You probably saw in the news this week that a leading Iranian model, Elham Arab, has been forced to publicly apologise for posting photographs of herself online without a head covering. Seven of the country’s leading models have been arrested, charged with ‘promoting corruption’ and ‘promiscuity’. This crackdown on the fashion industry is part of increased pressure by the new regime to honour ‘Islamic values’, and it leads me nicely to a book I read last week that I found both challenging and fascinating.
Imagine … you’re sixteen (the same age as my eldest granddaughter, so I’m using her as my personal yardstick). The year is 1996. The place is Kabul. To a great extent, the norm of living your whole life in wartime, never experiencing true peace, has numbed you to ‘the overall tragedy’ encompassing your country, to the ‘ultimate threat’ that’s to come. Having said that, until today you’ve enjoyed life, relative freedom, and the security of an enlightened and loving family.
But now … it’s 27 September. Suddenly everything changes. The Taliban have taken over your city. The president and his brother have been publicly tortured and hanged. Ferocious laws and prohibitions are imposed. Fingers are sliced off for sporting nail polish. Faces and backs are whipped because white shoes peep from beneath an all-enveloping burqa. Innocent young girls are gang raped and genitally mutilated for no reason at all. Women are dying because they are denied medical care. Small children are kidnapped, raped, strangled and thrown onto a rubbish dump for daring to seek clandestine lessons.
And in one fell swoop your whole future has been taken away. Why? Because you are female. You can’t study. You can’t work. You can’t go out without a male escort. You can’t be seen without oppressive clothing and heavy veiling.
Nor are men protected from degradation and horror. Football is replaced by a new atrocity. ‘Now justice takes place in public. They hang the accused from the goal posts, cut off the hands of thieves, execute supposedly adulterous women with a bullet in the back of the neck. This is a monstrous spectacle, intercut with obligatory prayers. Spectators are forced into the stadium with whip lashes.’ Two criminals are butchered to death by the father of their victims, a macabre spectacle watch by an estimated audience of 35,000.
Your brother is summonsed to the university where he sees the aftermath of an appalling massacre, bleeding human remains everywhere, which he is expected to help clear up. ‘I saw a woman completely undressed … She was … she was nailed to one of those swinging doors at the faculty. They had cut her in two … in two parts. On each panel of the doors, there was half of her. Half of her nailed up body … And the door opened and shut. It was appalling.’
Propaganda attributes the ‘cleansing’ to religious motivation. But as your father explains to you: ‘A Muslim doesn’t kill another Muslim. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that we should take life. This is the final proof that they’re inventing their own Sharia, all the while wanting us to believe that whatever they decide is written in the Koran. Their laws aren’t written in the sacred book. They come out of the heads of a few mullahs who would do better to keep them for themselves.’ I’d guess most fathers in this country would use much stronger language that he does to condemn these atrocities!
If you still find it hard to imagine, I recommend you read My Forbidden Face: Growing up under the Taliban. Even the cover says so much: unseen dark eyes looking from behind a mesh of intricate embroidery onto a hostile unfathomable world, the very size of the mesh proscribed, reduced.
The author is known only as Latifa – unlikely to be her real name. She modestly hopes that her story will ‘serve as a key for other women, those whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts or their memories.’ She dedicates it to ‘all those Afghani girls and women who have kept their dignity until their last breath; to those women who have been deprived of their rights in their country, and who live in obscurity, despite the fact that we are in the twenty-first century; to all those executed in public, without trial and without pity, and under the eyes of their children and loved ones.’ Read it and weep.
Weeping is seldom allowable for Latifa. Emotions are frowned upon. ‘We each keep our sorrows to ourselves … This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding.‘
She perceives the Taliban as dangerous and virulent bacteria propagating by spreading serious diseases, diseases that strike a mortal blow at freedom. She believes the world has forgotten her people. ‘I asked myself what kind of a world this was, so very distant from God.’
When she becomes ill and has to travel to Pakistan for treatment, she can’t help but compare the girls there with her own lot in life; so carefree, blase about their opportunities, not valuing education enough. She says of her friend: ‘She seems more superficial, less concerned than she used to be. Maybe that’s one of the things that freedom does.’
So what of my granddaughter’s generation today, in this country, with unlimited choice, enormous freedom? What are the lessons for them? I leave the last word with Latifa’s father: ‘You haven’t done this in vain. Trust me. Women listen to other women. Your testimony will make people here understand.’
Early May it may be, but summer has arrived with a vengeance in my neck of the woods, so I seized the opportunity and took a fresh book into the garden to soak up the vitamins. One True Thing by Anne Quindlen. It’s about mercy killing so very much in my field of interest; just the ticket, then. Hmmm. I note that it was published in 2011 so I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to come to my attention. Anyway …
We know from the outset that Ellen Gulden is arrested and sent to jail accused of willfully killing her terminally ill mother, Kate. We also know that she didn’t do it. First person narrative: ‘I only wished I had.‘
Ellen is a journalist (like Quindlen) living an independent life when her mother is diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Under pressure from her father, she returns home to help look after her, resentful that her Professor-of-English father sees no need to give up his life, annoyed with herself that she still seeks his approval. Nor is he the one to offer bail to free her while the case is prepared; her erstwhile English teacher not only does that but offers her sanctuary too.
Caring for her mother isn’t any easier than Ellen anticipated. Kate Gulden’s deterioration is swift and brutal; the author doesn’t skimp on the unsavoury detail. She has to take large doses of morphine to deal with the pain. When the oncologist orders an autopsy, no one questions the means – the morphine was there in large doses, legitimately supplied by the visiting nurse. And the odds seem stacked against Ellen. It’s common knowledge that she is in favour of mercy killing; her prize-winning schoolgirl essay is trumpeted far and wide in the press. Plus she was the last person to see Kate alive. And she wanted this phase to be over, to get back to her old life; plenty of people can and do give testament to that. The evidence appears damning.
So, if Ellen didn’t administer the overdose, who did? And that’s what the book explores. Ellen herself is pretty sure she knows, but I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving away any more of the plot.
However, the book offers more that a whodunnit. It challenges the reader with some profound thoughts.
‘We cry to give voice to our pain.’
‘It’s so much easier to know just how you feel about things, what you believe, when you’re writing it on paper than when you really have to do anything about it or live with it.’
‘And knowing I could have killed her was nothing compared to knowing I could not save her.’
‘When your mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past. It’s so much more than love. Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life.’
Would I have ended that awful pain, indignity and suffering if someone I loved begged me to help?
Oh and I loved this sentence: ‘My father’s regular features had lost flesh in some places, sagged in others, his rather thin mouth becoming more of a liability as the parentheses of middle age appeared around it.’
So no new arguments for me personally, but a very readable rehearsal of the old ones.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about size lately. Not as in personal dimensions – although that’s obviously been a feature of my recent writing; no, I’m referring to books. Doorstoppers in particular.
Take Hilary Mantel‘s huge tomes for example – excepting her memoir Giving up the Ghost which I sped through in a couple of sittings. Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety have been staring at me reproachfully from my shelves for ages, but I can’t quite bring myself to set aside a large enough block of time to plough through them. I’m not one of these razor sharp people who can have several books on the go at any one time and so afford to have a massive volume on the bedside table to dip into over many months whilst steaming through an alternative pile of quick-reads. I lose track of characters and story-lines far too easily. And books which impinge directly on my own area of expertise/current writing tend always to take precedence.
Ken Follett‘s sprawling tales – each of these is two inches thick! – are another example from my library. I loved his The Third Twin which I read aeons ago, so I bought these three on the strength of that recommendation. They’ve remained unopened to date. Same reasons.
Likewise Penny Vincenzi and … but I won’t bore you with a list.
An exception though, has been Matthew Thomas‘ debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves. (An inch and a half thick, if you’re interested.) For purely pragmatic reasons it rose instantly to the top of my pile: it’s in my ball park and a friend gave it to me for that reason; but I feel a degree of urgency to read and return it because I know her husband is next in line for it. So I’ve persevered doggedly to the bitter end and not allowed myself to be deflected.
It’s a sprawling tale about the Leary family spanning sixty years, tracking a college professor’s descent into Alzheimer’s and the effect on his wife and only son. It even has a chapter where the son is rehearsing for a debate on euthanasia! So yes indeedy, my kind of subject. But really! Does any fiction merit 620 pages of tiny text? It took Thomas ten years to write (in a one bedroom apartment with young twins); my own (impertinent?) judgement is he’d have been well advised to edit it severely and give the story more zing and pace. Comparisons can be odious but Lisa Genova‘s Still Alice accomplishes more in far less time and space.
It’s the massive annual Christian Aid Book Sale in George Street this month, so I’ve decided two things: to bequeath all my unread Follett novels to the cause (along with a boxful of others); and to resolutely set my face against buying more books until I’ve cleared some from my shelves. Snag is, most of the ones still jostling for attention I’m sure I shall love too much to part with even once I’ve read them.
Eebie jeebie! A year ago I invested (I use the word advisedly) in new spectacles. One pair cost some astronomical price so I got the second pair for next to nothing – they call it a special offer. Hmm. But hey, my eyes are beyond priceless, so they need cherishing.
This week I had my next regular annual check and oh woe, both eyes need stronger lenses. Ahah! Time to capitalise on the old investment and just replace the lenses, methought. And yes, these lovely smiling gentlemen specialists assured me, they could do that in such a way that I was able to keep one pair on while the other was re-glazed, and then swap them, so I’ll still be able to function as normal throughout the transition. Perfect.
However … yep, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming … even allowing for the miserly skin-flinty, curmudgeonly, option of recycling the old frames, the bill for four small ovals of plastic came to over £300! Phew! And it’s not as if everyone exclaims over one’s sartorial ocular elegance, is it? Who notices your lenses are brand spanking new? Who even recognises you’re wearing designer frames? Only an optician!
But hopefully my own eyes will, and they’ll return to days of intensive reading and peering at computer screens with renewed energy, comfort and ease. A precious blessing.
By way of celebration, after two weeks of intensive promotion of Inside of Me, I’m giving myself a mini break, allowing some reading-purely-for-pleasure to creep into the days between bursts of promotional activity. Feels like a weekend away! But just as I was starting to relax into Harlan Coben’s No Second Chance, up pops a profound thought to challenge my belief and opinions and put me into more work-like mode. The narrator is Dr Marc Seidman whose infant daughter Tara has been kidnapped and his wife Monica shot dead. Marc is a plastic surgeon who uses his skills, not to pander to the vanity of the rich and famous, but to help children severely deformed or damaged in accidents or war. I know people just like him and I really admire their selfless dedication and sacrifices. Marc also goes regularly to wheel his disabled father around the neighbourhood, and during one such jaunt he reflects on the values he holds:
‘I could be doing cosmetic plastic surgery and making a mint. My parents would be able to afford better care for my dad. They could move someplace nice, get the full-time nurse, find a place that could cater more for their needs. But I don’t do that. I don’t help them by taking the more traveled route because, quite frankly, working such a job would bore me. So I choose to do something more exciting, something I love to do. For that, people think I’m the heroic one, that I am the one making the sacrifice. Here’s the truth. The person who works with the poor? They are usually more selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice our needs. Working a job that provides for our families is not enough for us. Supporting those we love is secondary. We need personal satisfaction, even if our own family is made to do without. Those suits I now watch numbingly board the NJ Transit train? They often hate where they are going and what they are doing, but they do it anyway. They do it to take care of their families, to provide a better life for their spouses, their children, and maybe, just maybe, their aging and ill parents. So, really, which one of us is to be admired?’
What d’you think?
Then much later defence lawyer Lenny Marcus says ‘I can only be as happy as my saddest child.’ Is this a universal truth? Does it apply to me?
Challenging thoughts. Such is the power of the written word.
You’d have to be an ostrich to miss all the attention given to mental health of late. It’s Depression Awareness Week this at this very moment. Heartening to see; we can all do with better understanding and sympathy.
Since Inside of Me came out, my own working days have been much taken up with fathoming the extent of provision for adolescents grappling with psychiatric ailments and issues. I had absolutely no concept of the number (hundreds in Britain) of centres and units and teams devoted to this vulnerable group. Impressive. And all this is going on largely unsung and unremarked.
Naturally I did a stack of research before and during the writing of Inside of Me, but now it’s published I’m exploring different aspects of the topics and finding them fascinating. Not only increases my own awareness but all helps when I’m being interviewed or fielding questions at book events.
There’s been plenty of exposure in the media too. The A Word, on BBC1, is currently unravelling the effect on the Hughes family of young Joe’s autism. It’s still ongoing so I won’t say too much about it meantime. But, knowing a number of people on the spectrum personally, I’m particularly interested in the reactions and behaviours of his parents struggling to accept the situation and deal with the comments and criticisms and insensitivities of other people, what it’s doing to the whole family.
I’ve also been reading a book written by a young man who has synaesthesia as well as Asperger’s: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. ‘I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable and secure, of always being somewhat apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.‘ Not surprisingly Daniel craves order, security and predictability; but in many ways his life is outstandingly vibrant and uniquely different.
Numbers are never far from his thoughts no matter where he is or what he’s doing, but he sees them as shapes, colours and textures. Calendars delight him – all those numbers and patterns in one place. On the other hand social interaction is problematic, but if a person reminds him of a number he feels more comfortable around them.
Daniel also has savant syndrome for which he has become a minor celebrity. He can perform extraordinary mathematical calculations and memory feats in his head – outdoing sophisticated computers! He can learn to speak a foreign language fluently from scratch in a week – eat your heart out teens sitting exams this term!
Daniel Tammet was born in 1979 on a Wednesday. ‘Wednesdays are blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing.’ Remarkably for the times, both his parents understood his needs and patiently provided a secure and encouraging environment for him, indulged his obsessions and believed in him. What’s more, in spite of the extra care their firstborn required, they went on to have a further three boys and five girls, who, by their noisy and continuous presence, forced Daniel to gradually develop interpersonal social skills. Nevertheless, he would be completely thrown by small distractions – squeaking shoes, inexplicable reactions, noisy breathing, would lose him a game of chess which he would otherwise easily win.
By the time Daniel was 13 he had eight siblings. By the time he was 19 he was ready to leave home and go abroad on VSO work. By the time he was 22 he was ready to live with his partner, Neil. By the time he was 25 he was ready to recite 22,514 digits of pi without error in public for 5 hours and 9 minutes thereby setting a new British and European record. So remarkable has his life been that he became the subject of a one-hour documentary, Brainman, filmed in Britain, the USA and Iceland in 2004. A year later he was confident enough to travel abroad unaccompanied, stay in unfamiliar hotels, stroll down unknown busy streets, and be interviewed for TV in the USA. He attributes much of his prowess to the constant unwavering love and support of his family, especially his parents. But reading his book you get an inkling of his own determination to overcome the odds.
Born on a Blue Day gives a compelling glimpse into a unique mind and life. Precisely and carefully written. Sometimes stilted. Sometimes meandering through detailed descriptions, sometimes diffidently explaining the differentness of Daniel’s thinking. Always gently enquiring, shy and grateful. Much like the Daniel Tammet who comes across in the film.
Not a lot to report of interest in the publication process at this stage – the work of promotion involves lots of emails and letters and phonecalls and the occasional interview. Not the stuff of riveting reports, then. Yawn, yawn. No spectacular coverage in Hello magazine; no prime time interview on TV’s Breakfast show; no six-figure deal through a top literary agent; no glorious battle for rights at the London Book Fair. Even I have to set myself timetables to ensure that I don’t lose momentum, and that I apply myself a few hours every day to the mundane practicalities, gaining readers one by one.
So imagine my surprise to find my face on the front page of a newspaper yesterday!
With a bright red caption in keeping with that red stilletto shoe! Yeah!
And there on page 7 a full article (with a different photo) talking about my use of fiction to highlight important issues thrown up by modern medicine.
Now, as anyone knows who’s ever been interviewed, it’s terribly easy for one’s words to be distorted and convey a completely different meaning. This time half an hour of questions and answers has been condensed into 13 short paragraphs, so inevitably comments and connections have been omitted, other phrases repeated to preface a paragraph, losing the overall smooth flow of conversation to staccato reporting. But hats off to the reporter, Kevin Quinn, who captured the kernel of what I try to do: make medical ethical issues accessible and increase understanding and empathy.
Hold back the hordes … form an orderly queue for copies of Inside of Me, guys!
OK, OK, OK, I know. It’s only the local paper, the Midlothian Advertiser. But I’m chuffed that this particular reporter was interested enough in mental health to feature the news item as he did. That’s what it’s all about.
They say no experience is wasted on a writer. Well, inasmuch as broadening horizons and sharing feelings and empathising with others goes, that’s probably true. But I think it’s also a fact that if we’re receptive we can make the most of unexpected opportunities life throws at us too.
Last week, for instance, I had to visit my dentist. No big deal. Once there I didn’t have long to wait but long enough to read an article in Good Housekeeping about Jo Cannon whose recent (as of January this year) phenomenal success as an author has been emblazoned on Facebook. What I didn’t know was that she left school at 15 with one O-level in French, she worked at some pretty mundane jobs, but then decided medicine was the career for her. Hello? Ambitious then. Prepared to work jolly hard, too.
She did indeed apply herself with huge determination, funding her studies by delivering pizzas at night, and finally qualified as a medical doctor at the age of 41. Wahey! What a triumph. Psychiatry appealed to her, but she was troubled by many of the cases she saw, so by way of catharsis, she began writing a blog. Success with that led her to do a creative writing course, which in turn led to a top agent taking her on, and terrific success with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. And along the way she was always ready to use her experiences across the board to authenticate her writing.
Her impending second book has attracted a seven figure sum. What an inspirational tale. All power to her writing elbow! Ten minutes in the dentist’s waiting room well spent for me too.
Then, taking yet another break to wander in a motorway station to unravel my poor compressed spine on a long journey, I chanced on these two books by Holly Bourne: Am I Normal Yet? and The Manifesto on How to be Interesting. Now, I confess that YA books really aren’t my thing, but having just included a fifteen-year-old narrator with issues in my own latest novel, Inside of Me, I was curious enough to buy both of them. The style of writing swings between breezy, funny and poignant, capturing the everyday reality for youngsters grappling with teenage insecurity, bullying, obsessive compulsive disorders, self harm, illicit relationships. Holly Bourne is another writer who has used her own experience of life as a teen and a journalist and an agony aunt, to get inside the skin of her protagonists.
As the heroine in TMOHTBI says: It’s material; it’s material; it’s material. Question is, what material can I get out of my current experience: promotion of my latest book ……?
As most people know, writers and journalists are keen on anniversaries. Gives them a hinge, a focus. So you won’t be surprised by this blog post. It’s 170 years ago, in 1846, that three of the best known and best loved books in the English language were written and published by three sisters. 200 years since the eldest, Charlotte Brontë, was born. Charlotte is one of my all time favourite writers so I absolutely couldn’t overlook this date.
The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – were all shy, frail girls living in an age of high child mortality (40% died before the age of 6; average age at death 25/26), in a vicarage overlooking a cemetery where they would probably have witnessed anything up to eight funerals a day. Life was cheap. Their two older sisters both died early from TB whilst still schoolgirls. Their dissolute only brother died of illnesses relating to his alcoholism.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne too all died in their late twenties or thirties. In their short lives they experienced much hardship, thought to have inspired their writing, and certainly there are elements of boarding school tyranny, suppression and harassment of governesses by their charges and employers, threats of the occult and harsh religious condemnation, isolation on bleak moorland, unrequited love, as well as the necessity to earn a living when there were no male relatives to protect them from poverty. It’s a tribute to their strength of character that they could rise above these harsh and potentially crushing circumstances and be awe-inspiringly creative.
Jane Eyre is probably the first novel that made a profound impression on me and one of the few I’ve read several times. You can see how faded and ancient my copy is now, but it remains a firm favourite. I’ve even watched several different screen adaptations of the story – something that can easily ruin a book for me. It blows my mind to think that it was penned at a dining room table while Anne and Emily scribbled their stories at the same time on the same table; that it was written with a quill pen; that it was a response to rejection of an earlier manuscript – The Professor (another early favourite). Charlotte is described as a tiny frail creature, but what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in her personality and character. She was the driving force behind all three sisters (as the Bell brothers) submitting their writing for publication. They had always written stories and poems for their private amusement; now it was out of necessity.
Pause for a moment. Imagine. Jane Eyre … Agnes Grey … Wuthering Heights … all coming out within a few months during that year. All written by unknown young women. Laboriously, by hand. The result? Amazing success for all three. But sadly and unjustly little fame for their authors during their lifetime.
Since then, of course, all have become beloved and timeless classics. Who hasn’t heard the name Brontë? Who hasn’t read at least one of their books? What a record. What an achievement.
In 2016, surrounded by ease and plenty, shut away peacefully in a room dedicated to writing, with gadgets and ready communication at my fingertips, no necessity driving me to write … I salute them all. And feel truly humbled in their presence.
With a whole lot of quite ridiculous chasing up and down the country over the past fortnight, we’ve seized the opportunity to visit interesting places en route to relieve the boredom of long drives and give the spine a chance to decompress. I’m not going to wax lyrical about architectural phenomena, nor indeed regale you with tales of great families and grand alliances, nor yet conjure up visions of loveliness twirling parasols on the avenues while dashing young beaux pay court in the rose garden. No, for the purposes of this blog, I want to home in on one of my favourite topics: books.
Tyntesfield in Somerset has been on my to-do list since it was taken over by the National Trust in 2002, and it was conveniently on the way to Cornwall two weeks ago. It has a fascinating history based around an ordinary family who acquired extraordinary wealth from the sale of guano (yes, indeed, bird droppings!), and I was haunted by the vision of the last owner, unmarried and alone, living in just three modest rooms but surrounded by magnificence and beauty which he had carefully shrouded and preserved for generations to come after his death. It more than lived up to my expectations; in my view one of the loveliest houses in the Trust. A veritable Gothic extravaganza set in superb gardens and surrounded by gorgeous period estate houses and ancient trees. With so much to see then, it was intriguing to find … a second hand bookshop at the entrance!
A big tick for the love of books, huh?
A week later Belton House near Grantham in Lincolnshire was only a swerve away from the A1 to London. A quintessential country estate, it’s much smaller and less spectacular than Tyntesfield but still well worth visiting, especially with its direct links to the abdication of Edward VIII. But the reason to include it in my blog is twofold. First because the Trust has cunningly converted the stables into a series of most attractive bookshops with used volumes on every conceivable subject crammed into each stall. Wouldn’t you just love to perch here and lose yourself in a period tale or two?
And second because of the library in the main house.
A beautiful light and airy room with a huge collection of books. But most notable of all, back in the days when an army of servants scurried up and down uncarpeted back staircases to avoid being seen by the family, here they were encouraged to pop up to the family library and borrow books from it to improve their reading skills and their knowledge – provided they put them back, of course. Amazing! A remarkably advanced approach to staff welfare.
So our dalliances during long excursions became unexpectedly book-orientated and uplifting. Long live the physical book.
Well, here they are, still warm. My first batch of Inside of Me. They arrived yesterday, bang on target.
And as I hold the finished product in my hands, I’m enormously grateful to all those people who made this moment possible. To those who gave me the benefit of their wisdom and expertise, checking facts were correct and scenarios authentic. To those who provided their technical know-how and capabilities to ensure the final product looked so good. To those who encouraged and supported me through the entire process. To those who continue to believe in me, even – no, most especially – when I start to doubt myself.
I salute you all. And I hope you can feel a sense of ownership too. You’ve earned it.