Hazel McHaffie

Splinter the Silence

In Splinter the Silence, Val McDermid explores the issue of internet trolling/hate mail/harassment/villification/abuse of women who put their heads above the parapet to speak about discrimination and injustice. In this fictional case, the public figures are apparently hounded to the point of suicide, although the reader knows from the outset that they are actually being murdered, each killing disguised to mimic the suicides of famous feminists. The murderer has his own reasons for objecting to women who step outside their domestic role and tell men what’s right or wrong.

Well, sadly, I know people in real life who would still tether women to the kitchen sink if they could. I have myself come in for criticism for being a woman and daring to voice and defend an opinion; for having ideas above my subservient station. Fortunately, positive responses have far, far outweighed the negative, so it hasn’t been that difficult to maintain perspective, but then, I’m not an A-list celebrity, so such pernicious or malicious activities don’t hit the headlines, the number of critics doesn’t reach stratospheric levels. Nevertheless, I can vouch for the discomfort of being on the receiving end of such unjust vitriol. It’s not as far fetched as you might imagine.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the matter of standing up and being accountable, and about all the cases coming to public attention right now that lend themselves to strong column inches. I’ll itemise a few, but please note, I have no privileged access to information on any of them, so the facts I include are as subject to distortion and prejudice as any other media-generated stories.

OK, serious time, folks. And in every case multiply the questions many times over.

Ten days after legally completing his transition from female to male, a transgender man, TT, underwent intrauterine insemination, resulting in a pregnancy. He has now taken his case to the High Court in an effort to be the first to have no ‘mother’ registered on the birth certificate. Hello? ‘Cake’ and ‘eat’ instantly spring to mind. Expensive legal and parliamentary resources are to be deployed to look into the ramifications of the current laws governing fertility treatment.
One British doctor is reported as saying, now that it is medically possible to transplant a womb into biological males, it would be illegal to deny them access to this opportunity to carry a child to birth. What do you think? Would it?
What about the rights of the unborn child?
One author of a letter to the Telegraph outlined the scenario and concluded, ‘The lunatics truly have taken over the asylum.‘ Do you agree? Or is this a case of establishing the deep-seated needs of people who have struggled all their lives with their dysphoria?

Then there’s the issue of rights and dignity and bodily integrity and mental welfare of female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels? Renewed calls have been made for such women to be given drugs to lower their levels before they compete, or for them to be channelled into other categories such as intersex competition.
What about the effect on these sportswomen of the abuse and accusations levelled at them?
Is it a fair playing field?
Other scientists have cast serious doubt on the integrity of the research behind this latest demand; how many people either know of this or have the scientific or mental wherewithal to judge the issue fairly?

Exactly four years ago, on their half-term break, Shamima Begum and two school friends fled this country, aged only 15, to join Isil and become jihadi brides. In those years, Begum has borne three children, two of whom died of illness and malnourishment. She has told the world she doesn’t regret her actions, that she was unfazed by the sight of severed heads, that’s she’s into retaliation, but wants to bring baby number three back to her home country.
We have no way of knowing just how much coercion lies behind her public pronouncements, but her responses to interviewers chill the blood. The government have refused to jeopardise more lives by sending anyone to rescue her, but at first the lawyers told us, she’s a British citizen, she cannot be rendered stateless, so legally speaking, there is no choice; we must have her back. Then a couple of days later we hear that no, the government are not obliged to repatriate her … and indeed the Home Secretary has revoked her British citizenship … she has dual Bangladeshi nationality … the baby has a Dutch father  …
What consequences should this girl’s actions have?
Whose rights take precedence?
What kind of a future lies in front of her or her baby son?
Who should assume responsibility?
Is it a measure of our own more civilised behaviour that we rise above the terrorists’ creed and show compassion now towards this girl?
What of all the other people who’ve dabbled in terrorism but who now want to return?And a zillion other questions.
No wonder opinion is divided.

Retired accountant, 80-year-old Geoff Whaley, diagnosed with MND two years ago, decided that an agonising and undignified death was not for him; he would go to Dignitas in Switzerland for a controlled end to his life. But his careful planning was threatened days before his proposed departure by the appearance of police at his door, interviewing his wife of 52 years under caution, in response to an anonymous tip-off. It was this unwelcome intrusion, coupled with the laws of this country opposing assisted suicide, not his impending suicide, that engendered fear and anguish in this man, provoking him to protest to the BBC and MPs:
‘The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding.’
Put aside for a moment your personal views on assisted dying, and ask, what could possibly have motivated someone to blow the whistle in this way at the Whaley’s eleventh hour? Genuine concern, self-righteousness, extreme religious views, a sense of public duty, malice? Or what?
Should other people’s private scruples be allowed to control the rights of families in such tragic circumstances?

Imagine being born in war-ravaged Yemen, stranded in a hospital in a country where social, political, economic and health care systems have all collapsed, where about half of the 28 million inhabitants are living on the brink of famine. Now add to that the babies being conjoined twins. Their picture appeared in the British press; the Yemeni doctors appealing for help from the UN to get them to Saudi Arabia.
What should our response be?
What is our responsibility in such cases?
What chance did they realistically have?
At least 6,800 civilians have been killed and 10,700 injured in the war, according to UN statistics. Did these two extremely vulnerable boys warrant such an exceptional rescue mission?
In the event they died in their homeland, but the questions remain.

I could go on … and on …

All the youngsters who become victims of disturbing material on line … the BBC being criticised for not offering abortion advice after an episode of Call the Midwife featuring a backstreet abortion … impecunious students being paid to contract dangerous tropical diseases like typhoid and malaria in the search for new effective vaccines … the matter of a 97-year-old Duke of Edinburgh flouting the country’s law on the wearing of seatbelts …

I have opinions on all these issues. You don’t have to listen to me. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with me – fundamentally and even vociferously. But you ought not to shut me up! Especially not in a threatening or damaging way.

 

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Parallels

A long time ago – 12 April last year, to be precise – I showed you the beginnings of a new project to create a fair-isle jacket using authentic Shetland Island techniques and wool. Progress has been slow because it could only be knitted with full concentration on the task; not the kind of easy creativity to accompany reading or watching TV.

Well, it’s now finished.

And I’m very conscious that, as at the beginning, it has continued to be a kind of allegory for my writing. All the colours (in this case 15 different shades) have to be in the right place at the right time, just as plot threads do.

Any loose ends must be tucked in neatly so there are no stray strands anywhere – that task alone took weeks of painstaking work.

The patterns must align and form a cohesive whole. No one must be able to see the workings.

And the end result stands or falls on the overall effect.

Interestingly the book has taken rather longer than the knitting, and certainly far more hours, but, whilst I’m confident the jacket will attract lots of comments about the time, effort, skill involved, I’m equally sure that few, if any, will appreciate the same aspects behind Killing me Gently! And yet … I’m simply following instructions for the jacket; the novel is entirely my own design and creation. But, hey, nobody ever told us life would be fair!

I’m pleased to report that the fifth draft of Killing me Gently is shorter, tighter and more tense than version four. Both the beginning and ending have been completely re-written. All the helpful comments from my raft of critics and experts have been taken seriously and have paid dividends. The book is now within a whisker of being ready for the last (I hope!) round of critical comments, inching inexorably towards that day when I say it’s mature enough to leave the nest for good. Maybe the day for wearing that Shetland jacket, huh?!

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The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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On the shoulders of giants

Some time ago I listened to one of these programmes where people tell their stories of good triumphing over tragedy. In this case it was a woman called Zoe, who told of her experience losing 5 early pregnancies. The consultant, she alleged, had told her not to even start looking for support; there was nothing out there. In response she set up her own helpline: originally called Saying Goodbye, now the Mariposa Trust.

Actually, it’s not true there’s nothing out there. I worked in the field of parental loss for decades, and there are a number of organisations that reach out to grieving families in their need. As a researcher, I myself studied what bereaved parents want and need, and my findings were widely disseminated.

Which all brings me to today’s subject. It’s important not to forget that what we do builds on the shoulders of others; often of giants. And it’s the same in literature. We’ve all benefitted from reading other people’s work – volumes they’ve laboured over, struggled with, paid a heavy price for. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware that these writings are impinging on us, altering our way of thinking, touching us at some deep level.

I’ve had a weird sensation of deja vu this week. I’ve been reading One Life by Rebecca Frayn. It tells the story of Rose and Johnny, a young couple who unexpectedly discover a deep desire for parenthood. But unfortunately Johnny is sub-fertile, and Rose is unable to get pregnant even with medical help (IVF, ICSI).

I explored the scenario of infertility in two of my own early novels: Paternity and Double Trouble, so of course I was fascinated to see how Frayn tackled it. I’m not suggesting for one moment that this author has copied my work – her approach is quite different, and I don’t suppose she even knows of my existence! But we are neither of us entering virgin territory, we are both building on what has gone before, maybe our own experiences, certainly those of others who’ve delved into these sensitive areas before us, in factual accounts as well as in the world of make-believe.

And this is where fiction especially comes into its own, because it has a dual effect, touching the heart as well as the intellect. It allows and encourages us to get inside the skin of people like Rose and Johnny, to empathise with their emotions, and hopefully emerge more understanding, more open-minded, more supportive, more compassionate. My raison d’etre. I’m delighted to find another debut novelist entering into my world.

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I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
‘Absolutely!’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Yes?’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

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Frozen in time

I’ve been to a very dark place – psychologically as well as physically – for the sake of my art this week. Mostly readers never know the agony and ecstasy behind a book, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes with Killing me Gently.

Come with me and let your imagination take over.

Imagine a distraught young woman careering along an unlit muddy path beside a fast-flowing river at 3am on a freezing February morning.

It’s inky black everywhere. Unseen branches reach out and tangle with her hair; ivy and exposed roots lie in wait at her feet. She slips and slides in the mud. Each heaving breath tears at her throat and lungs.

After a while the roar of the water cascading over rocks lures her closer, blocking out the echo of the relentless screaming that drove her to run away. She climbs onto the low stone wall and leans over, oblivion beckoning seductively. Will she …. won’t she …?

Now imagine an elderly woman scrambling through that same path, twilight enfolding her, sensation ebbing from her toes and fingers.

Her mind too is seething, watching the power of that relentless water … imagining the force … feeling the despair in that young woman’s heart. Picturing the growing horror of being disorientated, alone, lost … knowing not a single soul knows where she is.

That’s where you’d have found me on Tuesday evening this week. Consolidating the opening chapter of my current novel. Immersing myself in the horror. Feeling it killing me gently!

This is easily the scene’s tenth version, but I think …. I hope … I believe … it’s now almost there. Immediate. Setting a scene. Capturing key elements. Hinting sufficiently to draw the reader in. Making them ask … How desperate is this young woman? What is she running from? What has driven her beyond endurance? Will she slide into that abyss? Who has she left behind?

I’m not alone in revising and revisiting and re-editing my introduction endlessly. We all know the importance of the beginning of a story; no one more than an author who has to pitch to an agent/publisher! But once again the trick lies in deciding when it’s good enough. Going to the river, experiencing its reality, feeling spooked, has helped me towards that decision.

And for me, there’s a purpose as well as a limit to the psychological damage!

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Two Little Girls

Psyching myself back into my current novel after all the excitement and busyness of the festive season, required a game plan. First, read a new-release novel from my shelves about a woman struggling to love her baby: Two Little Girls by Kate Medina. Even the cover sent a chill down my spine: a pair of tiny red sandals full of sand, lapped by the edge of the waves; the text ‘Two little girls walked to their deaths and nobody noticed …’ interspersed with the bald title. Says it all. And indeed the story includes these macabre murders, so it felt oddly serendipitous that, on the very day I read it, the BBC showed a documentary about the murders of the so-called ‘babes in the wood’, 32 years ago. Listening to the parents decades later brought home the indescribable horror these families live with daily.

And because of this reality, I felt uncomfortable seeing the novel dedicated to the author’s own two young daughters. Hmmmm.

Kate Medina has had a lifelong interest in psychology but she uses it effectively. Her characters ring true; policemen hypothesise, psychologists analyse and theorise, ordinary people don’t turn their brains inside out! The setting too, feels authentic – I know people who have a holiday home in Wittering!

We’re aware from the first few chapters that …
Laura aka Carolynn Reynolds, is the mother of a little girl found dead in the sand dunes at West Wittering beach two years ago
… she suffers from major psychiatric problems
… she’s in hiding
… her life is a tissue of lies
… her husband Roger is in on some at least of the lies
… she was tried for the murder of Zoe, the daughter she found so difficult to love
… she was acquitted because of lack of evidence
… Detective Inspector  Bobby ‘Marilyn’ Simmonds  who worked on the case at the time,  still believes she was guilty
… Dr Jessie Flynn, the psychologist Carolynn has been seeing, struggles herself with layer upon layer of psychological damage
… and Carolynn was running alone on the beach when a second little girl was murdered.

Phew! Is she guilty? Is she not? Is anyone else in danger?

Which brings me nicely to how far would my own protagonist go when her baby drives her beyond reason? And I come back to the writing with a renewed sense of what constitutes a thriller. A preparatory day well spent.

 

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Xanadu

Phew! That’s it over for another year.

Thinking up a viable storyline, writing it (11,000 words plus), that’s the easy bit of the annual McHaffie Christmas story/play. Putting it into dramatic effect is a far harder task, and this year involved more hours pouring over the detail than ever before. Several weeks went into hand-drawing scenery representing Victorian streets to cover the walls of the hallway, stairs and landing alone!

With no single theatre stage to work with, no stagehands, furniture had to be moved around in six rooms to create Victorian shops, a banqueting hall and a rambling attic in a mansion house.

But the dim light of rows of lanterns and a liberal helping of ivy, saved the day, successfully muting imperfections sufficiently to achieve the desired atmosphere. (Photos have been lightened for this blog.)

The storyline itself involved three youngsters from vastly different backgrounds learning from each other and the experiences they encountered, how to value and respect difference.

Weird gadgets, special boxes, changes of costume, cryptic messages, all added challenge and laughter to the mix.

The three friends discovered a remarkable doll in the attic of the local mansion house, a doll that took them to a magical place called Xanadu,

and underwent a dramatic transformation when danger threatened.

There, with the help of four colourful characters loosely based on Mr Pickwick,

Rumpelstiltskin,

Little Dorrit,

and Rafiki from The Lion King,

they learned about transforming their own and others’ well-being by their attitudes and approach to life.

The four very different candle-lit shops offered paper/wood; gems and gold;

buttons and ribbons; and chocolates.

The names of the characters and their shops had to be worked out.

Only then were the premises thrown open to the time-travellers, allowing them to create ornaments of varying kinds,

with which they decorated all the trees in the town, bringing sparkle and joy to its dark streets.

I rather think it might take a few weeks for dodgy backs and creaking joints to recover from the contortions they’ve undergone, but it’s well worth all the effort to see – and hear! – the family’s enjoyment.

And this year I had the added delight of my eldest granddaughter helping with the behind-the-scenes production of the event to mark her milestone birthday as an adult.

It only remains for me to wish you all peace, joy and health for 2019. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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‘Perfection’? or ‘Good enough’?

A couple of weeks ago I happened to catch a bus into the town centre already crowded with students from a science faculty outside the city boundary. There was a healthy buzz of conversation everywhere but the voice of the girl behind me dominated because she was speaking loudly into her mobile (as people tend to do).

She appeared to be agonising over some end-of-term exams they were taking and suddenly said: ‘Why am I putting myself through all this stress? I could have been an artist! … No, I’m too much of a perfectionist to be an artist.’

Hello? You think creative people don’t suffer stress? Aren’t perfectionists? Why, only this week I was reading about an author, Madeline Miller, who took ten years to write her first novel, five of them spent writing and rewriting the first few chapters over 50 times! She describes herself as an ‘incorrigible perfectionist’.

It was Voltaire who allegedly first penned the famous aphorism: perfect is the enemy of the good, although other well known writers and philosophers have come to a similar conclusion.

We all have to achieve a balance between our ideals and our realities, don’t we? I first really absorbed the concept of ‘good enough’ when I was a researcher looking into parenting issues. I remember in 1988 quoting in my PhD thesis, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who coined the phrase ‘good enough’ mothers way back in 1953.

And all through my academic life I had a post-it on my screen: Perfection is always one more draft away. Theses, journal articles, books, conference presentations – there came a point with everything, when I had to say, ‘Stop! It will do’. No merit in constantly striving for perfection and never letting anything try its luck in the real world.

It hadn’t occurred to me until that student’s conversation impinged on my brain in the bus, that here I am, right now, in my fictional world, worrying away once again at what constitutes good enough parenting.

My protagonist is a new mother, a perfectionist, a brilliant academic, stressed by the demands of a fretful baby who simply hasn’t read the manual! And when bad things start happening to the infant, the professionals responsible for safeguarding have to decide where the line can and should be drawn between the ideal and the realistic. Get it wrong and a baby’s life might be in jeopardy as well as a mother’s mental health. We’ve all seen the vilification of social workers and community health professionals when a child is horrendously abused and dies in real life; the press have a field day.

I’m also somewhat preoccupied with the point at which the current novel itself is good enough to publish; it’s far from that point at the moment. Indeed I’ve scribbled several possible new opening sentences just over Christmas – the brain doesn’t recognise official holidays! And I know it won’t ever be perfect; they never are. It just has to be good enough to satisfy the reader that it’s a tale well told and worth writing. And believe me, young-angst-ridden-student-scientist, artists most certainly are perfectionists too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Man who Invented Christmas

175 years ago yesterday Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Since then it’s been reinvented time after time until it’s become one of the most familiar and well-loved tales ever. In Dickens own day, the book changed the way people viewed the world, generating as it did, at once a feeling of love and of shame. Overnight charitable giving soared. And in the twenty-first century it remains a salutary reminder of the joy to be found in friendship, kindness and generosity.

The film, The Man who Invented Christmas, is based on the true story of how Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) wrote his masterpiece – you can click on the picture above to watch the official trailer. It beautifully captures the torture of writing, the agonising, the obsession, the exhilaration. Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchitt, Tiny Tim … they all come alive as they take shape in Charles’s imagination and indeed become more important to him than his own flesh and blood, as his long suffering wife laments. It felt totally believable; I too know that affinity with the people of my imagination, the difficulty of living in the real world when you’re totally immersed in the fictional one.

But what comes across powerfully in this dramatic representation is the sobering reality of Dickens’ actual life, which I knew already from books like Charles Dickens: The Gas-light Boy, reviewed in this blog post last year. He’s famous at a young age, yes, but constantly struggling to cope with the debts forced on him by his reckless and feckless father, a large and growing brood of children, and fickle publishers. Under enormous pressure to churn out book after book merely to stay afloat … thousands upon thousands of words written in dim light with a scratchy pen dipped in ink! Astonishing and humbling to view his genius against this context.

Here he is, weeks from Christmas, and struggling to find a viable idea for his work. The magical story-telling powers of a little orphan Irish girl trigger a thought … the name Scrooge brings Ebenezer into sharp relief … the vision of a happy ghost gives him one of the three spirits … the tears and entreaty of the Irish girl at the death of Tiny Tim spur him towards the perfect ending. The novella is completed with minutes to spare. And becomes his most famous and best-loved work.

I recommend this film to you: perfect viewing for the season. And I echo Tiny Tim’s Christmas wish to you all: ‘God bless us, everyone!

 

 

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