Hazel McHaffie

Upstairs downstairs

Decades ago when I began to make the decision to try my hand at fiction, I had this rosy dream of writing for both adults and children – fun alongside the serious stuff; nurturing my mental health, etc etc etc. So, having published my debut medical ethics novel, I drafted my first children’s book and asked my colleague Alexander McCall Smith to give me feedback on it (that was before he was a household name, I hasten to add!).

So far so good. OK. Next find an agent. Ahhhh – what? A different one? As well as a different publisher? As well as a different marketing strategy? Hold on a wee minute.  Working full time in academia, already publishing non-fiction as part of my job, juggling that number of balls was beyond my pay grade. King Midas Sandy McC S could do it; but not I. It was the children’s books that had to go.

And I’ve never returned to them … with one notable exception: the annual story/play for my grandchildren (now aged from 15 to 10).

Children's stories

Sadly, my recent illness put paid to performing the 16th one at Christmas time as usual, so it was postponed … until this Saturday. Given that it’s a private family event, a complete secret to everyone else until the day, I am author, screenwriter, casting director, producer, director, wardrobe mistress, stage hand, general factotum … and master of none! But we always have a great time, and on the day, others become cameraman, music maestro, supporting cast. The youngsters enter into the spirit of this amateur production with enormous enthusiasm.

So today I’m going to give you a brief and lighthearted glimpse into the remnants of my career as a children’s author.

Three aristocratsThis year the story featured the three children of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Fountain-Linton who lead a restrictive life upstairs being taught to take their places in the upper echelons of a very formal society.The cook's granddaughter

 

 

 

 

 

That is, until their cook and her granddaughter introduce them to fun and laughter below stairs.

 

 

Cue lots of dressing up, activities, and games … Examining the brain

Tasting test

Chocolate making

… all concluding in a couple of hours of handcrafting de luxe chocolates – a sure fire winner! And destined to raise money for less-privileged children in Africa – yes, seriously!

Chocolates

Bags of chocolates for village children

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the moral of the tale? Happiness comes from kindness to and helping others, not from acquiring wealth and possessions.

Happiness is ...

The whole enterprise took place over eight hours (excluding the sale of the chocolates) and is both physically and mentally quite challenging, which all served as a tangible measure of how hugely indebted I am to a very skilled electrophysiologist, who managed to cure (through ablation) both my heart arrythmias in one fell swoop six weeks ago. I am back to my original energy levels.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of a back-burner the next Christmas story is already fermenting – only seven months to bring it to fruition this time! But for now I must return to the serious writing … missing teenagers, body image issues and locked-in fears. What was I saying about mental health? Ah yes, but we shall also be producing the 16th children’s story, Upstairs Downstairs, in book form.

 

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‘All morning putting in a comma …’

Well, that’s the general election over for another time and what an event it was! I confess I was not one of the enthusiasts who stayed up all night watching, but I did pop in and out on Friday morning to listen to the sound of big names crashing, big egos admitting defeat, big promises being dissected, history being made.

Molly Malone

Dublin’s Molly Malone

In between I revised all the dialogue in my current novel spoken by a minor character, one Mrs Kaetlyn O’Leary who hails from Ireland. At the beginning of the week I immersed myself in a lot of stuff about just how to capture the lilt and idioms of that musical tongue; then I went through the prose meticulously introducing the telltale patterns every time she spoke: ‘he went away, so he did’, ‘sure, and you’ll be after doing it yerself’, ‘it’s meself that’ll be doing that’ and so on. Then in the middle of the week I read a whole lot more bumpf about how folk are put off by thick accents, how hard it is to get it right, and I went completely off the idea again. So out it all came on Friday. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde who famously said, ‘I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out again.’ Thing is, I’m not at all sure Kaetlyn O’Leary’s voice is her own even yet, but I’ve put it to one side for the time being.

I’m getting close to the end of the book now – only about 2 or 3 chapters to go – which means that any changes I make have wide ranging consequences. Very soon I’ll have to spend my working days reading … re-reading … re-re-reading … ad nauseam, checking the authenticity and consistency of each voice, weighing up the value of each sentence, losing favourite phrases and paragraphs. Kaetlyn will probably go through several more metamorphoses – she might not even remain Irish! Fortunately for me I really love the editing phase.

Christian Aid book sale - queue on first dayAlso this week I boosted my spirits by attending the first hour of the first day of the renowned annual book sale in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, featuring over 100,000 books – the biggest Christian Aid fundraising event in the UK; largest charity book sale event in the world in fact. It’s such an encouraging experience for an author. I joined this queue three-deep that, by 10am when the doors opened, stretched all the way to the end of the pavement in George Street.

Christian Aid booksale -  inside churchThe boxes of books are lined up on rows of tables inside the church on two levels, sorted into every conceivable subject areas – a labour of love in itself. (Thanks to my son who provided this photo – much better colour balance than mine.)  Standing up in the balcony I couldn’t help but marvel at the energy and commitment of the folk behind the scenes masterminding this extraordinary event year after year – it has taken place annually since 1974!

Christian Aid book sale - outside stallsOutside in the courtyard all around the building are thousands more books. A crush of keen bookworms jostle for space as they determinedly scan the spines for something new and exciting, some even on their knees under tables seeking specific treasures. Yes, indeed, the book as we know it is very far from dead. Long live the book!

 

 

I came away with warmth in my heart and My bargain booksfour books I’ve been wanting to read in my bag. I limited myself this year – well, my tbr pile is already toppling over, and my shelves are threatening to sag under the sheer weight of novels lined two deep all along them. The sale finishes tomorrow so that’s it over for me – but spare a thought for the army of book-lovers who will toil away on Saturday to remove everything left behind and prepare the church for morning worship. There’s dedication and commitment for you.

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Kelpies

Falkirk KelpiesI frequently travel along the M9 to Stirling, so I’m very familiar with the sight of the giant heads of these Falkirk Kelpies rising into the skyline just beside the motorway. Indeed, I watched them being assembled on site over a period of a mere 90 days. However, this past week I took a disabled friend who loves horses to see them up close for the first time.

For those who don’t know, kelpie is the Scots name for a mythical water spirit inhabiting our lochs and pools. The creature most commonly takes the form of a horse (a magical one possessing the strength of 100 ordinary horses), but can adopt human form. In the case of the Falkirk Kelpies, the horses are Shires or Clydesdales – the powerhouses of the early industrial revolution who pulled barges along the nearby canal for years. They were chosen to represent the endurance of the inland waterways and the strength of the local communities.

The finished product is stunning: two perfectly formed horses heads, one looking down, one up. The sky was deep blue behind them as we arrived, the sun making the metal glint. A perfect view.

Closer up you get more of an insight into their composition. Essentially there’s a metal scaffolding, with 990 unique stainless steel skin-plates rivetted to it to form the shape, the bulging muscles, essential bone structure and flowing mane.

Close up showing platesClose up of mane

 

Marvelling at their intricacy and cleverness, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with writing books. The first impression a reader gets is that of the finished product, an attractive cover, a neat block of pages perfectly assembled to create the shape we recognise and love. Only when we draw closer, start to explore the contents, do we glimpse the foundations, the component parts the author has spent so long assembling: the plotting, the symbology, the careful writing, the narrative threads, all neatly dovetailed together to form a recognisable story.

Sheer size of the sculpture

As with the kelpies, it depends where you stand what kind of a perspective you get of the whole. I was awed by the sheer scale of these sculptures; they stand 30 metres high – the largest equine structure in the world. My friend in her wheelchair was even more overwhelmed. (We’re the tiny figures in the centre of this photo.) But the designers had made our access easier with ramps taking us into the very heart of this monument.  Is there a lesson here for authors? Some tomes are so vast we don’t get beyond feeling the heft of them. Some are so dense and impenetrable they put off all but the most determined and obstinate amongst us. Even some less bulky ones would perhaps be more accessible with signposts and gentle guidance.

After a while we had space to notice other niggly things about this magnificent structure. Weeds were growing over the floodlights. What kind of weeds do perceptive readers find if they linger long in my writing, I wonder? Slime was accumulating in the water in places. Is my prose as fresh and clean as I initially intended? The wind was keen and chilling out of the sun. How hostile or warm is the context into which our precious books are being launched? Have we chosen an auspicious day?

We lingered a while, fingers wrapped around hot chocolate, watching the changing effects of clouds and wind bringing the mighty heads to life – they appeared to be turning towards us! – awe-inspired by the majesty, by the creative mind and hands that could produce such beauty. I inwardly resolved to truly value my library of books as I had valued this metal masterpiece.

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I’ll see myself out

In 1936 the royal physician, Lord Dawson of Penn injected a lethal mixture of morphine and cocaine directly into the jugular vein of His Majesty King George V. Queen Mary and the about-to-be King Edward VIII were in attendance. The timing of the fatal infusion was chosen so that the announcement of the King’s demise would make the next morning’s Times but be just too late for the less prestigious evening press.

Four monarchs on, the debate as to the rights and wrongs of assisted dying is a hot topic, and legally what Lord Dawson did would be inadmissible today.

I’ve lost track of the number of books and articles I’ve read on the subject, how many debates and seminars I’ve listened to, how many times I’ve rehearsed the arguments myself. But I can say that a new book out this year, beguilingly titled, I’ll See Myself Out, Thank You, is a very useful addition to the existing collection – hence I return to the subject yet again in this blog!

I'll See Myself Out, Thank You

It brings together short but relevant contributions from a range of writers: seriously disabled and terminally ill people who plan to take their own lives when the time is right for them, spouses of people who have already done so, psychiatrists who’re asked to assess their mental competence, people who work for Dignitas in Switzerland, those who have accompanied patients to Dignitas, relatives of people who’ve actually helped someone to die illegally in this country, peers of the realm who’ve voted on the issue, men of the cloth, humanists, ethicists, philosophers, journalists, novelists, playwrights, even a stand-up comic – an impressive list. All with voices worth listening to.

It’s a very readable book. The vivid stories, the personal experiences, the credentials of the authors, bring the issues to life and breathe authenticity into their measured and thoughtful viewpoints. Most of the arguments I’ve heard many times before, many of the contributors I know personally. However, I personally found three sections particularly thought-provoking.

In Chapter 4, psychiatrist, Dr Colin Brewer, gives some fascinating vignettes of people whom he was asked to assess for assisted suicide.  Made me ask: what would I have made of each of these cases?

The first section in Chapter 6 on Religion and Philosophy by Emeritus Professor of Theology, Rev. Dr Paul Badham (whom I’ve never met), gives a wholesome and refreshing look at ‘The Christian Case‘. All too often we hear a polarised and unbalanced religious perspective from a minority group or an unrepresentative figurehead; it’s good to have a more tolerant and compassionate approach which fits with a God I’d want to trust and believe in.

Right to DieAnd then there’s the section in Chapter 9 by a documentary maker, telling the story of art lecturer Glenn Scott‘s* suicide when he was in the last stages of Motor Neurone Disease. It’s a most moving account, reminiscent of my own story of Adam O’Neil’s dying in Right to Die. (*The link with Glenn’s name takes you to the video of his last tape.) I actually spent a whole rather miserable day looking at similar videos on YouTube and was amazed at the number out there.

Now, eight decades on since the death of King George V, when society is becoming overloaded with ailing elderly folk, when more and more people are wanting to ‘add life to their years – not years to their life‘, when parliament is still failing to resolve the legal paradoxes and quagmires, when doctors are hamstrung by ‘pervasive, post-Shipman paranoia’, when patients and relatives face increasingly intolerable situations, it behoves us all to think carefully, rationally, about where we personally stand on this issue, and what kind of a society we want for our children and grandchildren. In my opinion, this book helps one to do exactly that. (As do those videos.)

It didn’t change my mind; it did strengthen my resolve.

 

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Human experimentation

Sledgehammer drugs, induced comas, repeated electric shocks, brain washing, extreme forms of psychological torture, lobotomies … we’re into the stuff of nightmares, thrillers, and scary films. The Monkey-Puzzle TreeIn The Monkey-Puzzle Tree these are ‘treatments’ meted out by respected psychiatrists to vulnerable patients. But with sinister intent, for these scientists are actually testing techniques capable of turning innocent people into automatons who would do the CIA’s bidding even against their own will or moral scruples. Would even kill to order.

Pure fiction, huh? Not a bit of it. These torturous practices were actually practised … in my lifetime. During the 1950s and 60s the CIA instituted a series of experimental programmes in mind-control involving 144 universities, 15 research facilities/private companies, 12 hospitals and 3 prisons. Almost all of the subjects were unsuspecting American or Canadian citizens, ‘educated, productive, caring members of their community who for a brief time had ceased to function efficiently'; ordinary individuals who sought help for their problem (depression or chronic anxiety or drinking) from one of the top names in the country. None of them had irreversible mental problems or psychosis or schizophrenia when they presented, but after ‘treatment’ their sanity was permanently weakened. They were never the same again.

Author Elizabeth Nickson‘s mother was one of them. Simple postnatal depression brought her into the care of one of the psychiatrists leading these experiments, and he became a constant and malign influence in the Nickson’s family life.

Hard to believe that very few people were aware of these infamous regimes, even those snared at the heart of the web, but that was the case. Elizabeth, however, resolved to bring the reality to public attention in a novel way. She could have exposed the unvarnished truth as it actually happened to her family; instead she tells the bigger story in a way that’s intended to touch people more closely, more roundly – through fiction. In The Monkey-Puzzle Tree she is the narrator, Catherine, unwrapping the horror layer by layer ‘as warily as if it were a timebomb’, and then fighting to expose the injustice and barbarity. She stays close to her mother’s lived experience, retains the principal characters as they really were, but uses the literary device of fictionalisation to make the abuse even more gripping and immediate, if that’s possible.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

The story begins with the attempted suicide of a young man of 31, Brian, and we’re instantly thrust deep into the psychiatric problems which beset the narrator’s family. Brian is her brother. Then, gradually, revelation by revelation, document by document, we learn of the ‘treatments’ inflicted on Catherine’s mother, ‘sweet innocent beautiful‘ Victoria Ramsey, following the birth of her children; ‘treatments’ which violate not just the Nuremberg Code but every decent code of behaviour. She and her co-victims were accorded no more moral worth than lab rats by the scientists in charge of the programmes. Moreover the things that were done to Victoria affected the whole family at a very profound level. Returning home after months of treatment the once lively vibrant mother is limp and grey, confused, darkly brooding, unreasonably fearful at times, absurdly hysterical at others. Her children ‘catch her moods like the flu’, they become resentful, needy, uncontrollable. The emotional and physical toll on them all is enormous and cumulative.

What’s more, the evil influences are still pervading the lives of Catherine’s family decades later. Phones are bugged. Nuisance calls happen at all hours. Parcels are tampered with. Cars are pranged. Viruses are blown into the face of Catherine herself in a supermarket. A bogus workman calls. Catherine’s father meets with a terrible accident. The threat becomes increasingly sinister.

Any attempt at bringing these cases to court has been thwarted at every turn by unseen forces, dragging them out till the plaintiffs are old and unnaturally infirm. And then Catherine herself gets involved in the fight; her life is again turned upside down.

Sunset Silhouette © kiwinz https://www.flickr.com/people/kiwinz/ Used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Monkey-puzzle tree. Sunset Silhouette © kiwinz https://www.flickr.com/people/kiwinz/
Used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

In the midst of such terrifying horror it seems facetious to talk of writing styles, and yet, as a writer, I couldn’t help but admire the occasional flashes of literary delight.

‘He was pencil-thin, with a face God forgot to punctuate.’

‘… a small stiff, wiry hairdo of a woman ..’. 

‘A coven of black umbrellas hung furled on the railing on the steps down to the plane …’

‘Emotion was an embarrassing luxury, a fur coat worn on a sightseeing trip to the slums.’

This book is a sobering read because we know all along these nightmarish things really happened in the name of medicine.

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Back in the saddle

How do you pick up the reins of novel-writing after a 6 months break? Hmmm. I don’t know. Never done it before. So, a new challenge this week.

I was 34,000 words into my latest novel by last October when my heart suddenly decided to throw tantrums and I got sidetracked by disability and hospital appointments and assorted treatments. The plot was pretty much decided, the principal characters fully formed. But there was one narrative thread that I’d only sketchily researched: a young father’s mysterious disappearance. How would his family react? How would they start to track him down? Would the police get involved? Would a private investigator take such a case? How complicated would the search be? Could he vanish without trace? What if it was actually a suicide? … … …

Victor’s disappearance has been lurking somewhere in the deep recesses of my drugged mind all these weeks; but I’ve been powerless to pursue him. Rust and moss have gathered; neurones slowed. Now, post successful treatment, might be the very time to drag these questions to the forefront and get down to the real process of untangling answers. Hopefully coaxing brain, hand and heart back into writerly routines in the process.

As a first step, a few months ago, I’d bought a book on the subject in the Howdunit Series: Missing Persons: A writer’s guide to finding the lost, the abducted and the escaped. It’s written by Fay Faron who, in real life, runs a detective agency in San Francisco. She’s the author of various manuals and columns on the subject, but has also penned a work of fiction herself – ideal credentials for my purpose, you’d think. She should know what I don’t know I need to know as well as knowing what I know I don’t know!

Howdunit text

Off I trotted into the sunshine to see what she could teach me for my novel. Well, come on. Don’t rush me out of the lolling life too quickly. Sudden shocks aren’t good for dodgy hearts, you know!

I’m soon immersed …

What a readable book, well-written, full of anecdotes and facts and humour. Nice short subsections, clearly signposted. Ideal. The trusty notepad is soon covered in scribbles; hints and tips to myself. Ideas to give my story depth and authenticity.

Then it’s hotfoot back to the computer to plug the notes in at relevant points in the text. Now all I have to do is re-read the preceding sections and off I go again. Writing! Ahhhh. Feels like coming home after a prison sentence. And – better still, I’ve acquired sufficient distance from my prose to be able to edit ruthlessly. I discard pet phrases with gay abandon, lose whole chunks of unnecessary material, and then get stuck into the next chapter. Hmmmmm. Not quite as speedy and fluent as I’d hoped, but, hey, it’s a start. I’m back in the saddle. First re-learn how to trot again. Next week’s soon enough to try a gallop.

 

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Interview: Ann Lingard

Ann Lingard is a fellow novelist. She’s also a scientist after my own heart: she delights in sharing her knowledge and understanding and love of her subject in novel and accessible ways. The obscure, the complicated, the unnoticed … it’s her mission to bring them alive.

I caught up with her recently and asked about her ideas and plans.Ann Lingard

HMcH: Ann, your background originally was in science: you were an academic, teacher, and researcher, so you have a multiplicity of skills. Since then you’ve moved away from the traditional career structure and your trademark is blending science and art – an ambition very dear to me too! What prompted this sideways move for you?

AL: I made the actual decision to leave my academic and research life in Glasgow University when I was sitting alone on a hillside in Glen Orchy, watching my daughters playing some complicated game in a sheep-fank way below. At that moment I suddenly realised I’d had enough of the creeping bureaucracy and continual battle to get research funding for my group and – since the University was offering voluntary redundancy packages – that what I’d like to do was take the money and become self-employed and ‘be a writer and broadcaster’. Just like that! And of course, having made that decision, and with my husband’s backing, I had no option but to try to make a go of it.

But don’t get me wrong, I loved the challenge of research, of running a research group, and lecturing. I loved the busy-ness of the lab, students dropping in all the time, the chatter and laughter – but I also felt I wanted to grab the chance to do something very different. What finally prompted the ‘sideways move’ was that hillside. I can still see it: the minute flowers amongst the grasses – milkwort, tormentil, eyebright – a papery brown pupal case of a moth, the lichen patterns on the rocks (we called them ‘map-stones’). I so very strongly wanted to show this to other people, and to find out more myself. And when you think about it, that’s also what research and teaching come down to – so the underlying practicalities and ideas aren’t so different!

HMcH: I’m constantly working to ensure my novels are character-driven not issue-led. What are the features that you’ve had to be most vigilant about in your fiction?

AL: I’ve always known the sort of people I want to write about before I start a story – and if one is, for example, a geologist or a mathematician or a parasitologist, then the ‘issues’ of that person’s life and work will necessarily be part of the background to the story, to their conversation and behaviour, but it’s very important that the story is never ‘science-led’. If a character is an accountant, the story isn’t going to be about accountancy – the same is true if a character is a scientist, the story doesn’t have to be ‘about’ science.

The Embalmer's Book of RecipesIn the case of the mathematician Lisa (in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes) her story is a little more complicated because she has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and this of course means that certain medical, genetic and ethical matters are important to her (and anyone who knows her will be aware of this). But this doesn’t dominate her life, she deals with problems when she has to – mostly she’s busy working, living, loving … I’d like to think my vigilance, as you term it, has paid off, at least some of the time. I was thrilled when Tony Mann, a mathematician who organised the ‘Maths in Fiction’ conference in Oxford a few years ago, told me that ‘Lisa is [his] favourite fictional mathematician’.

 HMcH: I’m fascinated by the many ways you’ve found to weave the two cultures together. What has been the biggest challenge so far?

AL: I haven’t ever felt that this was a challenge! Perhaps because I’ve crossed the boundaries between science and the arts and crafts myself on quite a few occasions, and because I know other scientists who have done likewise. It’s possibly easier as a scientist to weave the ‘two cultures’ into your writing because you already know about the practicalities and emotions and jargon of a life in science, as well as knowing about life outside science. It’s a bigger hurdle to jump into science from a non-scientific background, but it’s perfectly easy with help from the right scientist – that was why I set up SciTalk, to help scientists and writers meet, back in 2003 (it’s now run on rather different lines by Newcastle University).

HMcH: And the greatest reward?

AL: I mentioned one great reward – that readers like many of the characters in my novels. Another is that readers discover and comment, often with amusement, on things they would never have known about otherwise – I bet not many knew that periwinkles on the seashore carry an attractive parasite, worthy of an artwork, that also infects fish and gulls!

HMcH: You’ve collaborated on many projects. Indeed, you and I met on one of them when we collaborated with the University of Edinburgh and the theatre company Sparkle and Dark during the Edinburgh International Festival 2013 to highlight the ways in which science and medicine could be brought alive through plays, novels, poetry. Is this a method of working that appeals to you?

AL: I always love collaborating! When I was a research scientist it was fun, a challenge, to find someone in an entirely different field who could help with a particular research problem, whether an organic chemist, a mycologist or a marine biologist. They bring different perspectives, different language, different ideas and skills – and that stimulation, of collaboration, is the same when writing fiction and non-fiction.

And in a sense, if I’m writing non-fiction about real people, that too is a collaboration with each individual, whether I’m talking to, listening to, and then writing about a ship’s-pilot or a stone-mason or a wildfowler, or participants in the Lothian Birth Cohort studies – I was privileged that in the latter case they were willing to collaborate with me and trust me enough to share their memories.

HMcH: Have there been any other projects that have held special resonance for you?

AL: A very different project was working with 12-14-year-olds from a school in the east of Cumbria, quite a long way from the sea. Thixotropy experienceThat age group very easily get turned off science, so the HoS and I decided we’d take them to the beach and show them all manner of things, such as dunes, shells, lugworms, barnacles, whatever we/they could find, in the hope that each student would find at least one thing to enthuse them. And then I would help them write about it, as a story, a poem, or a short article. It was enormous fun and very unusual, and they produced some fascinating and often very unexpected writing. (The mothers of the boys who tested ‘thixotropy’, while wearing trainers and jeans, probably weren’t so impressed!)

HMcH: My own interest lies in medicine and ethics and bringing them alive through fiction. What are your thoughts about blending the cultures in this field?

AL: Yes, this is tricky. My feeling is that, in creating someone like Lisa, or her friend Madeleine, I have to understand and empathise with both of them as much as I can, so that people who read about them will too. But this doesn’t mean that we should necessarily love them unreservedly; perhaps we need to be made a little bit uncomfortable, to confront and question our prejudices (see Are you sitting comfortably?)

So too, when I was writing the human stories of some of the exhibits in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. I felt it was very important to hint at the ethics of what had been done to them without being too overt: I wanted readers to become sufficiently involved in the life of the patient that they saw the treatments from the patient’s often uncomprehending or helpless point of view (as in Janet’s Story, and Andrew’s Story).

HMcH: Running a small holding, sheep rearing, weaving, leading shore-walks, writing articles and blogs, tweeting … You are clearly multitasking! I love the picture of you tramping the hills and coasts, observing the beauty all around in ordinary everyday things, and putting it into poetic language. What works best for you in capturing those special thoughts and experiences? And how do you fit writing into this busy life?

AL: It’s far too easy to get caught up in ‘being busy’! And there are certainly times of year – like now – when attention has to be focused on our small-holding. But it’s not just about trying to capture beauty, I don’t want to get drawn into the school of lush similes! The word ‘observing’ is a very important prerequisite for writing, and then questioning. Again, that’s a large part of being a scientist, too, so there are overlaps. I think, and plot, and puzzle how to write, most effectively when I’m walking – but I have to be walking in a place where I don’t need to concentrate too much on where to place my feet. Fell-walking is no good, but the shore is good, and working on the small-holding is good too. And then, provided I can even remember those ephemeral moments of brilliance, I can try to ‘capture’ them on paper or on-screen when I get home!

HMcH: I believe you’ve published five novels now. And what plans for the future?Seaside Pleasures

AL: I’ve just finished a major edit of a novel I wrote a few years ago, provisionally titled The Leech and the Pearl. It’s a story I love, so I hope it finds a publisher soon. If it doesn’t, I shall publish it as an ebook – why not?

And at the moment I’m getting to grips with Twitter, trying to post photos about the Solway Firth as frequently as possible as I want to show everyone that Cumbria isn’t just about the lakes and fells and Herdwick sheep. I’m discovering that social media gobble up your time!

HMcH: Thank you so much, Ann. Always a pleasure to exchange ideas with you.

Ann’s personal website is www.annlingard.com

Solway Firth articles are at www.solwayshorestories.co.uk; and the blog is at www.solwayshorewalker.wordpress.com

She also blogs as Ruth Kowslowski (the taxidermist in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes) at www.ruthkowslowski.wordpress.com

And tweets about the Solway at https://twitter.com/solwaywalker

 

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The miracles of modern medicine

Two days ago I experienced a miracle at first hand. Please indulge me this week if this post is entirely personal.

TabletsFor the past six months my heart has been chaotic. In physical rather than medical terms I’ve been dizzy, sick, fainting, tired beyond belief, dependent on powerful medication to give even a pretence at normal functioning.

Two days ago I was lying in a special lab/theatre watching a rather shy, self-effacing man (known in the medical world as a consultant electrophysiologist) thread a catheter directly into that said heart, fire things at it, burn bits of it, provoke it in mysterious ways, and then calmly tell me he had successfully treated the malfunctions. Yep, there and then.

Here’s the written evidence in his own hand:

Verdict

Six hours later I WALKED out of the hospital at night unaided (yes, of course, with medical approval!). Three days of recuperation and I should be back to my original self – but hopefully wiser, more appreciative, more tolerant … well, miracles do happen! The only slight caveat is the heart might just have been stunned into silence and not actually cured, but that we should know within two weeks.

Words can’t express my personal gratitude for this transformation, but let’s hear it for our brilliant NHS and all who play a part within it. I met with nothing but kindness, professionalism, friendliness  and support at all levels in a clean and well-ordered hospital. God bless them all.

Get well flowers Off now for the prescribed ‘rest’ surrounded by the evidence of huge support from family and friends. Thank you all more than I can say. I am officially off the worry list.

PS. For those who have a highly developed curiosity gene or are interested in all things medical, you can watch a video of what an ablation involves here.

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Playing God

Playing GodAs a writer in the field of medical ethics myself, it behoves me to know how others portray these issues in fiction, whether they be script writers or novelists, so I’ve been keeping a tally for many years now.

The authors and editor of Playing God: Talking about Ethics in Medicine and Technology have clearly travelled a similar path, and it was this little book recently that took me back to my lists and collection of DVDs.

The sheer number of films surprised me, so by way of a change I thought I’d give you a summary of those I’ve noted which contribute an angle on the topics that fascinate me – alphabetically rather than supposed order of importance. Where possible I’ll link to the official trailers to give you a glimpse of what they’re like.

 

 

abortion:

Vera Drake

The Cider House Rules

assisted conception:

Seeds of Deception

Maybe Baby (link to trailer not permitted in the UK)

cloning:

The Island

Godsend

decisions about treatment:

Dying Young

The Theory of Everything

dementia:

The Notebook

Iris

Away from Her

The Savages

Still Alice

disease control:

Formula for Death

drug use/misuse:

Limitless

Color me Perfect

euthanasia/assisted death:

The Sea Inside

Million Dollar Baby

Amour

human experimentation:

Extraordinary Measures

The Manchurian Candidate

A Clockwork Orange

The Stepford Wives

medical paternalism/informed consent:

First Do No Harm

mental illness:

A Beautiful Mind

A Dangerous Method

All She Ever Wanted

Rain Man

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Silver Linings Plaything

organ transplantation:

Coma

Dirty Pretty Things

 patient rights and medical malpractice:

Talk to Her

research malpractice:

Mortal Fear

saviour siblings/designer babies:

My Sister’s Keeper

Gattaca

Wow! I’d have really appreciated this steer when I started out! But there again, maybe I value them more because I’ve accumulated them slowly over the years. If you know of others please do let me know. Just add a comment to this post or contact me via my website. DVDs

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Occupational hazard

Heebie jeebie! Talk about illusions shattered …

After a five-month enforced ‘sabbatical’ I’ve been yearning for my old life. Odd, isn’t it, how once you have time for recreational pursuits they lose some of their appeal? Anyway, recently I decided to try to winkle my way back into the world of my next novel. After all, I want to be on the starting blocks ready for a quick get away once my heart is fixed; best to get into the zone at least, and start limbering up, I thought.

Top of my to-do pile is a book by leading authority in anorexia, psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. He has an excellent reputation in the USA so I’d been saving him for a special moment in the process. Now might be the right time. I’d be in safe hands. As Levenkron says himself, Anatomy of Anorexia aims to ‘demystify this life-ruining disease.’ Exactly what I need. It should help me inch myself back into the thinking of a young girl enmeshed in this dangerous practice, and home in on any errors in my understanding so far.

Off I went.

Anatomy of Anorexia

Well, this author is indeed a hands-on expert in the subject … tick. He writes well … tick. He holds the attention easily … tick. He intersperses authentic stories of anorexics with credible advice … tick. He explains in understandable language the origins, psychology, pathology, manifestations and management of the illness … tick. So well does he do so in fact that I found myself engrossed … overly identifying … and slowly drowning in all the horror of fractured relationships and distorted thinking and devious tactics and compulsions and young lives spiraling into destruction; even all the worries that burden the therapists. Seeing in stark relief all my own hang ups and obsessions. Yep, I was back in that tortured place I found myself reduced to after reading 30 novels on the subject.

Conclusion: this subject is bad for my personal health!

Time to get out and smell the crocuses!

Crocuses

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