Hazel McHaffie

Challenges and choices

The International Arts Festival is currently in full swing in our fair city, and it’s easy to get caught up in the exciting momentum of events and performances. Guilty as charged.

But of course, for many, far far more serious questions beset them than which actors, writers, musicians or artistes to support. I currently have six special people on my worry/prayer list all facing major challenges in relation to their health, life and death.

It’s not appropriate to be specific about them, but perhaps they are behind my extra sensitivity to the difficult choices so many face. For this post I’m thinking of those people who’re involved in the consequences of legal change, medical advances or financial restrictions associated with healthcare – my kind of workaday world. I’ll enumerate but a few (with links) reported in the national press in just 36 hours by way of illustration. All raise a number of thorny issues and I leave you to ponder those for yourself.

Relatives and health care workers caring for patients trapped in unresponsive bodies with minimal or no consciousness no longer need to go to court to resolve the question of withdrawing/withholding life sustaining measures. Decisions about dignified death can be made quietly and privately in a timeous way.

In figures released last month, the first trial of a pioneering immunology vaccine called DCVax has shown some real promise. DCVax essentially uses the patient’s own immune system to fight the tumour, tailoring treatment to their specific needs. This trial has already been running for 11 years and came to public attention when MP Dame Tessa Jowell was not eligible to receive DCVax for her glioblastoma. Sadly she died in May, but not before she had successfully campaigned for increased funding for brain cancer research. To date patients have needed to stump up £200,000 for this treatment.

New National Guidelines, known as Saving Babies’ Lives Care Bundle, have been issued in response to the alarming statistic that 600 babies could be saved from stillbirth annually if the mothers were adequately monitored.  SBLCB focuses in on the incidence of smoking, signs of failure to grow, reduced fetal movement, inadequate monitoring in labour – risk factors that were all known about decades ago when I was in clinical practice. Given that 3000 babies are stillborn every year in England alone this seems like an important area to concentrate on.

ASDA has apologised for selling a pregnancy test that issued false results leading a young woman in Devon to believe she was pregnant when she wasn’t. However the store has not recalled this product and insist it has been quality tested.

One in five people who have eating disorders have their lives cut short, but a considerable number are turned away from help because they are not skinny enough. And this in spite of National Institute of Health and Care Excellence guidance to disregard body mass index. (I found this to be true when I was researching Inside of Me.) A campaign is now underway to ensure the NICE guidelines are being adhered to.

News at the end of July was that more than half of Scotland’s population have pledged to donate their organs and/or tissues after death. That’s the highest rate in the UK and comes after a high profile awareness campaign. It’s good news for the 550 or so waiting for transplants and a significant factor in the discussion about whether we should change to an opt-out system, currently under review. Interestingly 90% of the population support organ donation, so one wonders about the mismatch.

I could go on but I promised just a brief snapshot. But I’m doing my best to keep perspective during my annual summer sortie into the world of drama and art.



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Literary triumphs

I have the great good fortune to live just outside one of the most famous literary cities in the world: Edinburgh. Numerous well-known writers have – and still do – stalked its streets, culled from its haunts, woven its magic into their books. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying exploring its streets all over again taking visitors to see its picturesque closes and wynds and courtyards and beautiful buildings – including The Writers’ Museum pictured here.

And as we gear up to the biggest international arts festival in the world, it seems an appropriate time to add my own homage to one of the most enduring names in fiction ever: Emily Brontë, whose special bicentennial anniversary we remember this year.  Wouldn’t she herself be completely stunned by all the hype!!

Two hundred years ago, in 1818, this girl was born in Yorkshire into obscurity, the fifth child of an impoverished clergyman and his wife. She was a weak timid little thing, who found school too daunting, so she spent her childhood at home reading avidly and scribbling stories and poems of her own. A brief skirmish with teaching in her adult years in an effort to contribute to the family’s meagre income met with similar discord, and back she went to the peace and anonymity of the rectory, and the quiet influence of a bookish, creative environment.

So oppressed were women in her day that she and her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, all published their writing under male pseudonyms. Emily’s was Ellis Bell. Much they wrote sank into oblivion, but, as I’m sure you know, her one outstanding work, Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, proved hugely popular and remains a classic to this day.

Having already lost three siblings and her mother, Emily’s young life was overshadowed by struggle, death and despair, and perhaps it was that which coloured her own writing, and lead to the melancholy tale of bleak love and dark revenge we know and revere today. Heathcliffe has to be one of the most bitter, haunted and vengeful fictional heroes of all time.

How sad that this reclusive figure didn’t live long enough to see her creation achieve success; she was a mere thirty years of age when she caught a chill at her brother Bramwell’s funeral, developed TB and died, six days before Christmas. But how doubly heartening that the world pays tribute to her still.

And now I’m preparing for a whirl of amazing cultural experiences as we take friends and relations to the huge range of performances on offer. All this on our doorstop … most fortunate indeed.


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The King’s genius

I’ve had the legendary ‘King of Horror’, American writer Stephen King, in my sights for yonks but only just got around to reading one of his books: Under the Dome. It’s a mammoth 896 pages long but its antecedents intrigued me.

King first tried to write it in 1976 but gave up after two weeks. He began the same story again thirty-one years later, passionate about exploring the ecological and meteorological concerns his plotline presented, but this time the technical problems overwhelmed him. However, the ideas kept niggling, and he eventually co-opted a trusted researcher to thoroughly investigate all the highly technical aspects of his story, and Under the Dome finally materialised, his 58th novel. That’s persistence and commitment, huh?

I’m not going to review it – you can find good analyses on line if you’re interested, but horror and sci fi, brutal murder and gang rape for fun, crudity and graphic violence, really aren’t my thing. I guess I’m in the minority – no, I don’t guess, I know I am! The evidence is there. King has published 59 novels and sold over 350 million copies. His shelves are overloaded with awards and trophies. He’s in my age bracket and still going strong. That’s what success and popularity look like. He just doesn’t happen to be my cup of tea.

Essentially the story is about ‘liberal morality’ and a ‘moderate green sensibility’ versus ‘greed, corruption and fundamentalism’. The first 5% of this brute of a book is devoted to unmitigated death and destruction, recounted in graphic detail as one by one vehicles and people and animals collide with an invisible barrier which has come down and encased a small town in Maine like one of those giant glass domes designed to protect food from dust and insects. Only this one isn’t protective; anything but. By 90% of the way through – I read it on my Kindle – a population of 2000+ residents has been reduced to 32 people; by 97% there are just two dozen left. That’s some death toll! And King was determined to keep his ‘pedal consistently to the metal’ throughout. Only in the last few pages does resolution come, leaving deep philosophical questions about this somewhat allegorical sci-fi tale in its wake.

OK, maybe maybe aliens from outer space aren’t my bag, but hey, no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And one of the things I do seriously envy is his ability to convey so much with such an economy of words. So I thought I’d share a few examples with you.

‘he walked with cartoon caution’
‘shock and denial masquerading as calm control’
‘she never finished the thought, only closed the door on it’
‘sarcasm is her response to fear’
a smile is ‘not turned up to maximum chill
he spoke ‘softly as if to a child in a tantrum’
‘A lackadaisical little breeze cat’s-pawed their cheeks’
‘the family that slays together stays together’
[why was she bullied?] ‘… it was everything, right down to the way my skirts and blouses and even my hair ribbons matched. They wore clothes, I had outfits.’
‘… sixteen months of border warfare between the country of Controlling Parents and the smaller but well-fortified principality of Determined Teenager.’

As for me, persisting, reading every last word of this door-stopper, has encouraged me to return to my own far more pedestrian prose and up the ante! Has to be a good thing if as a consequence readers can lift a few choice phrases from my writing and linger a moment over the philosophical implications. A tough masterclass though!


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It’s some time since I could give you concrete evidence of progress with the current novel: Killing Me Gently, but this week marks a major MAJOR milestone.

4.15am on Saturday morning
I’m up and onto the computer.

Peace reigns; the brain is whirling, the fingers flying.




10am on Saturday morning
The last 3500 words are written … culminating in THE END.

First draft ………. COMPLETED! Wahey!

Phew!! And …breathe! More so with this one – a thriller – than most. It has all come together. Characters have dragged me off piste; events have taken me down unexpected paths; but we have all come through to a finale.

Of course, there are weeks and weeks of work still ahead, refining, editing, slashing, tightening. Increasing the pace, sharpening the dialogue, quirkifying the people, authenticating the detail. But that first draft is like a kiddie’s sandcastle. All the sand has been dug up, piled in one place, roughly in shape. It looks like a castle but the turrets and crests aren’t defined, the drawbridge is wont to collapse, the flag’s at half-mast. Now the real artistry can begin, but hopefully there’ll be no more scavenging, no more turning stones to see what’s underneath.

Another task still to come is to make contact with professionals – social workers, health visitors, GPs, paediatricians, psychiatrists. To present scenarios from the book to them; seeking their expertise as to plausibility and accuracy. If X does this and this, what are the implications for M and R and P? What would happen next in real life? Is my scenario possible? That’s a very exciting stage. Discussing the characters with other people makes them even more real.

And the title …? I’m veering towards Killing me Kindly … or perhaps …?? Everything’s up in the air. But I feel liberated. I have space to breathe. Space to stroll on the real sand, maybe even dig in it with grandchildren!

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Eighteen days of action; far more than eighteen difficult questions

In this record-breaking summer with its long hot days and short warm nights it’s hard to imagine being trapped in a dark cave inside a mountain for days, weeks on end, isn’t it? But as we know, twelve lads – aged between 11 and 16 – and their 25-year-old football coach have endured exactly that in Thailand. Thai children are warned by their grandparents about this ‘mountain that swallows people’ and doesn’t give them back; this must have felt like their worst nightmares coming true.

After nine endless days, there was worldwide rejoicing when that headlight fell on the boys, thin but all still alive. However, the rejoicing was short-lived. The authorities now faced a huge dilemma: how to get them out? They were perched on a rocky shelf 2.5 miles inside a pitch-black tortuous labyrinth of jagged passageways narrowing to just 15 inches in places, completely submerged in parts. Divers had to remove their breathing apparatus to squeeze through. The tunnel was filled with cold muddy water and the journey to reach them took an experienced person anything up to 6-7 hours to negotiate.

Hundreds of experts – elite squads from around the globe – collaborated to find a way to extricate them. The clock was against them. The tunnel needed to be partially drained, but their best efforts only achieved a fall of 1cm an hour, and there was an imminent risk of torrential monsoon rains reversing the process, submerging even the level where the boys were sitting. If they missed this small window of opportunity, it could be January before further rescue attempts that way could be attempted. Imagine! Being stuck inside a mountain for another six months!

The pressure was indeed on. But contingency plans had to be made for failure this time too. Experts laid conduits and cables against that eventuality to enable them to get provisions and communication to the trapped boys and their coach indefinitely. Communication was a major concern. Acoustics in the cavernous rocky space coupled with the rushing water made miscommunication highly likely, a perilous complication in such a fraught situation.

Some of the lads couldn’t even swim; none could dive. Experts gave them crash-courses in scuba diving, but they were already weakened by malnutrition and oxygen deprivation, possibly also suffering a potentially deadly lung disease caused by the fungi harboured in caves. With so many rescuers in the tunnel, so much activity, the air quality plummeted.

Then came devastating news: an experienced former navy SEAL volunteer tragically died in the exercise, from lack of air. He was only 38 years of age. If someone of his calibre could …

From above ground other rescuers furiously drilled holes in a desperate search for a way into the cave from above, without success, but flooding the fields of nearby farmers, ruining their crops. Others tried to expand the tunnels to make access easier. Buddhist monks kept vigil. Frightened parents camped nearby, willing the rescue attempt to succeed.

Then on Sunday the first attempt to extricate the boys was made. The world held its breath.

Four of the eleven were selected. Four were safety escorted out. Did that make it all worthwhile? Nine people were still trapped in there, facing another night deep inside the mountain.

Monday saw four more emerging, whisked off to hospital. And now? Five lives remained perilously perched on a rock in grave danger for another day and night.

Then on Tuesday came the news: all five were out. And last … a few hours later … the army doctor and three Navy Seals who’d been supporting the boys during their ordeal emerged – interestingly enough to no fanfare. I, like everyone else, let out my breath at last. And saluted those extraordinary people who had pulled off this daring and unprecedented rescue.

Why am I recounting this tale on my blog? Because it’s a clear illustration of ethical dilemmas in real life. Hard questions.

A few to kick-start thinking:
* Just how far should countries go in their efforts in such circumstances?
* What other services are being curtailed to free up this level of resources – both man-power and money?
* Who is being deprived as a consequence?
* Can hope of success against such odds justify the death of a young diver?
* Should other lives be put at risk?
* How do you weigh up the value of one life against another?
* What of the responsibility these volunteers have to their own families, their own teenage sons?
* How do you choose which boys to save first?
* Who should make that choice?
* How do organisations/individuals achieve an appropriate balance between adventure and safety where minors are concerned?
* Who should foot the bill for this mammoth rescue attempt?
* Are these boys more worthy of being saved than the hundreds of youngsters caught up say, in the floods in Japan, the Syrian crisis, starving in North Korea?
* What part does/should publicity and acclaim play in these situations?
I leave you to add your own dilemmas. You can see how my mind works. I sit on a permanent question-mark!

And of course, your opinion might depend on where you stand.
What if my own teenage grandson had been one of those trapped in the caves?
What if my husband, my son, was one of those going into the tunnel?
What if someone I love suffers because resources are deployed on this emergency rather than regular services?

How would I feel then?


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A Scottish mystery

OK, duty done! I duly persisted to the end of Georgette Heyer’s mighty tome on Lord John of Bedford. So I’ve earned the pleasure of reading the book I was itching to get into: The Woman who Walked into the Sea, bought in the Outer Hebrides last month. And memories of those endless golden beaches, turquoise seas, alluring bays, came flooding back.

The author, Mark Douglas-Home, – yep, he is indeed the nephew of the former prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home – is a journalist turned author, with an interesting career start: as a student he edited a University anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and got himself deported! Now there’s tale to tell!! He now lives more quietly in Edinburgh and this is his second novel.

The story’s set on the North West coast of Scotland where, on 9 September 1983, a heavily pregnant Megan Bates walked across the sands of a remote beach into the cold Atlantic sea, and kept on walking. She was 33 years old and was wearing a loose white dress and a raffia hat with a broad red ribbon round it. Or so it was said. But the day before the sighting of Megan walking to her death, a baby girl was abandoned at the main door of Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, just before midnight, in a cardboard box, wrapped only in towels. There was no note, nothing to identify her apart from an envelope taped to the side of the box containing a brooch featuring violets, pinned to a small rectangular section cut from a green woollen cardigan. Could this have been Megan’s illegitimate child? Because of the brooch, the staff named the baby Violet.

26 years later, following a tip off from a social worker from Inverness, Violet Wells is searching for clues as to her biological mother’s life and intentions. Her journey takes her to the island where Megan lived and died. But the good people of Poltown give her a strange reception: there’s a local beach-combing farmer who says he loved Megan but who was accused by the police of killing her; a bitter elderly lady who was in service but has been soured by her treatment since the death of her employer; a stranger who attempts to abduct her. It seems the whole community is conspiring to keep its secrets buried and nothing is what it seems. Even Orasaigh Cottage, Megan’s rented home, is stripped of personality and bereft of any trace of her existence. And yet her possessions are preserved in a room in the ramshackle building belonging to a boy/man who believes her still alive.

Cal McGill is a private investigator and oceanographer brought in to locate things and people lost at sea, and currently not at all sure he does families any favours by doing so. He’s intrigued by this young woman who has suddenly left her flat in Glasgow and her four year old daughter, Anna, and come to this far corner, obsessed by her personal quest, reticent about sharing her own story. His knowledge of tides and flotsam makes him question the newspaper and police accounts of that time a quarter of a century ago. But his interest in this woman and her strange history soon leads to his personal safety being threatened as well as Violet’s.

Subtly, little by little, local characters let slip details and together Violet and Cal piece together a fragmented account – a tale of greed and jealousy, cover up and lies – until the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and the ugly truth is revealed.

It’s been likened to a Ruth Rendell mystery. I wouldn’t personally rank it in that school of writing but I enjoyed the unravelling and of course, the exploration of the parent-child bond as well as the importance of knowing one’s roots; both slot neatly into my own current preoccupations.

A relaxing diversion before getting back into my own novel which is now on the downward slope to a conclusion. Very exciting to be counting down.

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Maritime disasters

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’m at the stage of saying: If this is Plymouth it must be Sunday! But in zooming from the Outer Hebrides to Devon with trips to assorted cities in between, there’s been ample opportunity to appreciate what a beautiful country we live in. With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, everything lush and flowering, the countryside is glowing in its prime.

But one evening stroll brought me back to earth in a quite unexpected way. It was Monday: then this much be Lichfield!

Lichfield is a place I’ve never visited before and expected only to overnight in, but events required a second day there leaving an evening free to explore. And what a lovely city it is – especially when the cathedral bells are peeling out during Monday night practice! My footsteps took me to the parks and there I found a statue of Commander Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. We’ve all heard of the ship of course, but how many knew its captain, I wonder? Not I.

My thoughts unravelled to a book I’ve just finished reading: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. The Titanic, the Lusitania … yes, their names are embedded in our vocabulary. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And yet this ship was at the centre of the worst disaster in maritime history. Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went down; 9400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland in 1945.

This historical fiction breathes life into a neglected tragedy. It’s a young adult novel set during World War II, beginning in January 1945, as the Third Reich was beginning to collapse. The Russians were gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, got underway. Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region migrated to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans.

Four young people lie at the centre of this tale; four very different characters, all bearing haunting secrets, all seeking to flee from those who hunt them. Emilia is a shy pregnant Polish teenager pretending to be Latvian. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse full of compassion but weighed down by guilt. Florian is a Prussian with a ruthless agenda, carrying a priceless stolen artefact. German Alfred is bent on showing the world he’s a hero, though in reality a coward at heart, living in a fantasy world. No one knows whom they can trust. Their disparate circumstances bring them together on the Wilhelm Gustloff as they join the teeming masses desperately seeking safety and freedom.

By the time the deadly torpedoes are unleashed we know something of the scenes of horror and destruction these young eyes have witnessed, we know their private burdens, we’re willing them to reach their goal. Unlike them we know what lies ahead, but that foreknowledge takes nothing away from the tension of Sepetys’ writing. Extremely short chapters, brisk sentences, one voice at a time taking its turn, sparse language, everything conveys the perspectives of youth and tentative lives lived minute by minute.

Salt of the Sea was loaned to me by my youngest granddaughter, aged thirteen, herself an avid reader. It’s written for her age group but well worth the attention of any age. And a sobering reminder of the tragedy of war and how quickly sacrifice and hardship can be forgotten. Our present day comfortable lives are built upon the sacrifice of others; let’s not forget.


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Unseen unsung dedication

I was a teenager when I discovered Georgette Heyer, and by the age of 24, I had acquired most of her Regency novels from secondhand book shops  – lighthearted romances set in a particular period of history. A shilling each, as I recall! Sadly, back then, I had no notion of the background research required to make a period novel flow effortlessly. Nor had I recognised that the author was only a lass of seventeen herself when she first began writing.

Best known for her Regency tales, she wrote forty-two romance and contemporary novels, as well as eleven detective stories, relying on her barrister husband to supply the plots for the latter.

I have just found a copy of the last novel this prolific author worked on, My Lord John, and learned that Heyer’s own favourite period in history was actually the Middle Ages: especially late 14th-early 15th Century. She planned to write a trilogy set in this time frame with John, Duke of Bedford, the younger brother of Henry V, as its central protagonist, calculating it would take her a period of five years to accomplish, but circumstances contrived to thwart her good intentions, and she only managed to complete a third of the whole project. In the published version an historical note has been added to round out the story and there has been some editing to present the unfinished tale in this form.

But what is most impressive is her husband’s account of the background work Georgette put into her writing.

Her research was enormous and meticulous. She was a perfectionist. She studied every aspect of the period – history, wars,social conditions, manners and customs, costume, armour, heraldry, falconry and the chase. She drew genealogies of all the noble families of England ( with their own armorial bearings painted on each) for she believed that the clues to events were to be found in their relationships. She had indexed files for every day of the year for the forty years she was covering with all noteworthy events duly entered on their dates. She learnt to read medieval English almost as easily as modern and amassed a large vocabulary. One summer we toured the Scottish-English borderlands, learning the country and visiting seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys (or their ruins). Her notes fill volumes.’

Wow! Now that’s dedication to one’s art if ever I heard it. And how many readers appreciate that unseen slog behind her entertaining books? Most like me, I’m sure, just love her feel-good tales as pure escapism.

‘Entertaining’ is not a word I’d use for this last book, however. In My Lord John the cast of characters (with their connections and titles) alone runs to 3 pages!

The language is of the period, the terms for clothes, furniture, food, customs, games, are unfamiliar – indeed, there’s a four-page glossary included. Titles, honours, dukedoms, even crowns, are lost and won on rumour, pique and expediency. Princelings are no older than my teenage grandson; brides are betrothed in the cradle, handed over to their husbands before they reach adolescence. Life, loyalty and allegiance are cheap. We hear today of our own Queen conferring titles, appointing knights to the Order of the Garter, granting folk castles and estates; in the 1500s these actions carried grave responsibilities, oaths were sworn, battles fought, rebellions were to be overcome.

Harsh times. Complex relationships with so many political and strategic as well as domestic alliances being forged. Heyer is to be commended for her diligence and mastery of the period, but given her legendary easy-reading style, I was rather disappointed by the lack of sparkle and pace in this one. It feels to me bogged down with scholarship. Definitely not an easy read; only my stubbornness made me persist to the bitter end. And even so I certainly wouldn’t fare well in the Mastermind black chair on the subject of Lord John of Bedford!

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Far from the madding crowd … there are books galore!

As I mentioned last week I’ve been on an escape-from-it-all break to the Outer Hebrides – namely Lewis, Harris and North Uist. The islands combine the bleakest most inhospitable moonscapes lashed by Atlantic storms, with the most inspirational idyllic beaches warmed by the balmy Gulf Stream. Historic Scotland have wisely snuck in to preserve ancient dwelling places and relics; the local communities have collaborated to preserve amenities and ways of life.

On the book front, Peter May’s trilogyThe Lewis Man, The Chessmen, The Blackhouse – set in the Hebrides, are on sale widely and tours are available tracing the steps of his protagonists. Putting the area on the literary map.

But one unexpected feature especially jumped out at me: secondhand books are everywhere! In the supermarkets, in regular shops, in craft-y places, in ferry terminals, in information centres … with simple notices requesting or just gently suggesting a donation be popped in an honesty box for a good cause. In spite of my laden shelves back at home, I couldn’t resist supporting this heart-warming and trusting approach. And given the struggles many islanders are contending with, it’s commendable that they’re so public spirited.

I also simply couldn’t resist buying one book at full price – The Woman who Walked into the Sea by journalist turned novelist Mark Douglas-Home  – it will always be associated with my 2018 trip to the outer islands. Skilled investigator Cal McGill explores what happened to Megan Bates, a 26-year-old woman who abandoned her baby on the steps of the local hospital before, next day walking into the cold ocean from a remote Scottish beach (yep, I can picture it vividly) and let the sea wash her away. Sounds like my kind of book. I really really really wanted to pitch into it immediately, but steeled myself to persist with the 79 characters in Georgette Heyer’s medieval novel, My Lord John, first – more of which anon. TWWWITS will be my reward for diligence and loyalty!!

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Just what the doctor ordered

It would be hard to find a better location to escape to than this – the Outer Hebrides. If time here doesn’t refresh the parts of the brain other breaks don’t reach, nowhere would. Pure clean air, tranquillity, glorious empty white beaches, clear turquoise seas, fabulous weather ….. Mmmmm. Just what the doctor ordered.



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