Hazel McHaffie

Far from the madding crowd … there are books galore!

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

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

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

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

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Just what the doctor ordered

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

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State of Wonder

It’s hard to catalogue my progress with writing Killing me Gently without betraying its secrets, but safe to say it’s almost writing itself these days. I’m poised on a knife edge, living the tension, peering over the cliff edge, fearing the worst. In a perpetual state of wonder at the way the brain works, unravelling a stream of words and ideas that other brains will understand and react to, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder has inspired me to constantly revisit my own prose and try to make it sing like hers. The story is remarkable enough – reading rather like a PhD student expanding her research into fertility and malaria in the Brazilian jungle to inform a novel – but the way it’s written is the most striking thing for me. Enviably beautiful.

Dr Annick Swenson is an eccentric scientist who, for decades, has been studying one of the remotest tribes in the rain-forest. The pharmaceutical company who sponsor her are naturally keen to get progress reports on the drug she’s meant to be developing, but she not only keeps her work shrouded in mystery, she sets up an elaborate ring of protection against being found herself. A mild-mannered lab researcher, Dr Anders Eckman is sent out to investigate but all that returns is a curt letter from Dr Swenson saying that he has died of a fever, his body taken into the jungle by the Lakashi people and given a Christian burial. And no, she didn’t witness this herself.

Dr Marina Singh – Anders’ colleague and Dr Swenson’s former student – is sent out to retrace his steps and bring back more details for his grieving widow and three young sons. It’s a heart stopping journey into the dark heart of an unknown place, all her possessions being lost on the way, and no assurance of any answers. But what she finds is so much more terrifying than anything she anticipated: naturally occurring drugs that blow her mind, a tribe whose female fertility reaches into the seventies (the mind boggles!), a people immune to malaria, a scientist whose dedication to knowledge takes her way beyond the accepted limits of ethical practice, ancient rituals and old hostilities, and a completely different version of events surrounding her friend and colleague Anders. She is challenged beyond her worst nightmares … battling with a giant anaconda strangling a small deaf boy; resurrecting old medical skills; choosing between one human friend’s wellbeing and that of another; weighing up her chances of happiness against a new set of values; setting humanity against science; deciding just how much of the truth can ever be told.

And Patchett weaves a devilishy intriguing scientific plot (which alone must have taken months of painstaking research), through a maze of profound philosophical notions and disturbing ethical arguments, without missing a beat in the hearts of a cast of fabulously colourful characters, and maintaining a wonderfully fluid linguistic style that carries something of the rhythms of the jungle. At first you feel the steady pulsing of masterly prose, your feet firmly on the ground. You stand uncertainly for a short hiatus listening for the tom-toms, wondering where she will take you, if the story will indeed take you anywhere. Then the drumbeat changes, gathering a momentum and power that builds up tension, twists and turns like a mighty river sweeping through tangled undergrowth in uncharted territory. It winds itself around you feverishly, like the lethal coils of a snake, thrashing this way and that, constricting your breathing, until you reach the unexpected and emotional crescendo of the final scene.

A fascinating book. I’m not surprised it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

 

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Royal weddings and a little serendipity

Well, I doubt I could have found a more suitable book to read during the week of the royal wedding if I’d tried!

I wonder what you thought listening to the African American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry preaching about love in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on Saturday …? I personally loved his energy, his conviction, his relevant message, not just for the happy couple but for the world. Love would indeed redeem so many situations. And boy, did he put his heart and soul into it. He stood out in sharp contrast to the many staid, formal, set-texts of so many royal events. But even the very British Archbishop of Canterbury shared lots of smiles and humour with the first-name-terms royal couple.

This wedding has broken with so many traditions. A white prince of the realm marrying a mixed heritage American divorcee … in a church … in the presence of the Queen. The bride – a free-thinking actress – walking herself down the long aisle, only her mother of all her family present to witness her transition (my heart went out to her). The music a mix of ancient and modern, including a black gospel choir, a black cellist. Ordinary people who work tirelessly for humanitarian causes chosen guests instead of parliamentarians, heads of states, foreign royals. A lemon and elderflower sponge in place of the usual rich fruit. I could go on. It had all the hallmarks of an intimate wedding made to measure for the bride and groom, but on a massive scale and shared generously with the world.

And Gilead by Marilynne Robinson picks up so many of the themes we saw during that historic occasion, including a mixed-race ‘marriage’! I bought it at the Christian Aid Sale I told you about last week – the book not the marriage! The narrator is a minister of religion, Reverend John Ames, now in his late seventies. Totally unexpectedly, already in his sixties, he falls in love with and, at her instigation, marries a much-younger woman from a different social stratum, and together they have a son. Ames lives in daily expectation of his heart failing, he knows he will not be around to see his boy grow to manhood, so he commits to paper, the kinds of things he would want to say at opportune moments if he were to live longer.

It’s difficult to capture the beauty and tenderness of this writing. The Reverend comes from generations of men of the cloth and he’s steeped in the Bible and spiritual thinking; he is thoroughly authentic and believable. But his gentle exhortations and reflections are not dull or hackneyed; they’re full of compassion and understanding and wisdom. He roams over many important issues for his boy, illustrating his philosophy from his own life, his own mistakes, his own secrets, reviewed with honesty and humility. Forgiveness, temptation, covetousness, pastoral responsibility, relationship, heaven and hell … he shirks none of them, revealing a glorious all-embracing Christian love reminiscent of that Bishop Michael Curry spoke about at the royal wedding, hard won at times, an ongoing work at others, but ultimately a triumphant declaration of what it means to put the gospel into action in one’s life.

One illustration will suffice. Ames knows all too clearly that his love for his son is all-consuming. If anyone threatened the boy, he knows his principles would fly out the window.
Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He (Jack Boughton) could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology of forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

It surprised me to see that this was only the second novel by this most accomplished writer – her first being 23 years earlier! Even more remarkable, it won several awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In today’s secular world, that a work of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity, such simple grace, such solemn serenity, should be so acclaimed, is something of a miracle in itself. As I finished it in the garden on the beautiful sunny day of the royal wedding, It felt like a benediction.

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Hazards aplenty

As they say, no experiences are wasted for a writer. Not even negative ones.

It’s that time again – the annual giant Christian Aid Sale held in the splendid premises of St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in the centre of Edinburgh. Selling thousands upon thousands of books, art works, ephemera, music, their aspirations are as high as their steeple: it’s always mobbed, and I, as any writer would, rejoice each year that physical books are still so very much alive.

Each year I go at least twice – once to deliver copies of my own books (as requested) before it opens, once to buy – and every time I’m staggered at the number of helpers involved, cheerful kindly people who don’t bat an eyelid when someone asks for a specific title or six, or hands them a large note expecting lots of small change. Such calm under pressure is a joy to behold. This time my second trip was about an hour after the doors opened. First impressions were fantastic – bright sunshine, happy fresh assistants, orderly boxes of books, hundreds of avid readers milling everywhere. The gangways between the trellis tables are narrow so you don’t need to be squeamish about bodily contact, and you are expected to take responsibility for your own health and safety – unmarked steps, dips underfoot, minor obstacles aplenty. But the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and there’s plenty of give and take.

So black marks to the folk who parked empty wheelchairs and buggies right across pathways, who thought it expedient to gather right beside the tables to natter, who spread their possessions over the boxes while they browsed denying others access, or who left their long-suffering husbands on corners necessitating inconvenient detours down steps and onto the road. And a special penalty to the two who trundled enormous hard suitcases right through the masses with sublime disregard for ankles and shins – yep, I was one of the victims. But I escaped with no lasting damage and a modest collection of purchases, and I raise a salute to the wonderful people who give their time and energies so tirelessly to this excellent cause and come up smiling.

Rather stupidly I went with two specific authors in mind – Stephen King and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – and before you ask, no, I certainly didn’t ask any of the volunteers for them!  There was no evidence of either, but I was thinking about King as the bus trundled me home. He has a neat way of expressing what I’m thinking about. Take this thought:
I’ve always wondered who I am when I write because once I’m doing it, I’m not in the room with myself.
It takes me a while to find myself again after an intense period of writing, and it certainly did the following night when I was deep in a psychological discussion with my characters.  Only vaguely did I become aware of a rumpus outside … raised voices … smoke …  hello? DJ had managed to set the garden shed alight and the air was alive with the sound of helpful neighbours sounding warnings and thick acrid smoke! By the time I’d re-entered the real world, DJ had the garden hose on full-tilt, damping down the smouldering structure, someone had called the fire brigade, and a crisis had been narrowly averted. I was left with no role other than redundant spectator. As the reassuring operations commander said, surveying the canisters of gas, tins of paint and fuel, and sundry other inflammables, laid out on the path afterwards: it could have been a whole lot worse. So, again, not much significant damage mercifully, but a few revisions to the to-do list and some changed priorities.

I might be dealing with mounting horror in my fictional world but it’s still a safer place than the here-and-now it seems!

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Father to thirty?!

Wow! The garden has gone from nought to sixty in one fell swoop. Everything is burgeoning and sprouting and bursting into colour, the birdsong has racheted up to symphony standard, the sunshine exceeding the benefits of any pharmacological tonic.

I’ve been alternating writing indoors with reading outside (when I’ve not been weeding and pruning and artistically directing, or course!) and loving the exhilaration of both. So it’s probably not surprising that, surrounded by all this new life and activity, my mind instantly latched onto a report about a different form of creation: babies.

This week it’s been revealed that a diminishing number of sperm donors are fathering eye-watering numbers of children. Now, as long ago as sixteen years (can it really be?!) I wrote a novel about the risks of this phenomenon: Paternity, so it’s a subject I’ve thought about long and hard. But even for me the statistics were like a cold water douche.

Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that, in a period of 24 years (1991-2015):
17 British men have fathered at least 30 babies each,
a further 104 have fathered between 20 and 29,
1,557 between 10 and 19,
and more than 6,000 have created up to 9 babies.

Though these men are offering hope to many many childless women/couples, huge risks are inherent in such practices. Obvious ones are passing on undetected hereditary diseases and risks, and half-brothers and -sisters forming sexual relationships and procreating together. Donated sperm are currently tested for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, CJD, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but not for genes indicating increased risk of cancers or Altzheimer’s. In the face of the latest statistics, campaigners are calling for more stringent enhanced screening to try to reduce the incidence of faulty genes being passed on, but representatives from the world of assisted conception caution that further screening could reduce the number of donors coming forward or being deemed eligible to donate, already worryingly low.

Research in this area is complicated, not only by the powerful emotions and opinions and ethics around infertility, but also by the fact that sometimes the full consequences of what is permitted in this area are not fully apparent until a generation or more has gone by – which is why I felt compelled to write a sequel to Paternity: Double Trouble. And once you start tinkering with genes it can be impossible to repair any damage done.

So, what d’you think? Just how much control or interference should there be? What are the rights and interests of the babies as well as the parents, donors and recipients? What makes a man a father? Which diseases are worse than non-existence? Who decides?

Now there’s a little package of ethical conundrums to conjure with while you watch birds and animals multiplying prolifically all around you! Welcome to my world!

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Murder most foul

Twenty years ago a much loved and respected doctor was arrested. He was found to be  the world’s most prolific serial killer of all time (250 victims over 30 years and counting) . His name has become synonymous with evil: Dr Harold Shipman.

Back then the culture in this country was one of respect and trust for doctors, and in the small working-class town of Hyde near Manchester, this particular GP was revered for his dedication and compassion. He would visit vulnerable patients at all hours, stay with them during their last breaths, personally phone their relatives to break the news. When investigators came snooping the locals resisted their suggestions of sinister malpractice fiercely.

Oh yes, they knew lots of elderly people in his practice died – they even jokingly called him Dr Death – but it never entered their heads that this was in any way untoward. They were just grateful that he cared enough to be with these neighbours during their last hours on this earth. He seemed invincible.

And he believed he was. After all, he’d survived a report to the General Medical Council (GMC) relating to his personal drug addiction, he’d successfully forged prescriptions and wills, acquired legacies from patients, as well as conning the good people in his practice. When he was questioned by the police, he displayed breathtaking arrogance and insolence, spinning absurd stories, even at one point sitting with his back to his interrogators.

Photo courtesy of Photolia

Listening to the harrowing testimony of those caught up in this horrific case, it’s not difficult to understand the despair of the policeman who took his sheaf of evidence to the GMC back in 1976, twenty three years before the doctor was finally tried, only to be waved away without a hearing himself: this august medical body deeming Harold Shipman ‘no danger to the public‘, just needing some rehabilitation. If only!

In the end the law enforcement officers investigated a total of 900 deaths spanning decades; they exhumed numerous bodies; they traced his killings back to 1972; they are almost certain that the estimate of 250 deaths by poisoning is a conservative one. But Shipman never admitted his guilt, never expressed remorse; a senior forensic psychiatric said he felt none. Imprisoned for life he waited only till he had assured his wife Primrose the best settlement possible, before, on the eve of his 58th birthday, in 2004, taking the last life: his own.

Twenty years ago, but it is still as vivid as it was then. Some crimes are indelible. I was mesmerised by the documentary shown on independent television last Thursday evening. We all carry burdens from the past, but they can be as nothing compared with those borne by local friends of the ‘good doctor’, nurses who saw but didn’t dare protest, policemen whose hands were tied, relatives who thanked the doctor who had killed their loved ones. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone you trusted, you’ll know it’s a peculiarly deep hurt.

I’m in the business of medical ethics. This story is way, way outside my scope. Had I written it into fiction no one would have believed it. It would have sunk without trace; Shipman never will.

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Time to read …

If you don’t have time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,’ says Stephen King.

So I felt totally vindicated taking a whole day off from writing and to lose myself in a gripping book. What a tonic! Just the inspiration I needed to help me sharpen up my own current scribblings.

It’s vintage Coben. All the trademark ingredients are there: clever dialogue, legal shenanigans, sinister happenings, flawed characters, convoluted plots, switchback thrills, a smattering of homespun psychology, and of course, a thought-provoking moral in the tale. Brilliant.

The book? Caught by Harlan Coben.

This one includes a missing teenager; discredited cops; an entrapment; vigilantes bent on revenge; scandals and sackings; broken marriages; tragic histories; conspiracies; trumped up charges and ruinous accusations. And it keeps you guessing till the very end. The usual vast cast includes a high percentage of damaged people with colourful back-stories and fascinating peccadilloes. Enough brilliance to make us lesser mortals decide to give up the unequal struggle!

And of course, Coben’s mastery of engaging dialogue and deft outlines make it a joy to read. Who else would capture the essence of characters, the feel of a moment, with such joyous economy, originality and humour?

How about this for a lawyer?

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense … wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant …
He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan …
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it …
He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of these questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

He’s only in the frame for a few pages but his larger than life presence lingers in the imagination, his peacock posturing, razor tongue, mocking innuendos and penetrating cross-questioning. We’re as much in awe of him as the cringing witness.

Or what about this for a teenager’s room?

Her room, like Ryan’s, looked as if someone had strategically placed a stick of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.

Resonates with us all, doesn’t it?

‘Uniquely portable magic,’ to quote Stephen King again. Enjoyed the more for coinciding with the advent of summer after a long hard winter – 5C to 21C almost overnight! I read half of Caught in the garden and felt doubly invigorated for that.

 

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A mystery inside an enigma

We’re all rather preoccupied with Russia and Syria and the UK’s responses to their activities at the moment, aren’t we? What a burden for our politicians to carry. Poisonings on the streets of the UK, chemical weapons used in Syria, volatile tweets, warning missiles, brutal leaders, conspiracy theories … sobering and scary stuff. Complicated still further by the fact that some at least of the detail is unknown, distorted, speculative, suspected, misguided. Reminds me of Winston Churchill‘s famous quote way back when: Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Once you start seriously thinking about these troubling scenarios, an uneasy kind of sense of foreboding can hang around, colouring your day.

And that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment most of the time. Because, on top of real and major global conflict that could affect us all, I’m personally living with doubt, fear, secrecy, suspicion, in my fictional world, and it’s seriously affecting my mood and my stress levels. It wakes me up at night. It’s hanging over me while I peel vegetables. It plays in my mind while I tramp trough the spring countryside. It haunts my waking thoughts and my troubled dreams.

My main character is in the frame for a series of very perplexing happenings. Her husband, sister, sister-in-law, friend, an as yet unknown protagonist, could all possibly be implicated in some way or another. Who exactly can be trusted? Fact and fantasy are getting confused. The threat is building. The options are reducing. The risk is mounting. Fear is taking over. The professionals are getting more and more on edge. And even I am not entirely sure who to believe! It’s shiver-up-the-spine exciting but also distinctly mood lowering.

So advice is, stay well clear of me if you can, till this situation has resolved itself.

(Acknowledgement: Image courtesy of Iqoncept Dreamstime.com)

 

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Metaphors and parallels and flying needles

Wow! One in the eye for the sniffy literary snobs who look down their noses at crime fiction and psychological thrillers, eh?! In the main BBC news just yesterday morning, it was reported that such novels are more popular than any other genre for the first time. Why? Apparently TV dramatic adaptations have had a major influence, but some commentators say that crime stories ‘humanise’ stressful situations, the kind of issues that trouble people in today’s perplexing and turbulent climate. They’re looking for ‘truth, justice and redemption’, and books help to provide all three. Hopefully my own current novel will contribute to this reservoir of wisdom and understanding.

The novel itself? Well, it’s positively galloping along, and I think it’s the stronger for not preoccupying every waking moment – a deliberate strategy. I’m balancing the writing with various other activities, and I want to use this blog to tell you about just one of these pursuits because it’s not only a great stress-reducer, but it’s also curiously similar to the thriller-writing process.

Almost twenty years ago I had to go to the Shetland Islands to carry out interviews with bereaved parents as part of a major research study I was undertaking. In my free time I had the amazing experience of visiting a building that housed a huge array of exquisite fair isle garments made by a group of local knitters using natural wools and dyes from the islands. Fabulous. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave to a lifelong knitter like me. I was so impressed by their work that I commissioned a couple of articles to be made to my specific requirements. They remain prized possessions, and as good as the day they were purchased.

In a moment of ambitious zeal, I also bought a couple of books of patterns and the Shetland wool to make two garments myself. One I made soon after that trip. It took me months and months to complete!

The other one I’ve just started this week; using fifteen soft colours (with glorious evocative names like bracken and sphagnum and osprey and crowberry and mauve mist), in 2ply 100% Shetland wool.

Shetland knitting is different from any other kind. You knit in a complete circle, continuously, always working from the right side, to ensure tension is perfectly even and you can check the complicated patterns as you go. This creates a tube, which you then cut up through (half way between eight stitches which form a special edge called the steek) to make the holes which allow you to add sleeves, neckbands, button borders, etc. It’s nerve wracking putting scissors to the finished work that you’ve slaved over for months, let me tell you! I had nightmares the first time, fully expecting my entire garment to unravel instantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because creating this cardigan is remarkably like the process of writing my thriller. First I needed a pattern for the finished product, carefully worked out and charted – in the case of the jacket, 70 lines long, divided into five different bands; for the novel, something like 60 sections long, divided into chapters, three different points of view.

On the outside what you see is the smooth finish, the clear pattern, logical and lovely to behold. The colours/narrative threads must complement each other, be perfectly balanced, light and shade, working harmoniously together to form a single whole entity. The finished product must be satisfying and pleasing to the senses.

But behind the scenes are the workings; all the threads must be kept taut and separate, no tangling, no confusion, no nasty knots or uneven breaks. Invisible to other people but the hallmarks of a sound piece of work.

No one else will ever know the hours and hours of painstaking work that went into the making of the final product, the anxious moments, the corrections, the endless checking. Both cardigan and book will hopefully look professional and effortless, desirable commodities.

And joy of joys I’ve been able to let my brain work on the two stories I’m currently writing while my fingers worked on the knitting. Efficient or what? The ideas and pattern for Killing me Gently are entirely my own; I’m grateful to the multi-talented Alice Starmore for the inspiration behind my Shetland cardigan.

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