoiled princes’.

‘Just as the doors of houses are closed of an evening and the city is left in darkness, painting was also abandoned.’

New priorities, different jealousies emerge.

Having myself watched Dervishes whirling, and visited the Hagia Sophia, stared at the priceless jewels plundered from vanquished enemies, sailed on the Bosphorus, smelled the spices of the great souks, and been woken by the muezzin call to prayer, I could readily picture the scenes: Istanbul, the portraits of the Sultans, the fabulous Ottoman wealth. Without that experience I rather think I’d have struggled to understand the culture, the history, the nuances in this unusual and complex tale.

Seen through the eyes of artists used to precision, beauty and painstaking execution, the story has a poignancy, subtlety and depth of its own. Perhaps the narration itself has to aim for a pinnacle of perfection to be worthy of its message.

‘There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest master in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning.’

‘… shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world’s beauty belongs to Allah.’

But through the esoteric world of these master-craftsmen we come to better understand fanaticism, how men can be driven to commit heinous crimes for their beliefs no matter how suspect the foundations of their conviction may be to an outsider. Salutary lessons for today, methinks.

 

 

 

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Are you sitting comfortably?

May Bank Holiday included a couple of National Trust properties for me this year – Cragside House in Northumberland and Acorn Bank in Cumbria – fascinating places with rich histories, each in their own way evocative of a bygone age. So I thought I’d give you faithful followers a little holiday too, take you to some wonderfully inviting places to sit, to write, to read, simply to meditate. (Apologies for the quality of some of the pictures – taken on my iPad so limited control.)

Imagine for yourself what the peace, the serenity, the ambience, would conjure up in your mind.

At Cragside

A sumptuous Victorian Country house, the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. So let your thoughts roam free as you …

sit surrounded by fantastic gardens …

in elegant rooms …

beside roaring fires …

in the midst of enormous wealth and inheritance …

looking over fabulous views …

Acorn Bank

A virtually empty-at-the-moment 13th century building spanning occupancy by the Knights Templar through to the Sue Ryder Foundation before becoming a national treasure. So imagine again where your thoughts would roam …

sitting in a chair once occupied by a renowned writer …

snuggling up in window seats …

Feel any historical novels coming on?!

How about sitting alone in the fragrance of a well stocked herb garden …

The NT are alive to opportunities; I found seats beckoning me everywhere I went. What’s more the beautiful dovecot building at Acorn Bank has been given over to reading. It houses secondhand books alongside a lovely comfy chair and even 3-for-2 offers!

What more could a writer visitor from Scotland ask for? Well, maybe a book about Edinburgh …

Happy days.

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Odious comparisons

For the most part I don’t like to compare different authors. They aren’t in competition; they each have their own tale to tell, in their own way, for their own audiences. But this week in the course of reducing the number of books on my tbr bookshelves (ready for an anticipated influx next month!) I’ve been struck by the power of celebrity.

Stella Rimington? Yes, of course, we’ve all heard of her. Director General of MI5 in her professional life. High profile. Known name. But did I like her fiction? I did not. I chose At Risk – written when she’d got into her stride as a novelist. MI5 officer Liz Carlyle investigates a possible terrorist threat to a high security counter-terrorism meeting at Gleneagles. Looked promising given the author’s credentials. But … Style? No thanks. Plot? No thanks. Overall merit? No thanks. OK, this clever lady (Rimington, I mean), writing in her own area of expertise, may have successfully brought out 9 novels with bona fide publishers, but I have a sneaking suspicion her position had something to do with that. And I won’t personally be searching for more of her works.

Iain Banks? Yeah, we probably all remember his famous proposal to his girlfriend when he was terminally ill: would she do him the honour of becoming his widow. I hesitate to speak ill of the works of the dead but I’m afraid, for me, Banks has slithered into the same camp as Rimington:  Canal Dreams had little to commend it for me. A famous Japanese cellist with a fear of flying gets caught up in civil unrest in the Panama Canal aboard the tanker on which she’s a passenger. Alongside the horrors of being help captive by lawless violent men, she has a series of dark inexplicable dreams and flashbacks to various traumas in her life. Hmmm. End thought: what was there to commend this book? And yet, this guy has written and successfully published 24 novels. He is and will remain, famous. Happily he doesn’t need the endorsement of a nonentity like me.

So, my point thus far? Reading is subjective. I am not swayed by fame or fortune. I shall not like something simply because I’m told I should by others no matter how high they rank in the literary echelons. These writers don’t appeal to me. Simple as that. I did do them both the courtesy of finishing their books to give them a sporting chance (well, it’s a basic tenet of mine, not to say obsession, as you know) but that’s it.

On the other hand …

Marcelle Bernstein? Ever heard of her? Her name doesn’t crop up in quizzes, she doesn’t get major reviews, so probably not. Sacred and Profane has only one review on Amazon and yet it’s one of my top twenty favourite books. A nun collapses at prayer, crying out in agony. Thousands of miles away, a female prisoner wakes panic stricken at exactly the same moment. What links these two women? I was utterly gripped. Oh, and just so you know, Bernstein has in fact won awards as well as having many other strings to her bow.

And then there’s Jaishree Misra …? Me neither. But her book was on my shelf and I discovered this lady is high profile in India; and she’s published by mainstream publishers. Not my usual kind of reading, but I took a big breath and got stuck into Secrets and Sins by way of illustration for this blog. Riva Singh and Aman Khan meet briefly at college and have a short liaison. Now she’s a bestselling novelist and he a Bollywood heartthrob, both married to other people, when they meet again at the Cannes Film Festival. Will they follow their hearts or their heads? It wouldn’t feature on my top one hundred, I wouldn’t rush to find it’s sequel, but, viewed dispassionately, I found it easier to read that either of the celebrated works above.

However, best of all was my as-yet-unknown debut author of last week’s blog – remember him? I enjoyed his writing enormously even in its first draft form. Plot? Yes. Message? Yes. Overall merit? Yes indeedy. I guess I ought to put my mark against the day when he too is famous. You heard of him here first! He’s currently hard at work editing. Bring it on!

 

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Behind the scenes

As you know this week has been devoted to reading and critiquing a debut novel. All 587 pages, 230,100 words of it. A morning-noon-and-night job. And it has made me realise more acutely than usual how much goes into producing a book and how much we ought to value each one that survives the rigours of the writing process and is eventually published.

This author had the first germ of an idea for his magnum opus years and years ago. He’s already a published author of non-fiction, an expert in his professional world, but this is his first foray into the world of fiction. He’s studied technique, tried emulating a number of authors, adopted various tactics, abandoned most. And once having chosen the method that works for him, he’s been slaving away for month after month after month to reach this first draft stage. He’s been sorely tempted to give up at times, he’s hidden himself away, fled the country even! Experimented, scrapped whole efforts, rewritten, agonised, despaired. Picked himself up, dusted himself down, got back into the saddle.

And now … sacrilege! I’ve scribbled all over his precious baby – yes, with the proverbial literal red pen! Ahh, yes, of course with his permission. He requested my honest appraisal.

I’m handing it over today on the very morning he returns from three weeks abroad. (I’m devoutly hoping he’s totally refreshed and invigorated by the break! Suitably fortified against such an assault.) Then it’s over to him. To go through the whole thing word by word, line by line, deciding whether or not to take my advice or do his own thing. His choice, his responsibility.

It’s a beautiful story, cleverly plotted, meticulously planned, but parts of it I’m sure he will jettison – thousands upon thousands of sentences, words, letters he’s sweated blood over. Most of it he’ll edit and even re-write, darting back and forth, checking and rechecking that he’s being consistent, keeping his chronology right, being true to his characters. They too will subtly change as he firms up their foibles, rounds out their personalities, tinkers with their distinctive voices, authenticates their accents. Maybe even the thread of his plot will be subtly tweaked in places.

And day after day after day – nights too in all probability – everything will need to be checked again … and again … and again. Until the second draft is ready for critiquing!

Only when it’s as good as it can be will he be ready to offer it to a publisher or an agent. After which he’s into a whole new game. Weighing options. Waiting. Worrying. Delays. Disappointments. Rejections. Criticism. Harsh reviews. Probably all of the above.

Next time you think £7.99/£9.99 is a lot to fork out for a paperback, spare a thought for the bruised and battered guy who poured his soul into the story, who plucked the entire thing out of his own imagination, who worked for a pittance, who persevered against all the odds, to bring you that magnificent tale that made you laugh and weep and stay up long after your bedtime because you absolutely couldn’t put it down. All for the price of a single starter in a restaurant, or a ball of wool, or a small plant for the garden.

Here’s to writers everywhere!

PS. Downside for me: Now I’m so much in editorial mode, I’m desperately wanting to correct the Stella Rimington novel, I’m currently reading for recreation!

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A glimpse into buried history

Hello …? … Last week a Booker prize winner, this week an Orange Prize winner: When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant … Am I converting? Where will it all end?

But I was intrigued by the blurb about this one.

We all know about the terrible things that happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis; we probably all know about the creation of the State of Israel. But what happened to this displaced people in between? Where did they go when they had no country to point to as home? Who were they at this in-between time when it required a long explanation as to their identity? What did they do?

Well, ‘Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story.’

When I Lived in Modern Times deals with the immediate post WWII period through the eyes of one such displaced person, a Jewish girl who travels to Palestine to find answers to these questions. It’s a novel. About identity. About accommodating the past while establishing a future. About a kaleidoscope of difference coalescing into a single purpose. It combines the personal and political, idealism and realism, passion and analytical coolness, clever storytelling with rigorously researched historical accuracy.

It probes the conflict in the life and heart of young Evelyn Sert, who is first and foremost Jewish, but feels Britain is where she is most at home, least foreign. ‘It was the British whose taste and idioms, language and dress, cooking and habits I knew and understood.’ Even so it’s conviction rather than necessity that compels her to go to the land of her forefathers, the ‘Holy Land’. She is just 20; ‘a work in progress’, ‘a preliminary sketch for a person’. Part of a shadow family – hidden away by Uncle Joe, the man who kept Evelyn and her mother separate from his legitimate wife and his four legitimate daughters and his legitimate place of worship, the synagogue. But at her core Evelyn is a Jew, part of a proud people.

So, here she is, a single Jewish girl at a time when ‘anti-Semitism was a wolf roaming the world‘. Where, in the Holy Land, ‘alliances are based not on the proper opposition between left and right but blood ties and age-old feuds, pride, shame‘. Where mobs and tribal loyalties not political organisations rule. She’s exploring her history, her people, her roots. As she puts it herself: ‘I was moving through history, I was in it.’ She feels lost in the enormity of expectation and fractured dreams. ‘Why do I, who am one of these people, not know how to be a Jew in a Jewish land?’

In the space of a slim volume Evelyn goes from being a hairdresser’s daughter to ‘dilettante would-be artist‘ to ‘useless immigrant‘ to squirrelled-away girlfriend. She is left with no illusions. This is no utopia. Her fellow citizens of this emerging new race don’t match up to the values of a chosen people: ‘They were sullen or violent or depressed or conniving or lazy or untruthful or greedy. They were a catalogue of the seven deadly sins.

Linda Grant’s evocation of the suspicion, subterfuge and bewilderment prevailing in those times conjures up a kaleidoscope of scenes … arcane hairdressing practices of the 1940s … double standards … communal life in a kibbutz … a bleak landscape where a bomb feels like a ‘cleansing, transforming instrument‘ in the struggle against colonial masters.

Sobering, uncomfortable reading, but a useful glimpse into a time where my own understanding was decidedly hazy.

Oh and just for clarity, no, I have NOT fallen hook, line and sinker for literary writing! I’m just keeping my mind sufficiently open to allow new opinions to creep in occasionally. And making good use of days either imprisoned on trains or when the sun beckons me into the garden.

Now for that massive debut manuscript. I might be gone some time!

 

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Amsterdam

Last week I mentioned the book I was carting round with me for odd moments of distraction: 1998 Booker winner, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. In the end I couldn’t get into it with so much distraction, so I saved it for a free afternoon. Wise decision.

It’s a chilly February day. Two men, lopsided friends of long standing, attend the funeral of a woman they have both loved (with a family funeral looming this week this instantly resonated with me). Vernon Halliday is the fifth editor of a London newspaper, The Judge, doing his best to reverse declining circulation figures. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer, searching for an elusive masterpiece.

Both were former lovers of the beautiful Molly Lane whose cremation they are attending. Molly – ‘restaurant critic, gorgeous wit and photographer, the darling gardener who had been loved by the Foreign Secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six.’ Molly – the speed of whose descent into ‘madness and pain‘ had become the subject of widespread gossip; and who lost control of both bodily functions and seemly behaviour.

Having seen Molly’s ignominious end, both men, harbouring secret fears about their own health, make a pact with the other that will have consequences neither intend or foresee.

Molly’s widower, George Lane, is a rich publisher given to wearing a silk dressing gown over his day clothes and favouring a ‘Buckingham Palace style‘ in house furnishings. He owns one and a half percent of the paper The Judge, but in reality knows little about the real world of business. His empire is built upon highly dubious and speculative publications.

The plot gathers momentum when incriminating photos of another of Molly’s lovers are discovered amongst her possessions. Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, is the man in question. His political star is in the ascendancy; he’s widely tipped to be the next prime minister, but Molly’s pictures of him reveal a very different story.

We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man’s privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy …

But there’s a small matter of morality at stake here. Should such private information become public knowledge? Can relationships survive disloyalty? Clive and Vernon both face serious moral challenges; both have reputations and jobs to lose. Greatness, genius, integrity, are ephemeral achievements, striven for over a lifetime, destroyed in an instant.

I approached this book with my usually cynicism about literary writing; I ended up agreeably surprised. At only 178 pages I read it in one sitting – always an advantage for holding the detail in my head. But better yet, the story has a message … and a plot … and was readable! … and by jingo! even a little dab of ethics!! Things are definitely looking up.

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The spice of life

Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …

… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …

… a  draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …

… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …

… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …

… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …

Cover of "Listen"

Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.

And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.

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Digging for gold

In a former life I was a researcher based at Edinburgh University – OK, I know, I know, yawn yawn, not exactly an opening gambit to inspire stimulating exchanges at a candle-lit dinner, is it? But I’ve so often in my writing life has cause to be very glad of that background; digging around for facts and verifications, detail and context, comes naturally.

This past week I’ve been rummaging far and wide in readiness for a meeting with a professorial friend of mine who might set me straight on matters paediatric – of which more anon. But in the course of my own ferreting I’ve rediscovered some treasure troves on my bookshelves. There’s a brilliant set of writers’ guides on a range of topics – especially about the how, where, who, what and why of crimes. They’re a useful starting point so I don’t look like the ultimate complete twat when I consult the real live professionals who do this stuff for a living, and who kindly home in on any little inaccuracy, transforming the passable to the really authentic storytelling.

And there, sitting quietly alongside those books, was The World’s Worst Medical Mistakes. It’s no earthly use for my current writing – nobody would believe these scenarios if I put them in my novels; truth definitely is weirder than fiction in this case. But I’m totally hooked by it, in a macabre, shivery, kind of way. We all place our trust in the medical fraternity at some point in or lives, don’t we? – in spite of Bernard Shaw‘s dictum that all professions are ‘conspiracies against the laity‘ ringing in our ears. But sometimes that trust can be misplaced. Big time. Just think Thalidomide, or Dr Shipman, or Dr Crippen, or those celebrities who end up with wooden faces or fish-pouty lips after so-called enhancement.

This fascinating book brings together real human dramas and catastrophic errors that curl the toes and make the blood run cold. Dangerous drugs unleashed on unsuspecting patients; the horrors of cosmetic surgery gone horribly awry; scalpels that inflicted major trauma; imposters and frauds and killers clad in white coats and phony qualifications; instruments left behind in body cavities … enough to make one suppress all symptoms of ill health for good and just go into a quiet decline safely under the duvet behind locked doors, with a DNR placard tattooed on your chest. But spine chillingly compulsive reading for a currently-healthy seeker after information!

What’s more, some of these fearful happenings took place in my lifetime. Hmmm. Worse still, when I was in clinical practice. There but for the grace of God … But add that to the historical catastrophes, and I’m devoutly thankful I live in the 21st century in a well-regulated society, and that I’m no longer responsible for other people’s lives and health.

As for my professorial friend. Wow! He didn’t just give me a wealth of information about paediatric parameters and drugs and symptoms and the fine machinations of the medical consultant’s mind when faced with a conundrum in a little patient who can’t speak for himself. No, in reality he actually helped me thrash out a convincing storyline for my upcoming thriller. Fabulous input. I just hope no one else in the cafe was listening in to our devious and dastardly plotting – we were really into our roles!!

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