Hazel McHaffie

When reading’s a struggle …

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
So said Somerset Maugham. But this week I’ve certainly identified a few that aren’t on the list!

Now for something completely different … : that was my approach in selecting Caught by Henry Green from my shelves. No opportunity for growth if we stay within our comfort zones, huh?

Published in 1943, this was Green’s fourth of ten novels. Did you know he was a contemporary of George Orwell? Me neither. But we studied him at school, so I have a context. Furthermore Green was born on the same date in October as me, and grew up in the south west like me … OK, I’m starting to get interested …

During World War II he served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service, and it’s this personal experience that’s echoed in Caught. Should have depth and insight into life during the Blitz, at least. He had very definite opinions of what writing should be: Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations … It should slowly appeal to fears unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone. Okkkaaaaay …

What’s more significant, perhaps, is that this author is sufficiently rated to have scholars analysing and teaching his work, so I ought to know something about him. But … oh dear, I laboured with this one – which might say more about me than him, of course. And in his defence, I should say, there were occasional flashes of insight and humour that appealed!

The story’s written in the rather stilted short sentences of a different era, with an omniscient narrator, and sudden switches between people and places without a pause, which for me sit uncomfortably today with so much emphasis on consistent point of view.  As does the relentless strong dialect with little discernible difference between characters – even a Welshman has a cockney accent! The rhyming cockney slang strewn through the text stopped me dead in my tracks to decipher it too, necessitating going back to re-read that section each time.

The setting is largely a London fire station during the war – promising a different angle of fighting fires in the Blitz, I thought, but no, it’s the minutiae of everyday life during months and months of inactivity, and the humdrum lives of ordinary people, rather than the war, that Green aims to capture. As a professor of English at Oxford says in his introduction to the book: if at times the novel reads like Eastenders, that is partly what he was aiming for. You have been warned!

Given the sheer banality, it’s surprisingly hard to summarise the plot, but I’ll give it a whirl. When war breaks out, Richard Roe, a well-to-do widower with a 5 year old son, Christopher, decides the boy should stay with his grandparents, aunts and cousin in the country, but his own duty is to return to London and join the Fire Service as an Auxiliary. Christopher has a nurse, and a nanny, he’s surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege, and is being raised a gentleman (like Green himself). Returning to his parents’ house periodically to see his son, Roe is haunted by the memories of his own childhood and more poignantly of his deceased wife. But he and his son become remote, and Roe feels only irritation when he hears the boy has been abducted by a woman in a store. However, an awkwardness arises at work when the woman turns out to be the disturbed sister of the professional fire officer responsible for training Roe, one Pye. She has ‘some kink, or misfortune‘, as Pye puts it, which makes her not quite right in the head.

Pye himself cuts a sorry figure. Internally he has tortured memories of an adolescent inadvertent act of incest against his sister, and is wracked with guilt that Amy is now in an asylum. He rarely visits, and he refuses to pay anything towards her care. In his role in the fire service, Pye is inept as a manager, unpopular with his team, proving himself time and again singularly unfit for his role, suffering humiliation and defeat at the hands of his superiors. His attitude to women is crude, and he’s summarily ditched by the girl, Prudence, with whom he’s having an affair. He remains unmarried and childless, which is partly why his befriending a boy he finds in the street, taking him back to sleep in his room, is fatally misinterpreted, and drives him to suicide.

Though beneath Pye in rank, the widowed and well-heeled Roe is more successful. He manages to sustain a relationship with WAF driver, Hilly, and curries favour with his fellow firemen by spreading gossip, always on the lookout for self advantage – he loved himself so well that he was afraid. By the end of the book, he has been invalided out of the war into the country, suffering from nervous debility, shocked and exhausted by nine continuous weeks of fire fighting when the Blitz finally materialises. Back with his family, he recovers, but remains self obsessed and needy, leaving the care of his rather brutalised son to his long-suffering sister-in-law.

Happily it’s a slim volume! It will not return to my shelves amongst treasured possessions.

 

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Stress busting!

I’ve been reminded all over again this week of the importance of books in the nation’s health; never, I suspect, has that need been greater than now when a pandemic is threatening our very foundations and security.

It’s been an uncharacteristically stressful week in my own little world, most of it stemming from the vagaries of technology. Frightening how much we depend on the internet and all things electronic in our everyday lives, isn’t it? Being without connections feels like working with one and a half broken arms.

But I know that my personal stresses are as nothing compared with those of countless others during this time of Covid. The BBC wheeled out some big guns in the world of psychiatry during the past few days, who all tell us about the abnormally high incidence of worrying symptoms for mental illness, symptoms sufficiently serious to warrant medical intervention under normal circumstances.

Well, I’ve always been acutely aware of the fine dividing line between normal and abnormal when it comes to mental health. I rapidly but determinedly side-stepped psychiatry in my training, even though the way the mind works and its link with physical health fascinate me. And I’ve never forgotten the patient who first alerted his family to pathological disease when he started cutting his sausages lengthwise … but that’s another story. This week, when things started unravelling for me, it was time to segue into active stress-management mode.

Aromatherapy, mental puzzles and games, exercise, relaxation techniques, helping others less fortunate … the whole gamut came into play. And breathe … And relax …

But of course, books remain one of my main go-to resources. There’s nothing to beat losing yourself in another world. And in this context all I need is something unexacting but gripping. Time to turn to a tried and tested author: Harlan Coben.

I have a stack of his books on my shelves for exactly this kind of situation; these are just a selection, collected over many years. First off the shelf was Run Away.

First page, opening paragraph  …
Simon sat on a bench in Central Park – in Strawberry Fields to be more precise – and felt his heart shatter … he stared straight ahead, blinking, devastated …

and I’m already asking who, what, why, when?

His once lovely daughter Paige – who ran away from her comfortable, professional, stable, ordered family life, to shack up with a criminal and wallow in addiction, has been seen busking in that very park where Simon sits with his heart splintering into fragments. Watching her. He’s appalled by what he sees: a malodorous, strung out bag of bones with matted hair and yellow teeth and a cracked voice. Trickster, manipulator, thief. And that encounter leads him deep into the dark and dangerous underworld that swallowed her up – guns, violence, murder, drugs …
because if someone hurts your daughter, a father has an obligation to stop him, no matter what.
But when the man who took her to this hellish place is murdered, Paige vanishes. He’s lost her again.

A second plot line shows a series of young men being targeted and killed. Why? What’s the connection? I twigged the ‘what’ by P167, and the ‘who’ by P194, but not the ultimate ‘why’… P319. Kept me turning the pages. Better still, it crept close to my own field of interest – genetic inheritance, infertility, adoption, ethics … now you’re talking my language!

And all the threads don’t fully come together until the epilogue. The work of a devilishly clever mind. And balm to my troubled one.

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The South West Coast Path

Moth and Raynor Wynn are in their fifties when, within a matter of days, they lose everything. Betrayed by a close friend, bankrupted by a failed financial transaction and punishing solicitors’ fees through three years of fighting a court case, their home and land possessed by the bailiffs, they are then weighed down with Moth’s diagnosis of a rare degenerative brain condition. There are no drugs to halt the progress, no therapies to keep the disease at bay, and time is running out. Their hopes and dreams lie in tatters.

Raynor is determined not to waste a moment of the time she has left with her beloved husband of thirty-two years. Now officially homeless, in the summer of 2013, they decide on an impulse to leave Wales and take on the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and Cornwall – all 630 miles of it. Home will be a tent bought from eBay, camping in the wild, at the very edgeland of life.

No facilities, often no food, scant possessions, stinking from neglected hygiene, pain in their joints, battered and bruised feet, sunburnt, cut and bruised skin, headaches, dizziness and hunger constant companions, frequently accused of being disgusting tramps, or drunk.
A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower; I had responsibilities, respect, pride …

Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Stupid to think we could walk this path, to not have enough money, to pretend we were homeless, to get the court procedure wrong, to lose the children’s home, to not have enough water, to pretend we weren’t dying, to not have enough water.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But gradually, as time goes on, they readjust their thinking, find new values, new dreams, learn new survival skills. Against all medical predictions, Moth’s health improves dramatically. And their own generosity of spirit shines through. Even though eeking out starvation rations themselves, Moth instinctively shares his last chocolate bar, a sausage sandwich, pasties, with fellow destitutes. By contrast, it’s sobering to hear of a vendor refusing even a cup of cold water. Not knowing their story, being downwind of them, how would I have reacted, I wonder?

This tale has so many resonances for me. I grew up in Cornwall. Yet I hadn’t been aware that depending on which statistics you read, Cornwall has the second or fifth highest rate of rough sleepers in the country, outside of London.

I had to smile at the picture of Raynor cutting her ripped leggings off at the knees with a tiny pair of nail scissors to make shorts. I once sliced the bottom off a posh full-length evening skirt with nail scissors when I realised I’d completely misjudged the dress code for an evening Conference dinner in Australia.

When the Winns were forced to put their boots back on because the soles of their feet were being burned by the scorching hot sand, it brought back vivid memories of a similar situation on a baked beach in Greece in 1968.

Raynor Winn has the skill to conjure up a wonderful combination of sights and sounds and smells and emotions in her writing:
Mozzarella, basil and tomatoes combined in some kind of wind-whipped, gull-swirling heaven. I sat with my back to the football and the wind in my face, looking out over the end of the Bristol Channel and the start of the wide, endless Atlantic Ocean. It’s wild here, a corner where tides, winds and tectonic plates collide in a roar of elemental confusion. A place of endings, beginnings, shipwrecks and rockslides. The viewpoint by the railings caught the air and rushed it up in a jet of cold, oxygenated, sea-spray fizz. I flew with the power of the uplift; alive, we were alive.

She searches for meaning in their new life:
On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward, or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, whatever that was. Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way? Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence …
What they did find was redemption, renewed purpose and hope.

Small wonder that this remarkable author has been in hot demand on the speaking circuit since The Salt Path was published, and is now commercially successful in her own right.

On a personal note, I’m staggered by how often serendipity/coincidence bring ideas together in life. I was in the middle of this book when BBC2 showed thwarted foreign-travel-writer Simon Reeve’s travels through Cornwall as the county emerged from the first lockdown, and explored what the future holds for a stunningly beautiful tourist hot-spot, riven with homelessness and poverty and inequality. The sight and sound of a fellow-writer forced to live in a run-down shed linger.

It’s been a nostalgic journey to the land of my youth, but provided sobering insights into lives lived beyond my experience. And challenged my values and priorities.

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Pandemic bonuses

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, intriguing approaches, novel ways of hooking in readers. And a bonus of this time of pandemic is the wealth of virtual literary opportunities on offer. Sheer luxury!

This weekend saw another MyVLF (a free global literary festival connecting readers with authors), this time all about thrillers, and appropriately dubbed Shiverfest.

What a joy to listen to successful authors talking about inspiration and technique and the whole craft of writing. The buzz it gives me reminds me of how important to my personal mental well being all things related to writing and reading are … perhaps especially during this year when our normal activities have been so severely restricted and the future feels so tentative.

So what better extension of this experience than to turn to an undisputed leader of the thriller pack, queen of crime, Val McDermid, with an analytical eye, to see what nuggets are embedded in the novel that happens to be top of my tbr pile. It’s How the Dead Speak, and instantly I’m intrigued by the unusual technique she’s adopted. One of her most famous characters, Dr Tony Hill, clinical psychologist and erstwhile offender profiler, is by now in prison serving a four year sentence for murder. But he’s using the time to hammer out the first draft of a book about forensic psychology, called Reading Crimes. Progress is slow: he can only manage short bursts in the library of the prison on an ancient and battered laptop equipped with nothing more than the most basic software. What’s unusual is that McDermid inserts a brief extract from Tony’s manuscript at the beginning of each chapter – and there are 63 of them!

Each quote captures an aspect of forensic pathology or crime or profiling or psychological truths or mental illness or violence or the mind of a murderer or reading a crime scene or narcissism or … which is potentially significant in the plot of this particular book. Clever. It at once gives a sense of the dogged determination and pent up ongoing awareness of a psychologist surrounded by criminals with no official outlet for his skills, and reassures us that this author knows far more about her subject than we do. We’re in safe hands.

Tony’s closest professional associate was DCI Carol Jordan, who, in the wake of the murder that put him in prison, has resigned from the police force, and begun to address her PTSD and alcohol addiction. Here she is being tempted to dip a toe back into her former life. The plot line relates to the discovery of over 30 skeletons of young girls buried in the grounds of a defunct convent, evidence of multiple fractures raising suspicions of serious abuse. When a number of bodies of murdered young men are subsequently unearthed elsewhere in the same grounds, the race is on to find the opportunist serial killer responsible, and put right a grave miscarriage of justice.

From an analytical point of view I was intrigued by the potential of these short extracts from Tony’s manuscript; offering insights into both the theoretical underpinnings of crime, and who might have been responsible for so many deaths in or near a convent. In reality, however, for me, the effort of trying to understand the significance and relate it to the plot, in fact detracted from the pace and pull of the story. My analytical spectacles were obscuring the story. But a valuable lesson learned nonetheless. And a useful exercise in the art of writing.

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Sweets or brussels sprouts?

 We … read fiction to learn about what we don’t know and to recognise what we do.
To feel less alone. And we share fiction, in online and physical book clubs, sometimes to find a way to discuss those issues we are struggling with in our everyday lives – and at other times to get as far away from them as possible.

Discuss!

No, this wasn’t really on an exam paper, but in the official journal of the Society of Authors: The Author.

It’s a complete joy to read these productions, every article beautifully written and relevant and helpful, but this particular quote made me pause and reflect on the hundreds and hundreds of books on my shelves and why I a) chose them and b) read/will read them. I’ve given away more of my personal library this year than ever before, partly because the pandemic has meant more time for folk to read books so I’ve shared mine, and partly because many found their way onto the bookcase we put out during lockdown.

It’s terrific news that the nation has turned so wholeheartedly to reading. Apparently online sales of books surged fourfold with an estimated 41% of the population in the UK –  both more in number and almost doubling time spent devouring them. Wahey!! And the notes we received from users of our bookcase showed how vitally important books are to mental health.

I loved the observation made by Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell: every single primary school needs a well-stocked library, where the stories are ‘modern and exciting and relevant to children’s lives, like sweets, not brussels sprouts‘!

For adults, of course, we need a very mixed diet. Sometimes it does us good to have a sour taste left in our mouths; sometimes our teeth need to be set on edge; sometimes we need to persevere to educate our palate. Writing about difficult issues – mental illness or suicide or sexual abuse or body dysphoria or death or whatever – can hardly be described as sugar candy, and I’m all too conscious that many of my own novels are not mugs of decadent hot chocolate for bedtime. Indeed, I select with great care when I send any of them to people with vulnerabilities. But opening up healthy dialogue about subjects currently shrouded in myth and taboo and isolation and misunderstanding, is wholly desirable. And sometimes fiction can reach the parts and the consumers better than more formal texts … provided care is taken. I was much impressed to hear that the Society of Authors has been working in close collaboration with the Samaritans and recently issued a set of guidelines for authors writing about suicide or self harm. Brilliant. It would be so so easy to get it wrong.

So, let’s hope the habit of reading acquired in this difficult year of Covid-19, becomes a bonus that continues way beyond the pandemic.

 

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Sin Eaters

I’m familiar with the genre of biblical fiction, where authors bring the ancient stories to life, embellishing and speculating, sometimes with their own evangelizing agenda. Indeed, books of this ilk occupy space on my own shelves – Francine Rivers, Jill Eileen Smith, Anita Diamant, probably the best known. But I’d never even heard of sin eaters! So The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers intrigued me.

Reminiscent of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, which was sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people of Israel, sin eaters feature in Welsh, English and Scots folklore. Who knew, huh? (Apologies if this is all old hat to you.) In essence they’re beings who, in exchange for food, take on the sins of the dead, leaving the deceased to rest in peace rather than roam restlessly for all eternity.

Immigrants to the Americas took the custom of appointing sin eaters with them into the remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s this wild and isolated part of the world, in the 1850s, that forms the backdrop to The Last Sin Eater.

Told in the voice of 10 year old Cadi Forbes, it’s hauntingly of that time and place. Cadi is weighed down by a crushing guilt about her little sister’s death and all the troubles that have followed it. Her Mama won’t even look at her, and rarely speaks except to scold, and her Papa had ‘such a dark countenance most times that approaching him about anything took more courage than I possessed.’ She feels desperately lonely and undeserving; craving forgiveness. Her beloved grandmother has been her only solace, and when Cadi discovers Granny Forbes dead in her willow chair, gone without a by-your-leave after a long-living of 87 years, Cadi is bereft. There is no one left to lead her out of the wilderness of her pain and misery, to love her back from the edge.

It is an awful thing for a child to understand death in such fullness. I had already had one taste of it. This time it was a long drink of desolation that went down and spread into my very bones … what I knew hurt so deep inside me I thought I’d die of it.’

She’s already steeped in the stories of her Celtic ancestry, but her grandmother’s funeral is the first time she actually experiences the sin eater herself. It’s an eerie walk by torchlight in solemn procession up to the mountain cemetery, four men bearing Granny Forbes’ shrouded body, thick mist curling towards them like dead-white fingers through the dark shadows of trees, when Cadi senses the presence of the sin eater, like a cold breath of wind on the back of her neck. Everyone turns their backs, closes their eyes, while the sin eater consumes the bread and wine and Granny’s sins. Cadi is under strict instructions not to look at this creature – the ‘most dreaded of mankind‘ – who had already ‘taken all manner of terrible things unto himself‘, but she is mesmerised by the deep, tender, sorrowful voice that intones: ‘I give easement and rest now to thee, Gorawen Forbes, dear woman, that ye walk not over fields nor mountains nor along pathways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.’ She turns and sneaks a furtive  glance. For the briefest moment their eyes meet.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Along with her friend Fagan Kai, gentle son of a brutal father, Cadi, finds a message of hope and redemption, first through her Granny’s best friend Miz Elda, then an unlikely preacher man on the other side of the river, and a woman who has squirrelled herself away from human contact, Bletsung Macleod. Gradually the identity and history of the sin eater emerges. And when they are forced to flee from Fagan’s father, the two children escape to the mountains, and are taken into the sin eater’s protection – the one place Brogan Kai is too afraid to go.

And so it is that the true gospel message comes to a remote people steeped in superstition and fear. There is no longer a need for a sin eater. This one was the last.

‘Light came into our highland valley that day so long ago, and it’s been shining bright ever since.

The analogies for Christianity are clear; but the story stands alone as an unusual tale of love triumphing over evil.

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Whistle blowing

To err is human, to cover up is unforgivable, and to fail to learn is inexcusable.
Prof Sir Liam Donaldson (former CMO England)

Whistle in the Wind has to be the most disturbing book I’ve read this year – and probably not best tackled when we’re all rather dispirited about the rising Covid numbers, and increasing restrictions on our freedoms. Hey ho! Once started I couldn’t go back.

It tells the story of one NHS senior consultant surgeon’s battle to get his hospital/Trust to take action in the face of a catalogue of failings and dangerous practices in his place of work – abysmal clinical standards, gross imbalances in workload, extremely poor judgements, shirked responsibilities, dysfunctional relationships, financial irregularities. But the ‘guilty parties’ resented Peter Duffy drawing attention to their deficiencies, and mounted a deliberate campaign of victimisation and counter accusations against him.

At the time, the Trust’s website declared that no whistle-blower would lose their job or suffer any detriment if they spoke up to identify genuine patient safety concerns – a claim made by most large organisations nowadays. But the reality was far from the promise. Even more unbelievably, the same Trust had recently had its Midwifery Department found guilty of gross and shocking failings, a fact plastered over the media, but senior management nevertheless still appeared complacent and apathetic. Ranks closed. Honesty and truth were stifled.

Hugely daunted, Mr Duffy nevertheless eventually reported his concerns to the Care Quality Commission whose job it is to oversee safe and effective practice in health and social care settings. Until I read this book, I thought they were indeed the go-to organisation for action and a fair independent hearing. But in his case, they didn’t even attempt to corroborate his account. And furthermore, they specifically state that they will take no part in protecting the individual whistle-blower. Who knew?!

Retaliatory action against Mr Duffy escalated, and included not only malicious, false, fabricated and covert accusations – defamatory emails and letters claiming he was both racist and a bully, and had fraudulently obtained money to which he was not entitled – but also docking a substantial sum of money owed to him, and eventually loss of his job.  Accusations against him were sent to the police as well as senior management. He even received a phonecall warning him that the consultants he had reported were ‘utterly committed to revenge’. He felt ‘thoroughly hated and despised’.

In spite of his senior status and established good reputation, no one in any of the organisations set up to deal with such situations seemed to be paying any attention to his legitimate and proven concerns. There was no feedback, no support, no action.

How this man coped with seeing continuing incidences of neglect, malpractice, avoidable harm or deaths, on top of the personal vendetta against him, I really don’t know. I once blew the whistle in a much more low-key way and suffered from the aftermath of the ensuing hostility and injustice for years. Reading this book stirred the embers of that horror quite stressfully. Finally, even Mr Duffy had no appetite for submitting reports of sub-optimal care which went unheeded; he felt intimidated and frightened by the hostility and retaliation.

By now the toxicity within the hospital  – ongoing rudeness, aggression, hostility, dysfunctional behaviour and relationships, collusion, incompetence, cover up, neglect, dangerous practices – together with his own fear of some act of revenge, led to his health suffering seriously. Sleeplessness and high anxiety levels led to him suffering cardiac arrhythmias, ending up a patient himself.

But his conscience and professionalism would not allow him to turn a blind eye when the lives and dignity of patients were at stake. The General Medical Council‘s position is, after all, unequivocal:
Doctors in particular have a duty to act when they believe patient’s safety is at risk, or that patient’s care or dignity is being compromised. Our guidance sets out our expectation that all doctors will, whatever their role, take appropriate action to raise and act on concerns about patient care, dignity and safety.
He felt the weight of this duty keenly.

Colleagues and friends, however, seeing how he had been treated, were reluctant to expose themselves to the same retribution. Even when his case came to an Employment Tribunal, disclosure was limited. Witnesses were warned off from supporting him; they could neither appear nor have their witness statements seen by the Tribunal. And just four working days before the case was heard, the Trust issued an intimidating letter, telling Mr Duffy he was doomed to lose his case, and they would be pursuing him and his family for costs estimated at £108,000. However, if he would just agree to drop the case immediately in its entirety, remain silent, and agree to a non-disclosure clause, then they would not pursue costs.

To his great credit, he did not give in to these strong-arm tactics. And he was eventually exonerated, but the triumph was something of a pyrrhic victory. Even though this case was deemed an across-the-board failure on the part of the Trust and the clinicians concerned, nothing much has changed, Mr Duffy laments. Systemic failures are still ongoing; lives are still put at risk avoidably; whistle-blowers are still treated as lepers. Furthermore, he and his family have paid a colossal price for his integrity, courage and commitment to patient safety. In a massive understatement, he says he still struggles to believe the tactics adopted to silence him. I recognise that sense of incredulity and bewilderment all too easily.

The NHS, regulators and the law, all repeatedly claim the importance of safeguarding and speaking out to protect others; and they have a clearly stated duty of care to clinicians and patients. They offered this particular whistle-blower neither care nor protection. I can well imagine writing this book was cathartic for its author – at last he could present his case in its entirety. And I thank him sincerely for doing so. It was, in the end, therapeutic for me too – putting me clearly into the camp of ‘committed, responsible, caring individuals’ who summon up the strength to stand up to those who hurt or bully the vulnerable. The fact that it’s not a literary masterpiece, adds to its feeling of authenticity. It’s an unvarnished, from-the-heart, account. I can only admire the persistence and courage behind it, and wish the Duffy family well in the future.

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Chinese Whispers

I’m back to bestselling Scottish author Peter May again, whose books I’ve acquired piecemeal over the past couple of years. Since visiting the Outer Hebrides myself, I’ve reviewed novels from his Enzo Files series, and a couple of standalone tales, before tackling his most famous work: the Lewis trilogy. Time, I thought, to dip into another set.

Chinese Whispers is the last of six thrillers set in China and featuring Beijing detective, Li Yan. And as well as a certain fascination with a culture that’s five thousand years old, there’s an appealing historic context of recent conflicts and tensions alongside the stereotypical picture of poverty, over-population, one-child policy, proliferation of technology, the endless rules, face-masks, innumerable bicycles, we associate with this nation. The names sound authentic and are typically hard to embed in one’s mind even in their English form. The Lins and Lis and Lyangs and Mengs and Wengs and Zhus and Caos and Qins and Wus tend to coalesce confusingly.

But head of the serious crime squad, Chief Li Yan’s name did stick, together with his partner, Margaret Campbell, a pathologist, and mother of his son, Li Jon – appropriately as he’s suddenly become well-known after winning a prestigious award, getting his name and face plastered all over the newspapers. Not a comfortable development for a man who’s snooping around trying to find a killer. Because there’s a maniac at large on his patch – a cool, clever and calculated killer bent on a macabre mission – replicating murders. Not just any murders, but those carried out by Jack the Ripper in the 1800s, a man who was never caught in spite of the small radius within which he operated. This copycat killer in China is taunting the police with his slavish attention to the detail of each killing – horrific mutilation, taking trophies, setting up the death scenes. But how does he know exactly what happened to those girls in another century and another country? Well, a book on the subject has recently been published. Only trouble is, it’s only been available in Chinese for a week. However, the English version has been circulating for 18 months. So … does the killer read/speak English? If so, he’s flaunting the fact. And to add insult to injury he deliberately leaves his DNA in the form of the unsmoked end of a Russian cheroot at each crime scene. So, who is he? And how can he afford to be so brazen?

But then the killer’s modus operandi changes. He sends a letter to warn Li Yan personally of his intentions to kill again. And it happens just as he predicted … including cutting off the victim’s ears. But the girl in question is not the usual prostitute; she’s someone Li Yan knows and respects, a professional colleague. He is overcome with a terrible sense of guilt: somehow this was his fault. Furthermore the killer is implicating him in the crime, ratcheting up the stakes. Horrific ‘gifts’ begin to arrive – half a human kidney, a pair of human ears. And Li’s world – personal as well as professional – begins to unravel. His family are threatened. The pool of suspects is narrowing all the time but we’re kept in suspense to the very last chapter.

Peter May’s reputation is sky-high and his track record for meticulous research is widely acclaimed. And as you can see, I’m a fan. But because he has such a pedigree, I don’t think he would mind if I admitted to a sneaky kick when I noted two minor medical errors and the use of one very non-pc term in Chinese Whispers! There’s hope for us all! And somehow that makes him that wee bit more reachable.

Just two more unread May books left on my shelves – a treat to savour.

 

 

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Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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Image and appearances

It’s 4 years now since I published Inside of Me, but body image and transgender issues keep popping up above the parapet, and hauling me back into that world of tortured self-doubt and secret longing.
– In the last few weeks we’ve had the BMA saying that people should be able to gain legal recognition of their changed gender without the input of a registered doctor, and indeed with no more than a witnessed sworn statement. As things stand, you need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and a report from a registered doctor detailing treatment received, and proof that you’ve lived for at least two years in your chosen gender, and intend living in for the rest of your life.
– But subsequently the government announced that plans to allow transgender people to self-identify as the opposite sex have been shelved; they feel that the current system means that ‘proper checks’ are in place. However the current fee of £140 is to be reduced to £5.
– Then, the transgender community, already incensed by JK Rowling‘s comments about what a woman is, have trained their sights on her yet again, because her latest Robert Galbraith novel, Troubled Blood, features a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.
– And then there’s the mother of a dead transgender 18 year old, campaigning to honour her daughter’s dearest wish: to have children. The youngster changed gender from boy to girl in the teen years, but had sperm frozen at 14. The mother is planning to launch a landmark legal case to preserve the sperm (now due to be destroyed) to enable her to have a grandchild via a donor egg and a surrogate mother.

Just a few of the news items. But of course, each one brought the complicated ethical issues very much back into my mind, and that in turn, led me to a book near the top of my tbr pile – For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy

This truncated quote beautifully sums up the essence of this brave novel.

Peter’s father only ever wants a son: ‘In a family, the man is king. Without you, I die – no king.’ But two daughters come first, before Peter, followed by another girl. With only one chance, Mr Huang is determined to make a real man of this longed-for boy, forcing Peter into male ways from an early age. He teaches him how to shave when he’s 6 years old, tears anything female out of his schoolbooks, approves and rewards brutish male behaviour, makes sure his son doesn’t do ‘women’s work‘ like the dishes. Peter is acutely aware that his sisters get much more lenient treatment.

But Mr Huang is steeped in Chinese traditions about ancestors and what is right. Appearances matter. He has high expectations of his only son, even whilst being unfaithful to his own wife. Peter describes his father’s mistress, the neighbour Mrs Becker,  beautifully. She was …
‘Pale and thin and seemed to quiver at the edges, like she was made of water. She had limp red hair. Her freckles were a handful of sand tossed in her face … light shone through her skin to the blue veins along her forehead … her smile looked unstable.The structure of her face couldn’t sustain the weight’ … and when she betrays Peter – ‘a jittery nobody, the human equivalent of onionskin paper.’
Mr Huang is appalled at a deep level by Peter’s ‘differentness‘, his ‘weaknesses‘. his proclivities. He must at all cost keep them secret, not shame the family, not let down his ancestors. And even when facing his own imminent demise, he reminds Peter he’ll still be watching him ‘from the other side.’

With this threat haunting him, even excursions into the female world carried out behind closed doors are fraught with fear and guilt for the conflicted Peter. When he puts on a wig, pouts his lips, looks in a mirror, ‘I felt my father staring through my eyes, the grotesque image in the mirror, the halfsie freak. The grandfather I hadn’t known, the great-grandfather, all watching as my father strove not to shame them, every day until he died. All of them watching me now.’

In this fragile tale, shot through with melancholy, Kim Fu powerfully captures the young child’s only-partially-understood longing to be other than he was. The ‘nightmare years‘ of adolescence. The ongoing desperate struggle to live up to the expectations of others – gang members, pals, work mates, family. The terrible loneliness of not being understood. The pervasive malevolent forces that would crush people like Peter Huang, learning slowly and painfully the real meaning of being a woman. The terrifying consequences if he names his inner conviction.

He becomes increasingly aware of consequences outside his battles with his own body, too; the larger fight against hatred and prejudice. ‘It’s not just about me and my body. There were marches, vigils, hate crimes, unjust laws, a world that needs education. There were other people like me … there were forces that had crushed us.

I was struck by the essential loneliness or unresolved doubt. Do any of us really understand what goes on in the lives and minds of others? Books like For Today I Am a Boy help us to sidled a little closer, understand a little better.

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