Hazel McHaffie

The Lady Elizabeth

Well, in a week of widespread turmoil following the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex about their decision to withdraw from the traditional roles associated with their status as senior members of the royal family, it seems fitting to talk about previous blue-blooded incumbents – Prince Harry’s ‘glorious’ ancestors no less. And I’m not talking about the Duke of Windsor /King Edward VIII, who also married an America divorcée. No, rather let’s go back to the 16th century …

The year is 1536.

From a young age, Elizabeth Tudor, flame-haired fiery daughter of King Henry VIII, the most powerful king England has ever known, is very aware that she is different. She is an exceptionally gifted child with prodigious and precocious talents, a show-off and a rebel. Even aged three she is attuned to tiny nuances which betoken a shift in power. Why, for instance, does Sir John Shelton suddenly stop calling her ‘Lady Princess’ for example, and adopt the title ‘Lady Elizabeth’? What possible reason could ‘The King’s Highness’ have for decreeing such a thing?

Those around her see a small innocent child; they cannot bring themselves to explain the vagaries of the court or the bedchamber to her.  But the sudden beheading on the order of the king, of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, aka ‘The Whore’, and the introduction of a new stepmother/Queen, Jane Seymour, cannot be kept from this curious and impressionable mind. She seeks answers. She listens in to private conversations whilst pretending to be absorbed in juvenile pursuits.  She makes it her business to winkle out information. Risking much, her governess describes the young vibrant late Queen to her:
‘… your mother was a charming lady. She was not beautiful, but men found her very attractive. Your father the King pursued her for seven years, which must give you some idea of how fascinating she was. Accomplished too. Everything she did, she dd gracefully – she could dance, sing, embroider, write poetry, play the lute and virginals, and as for intelligence and wit – well, she shone. She was slim and poised, and always elegantly dressed, for she had a way with clothes, and could make much from a little. You are very like her in many ways.’

This information is at once comforting and dangerous to Elizabeth. To speak positively of her mother is to criticise her father the king, who had the woman who had been his great passion put to death for adultery and treason. Elizabeth soon feels the burden of knowledge. Even she can be banished from the court and her father’s presence, if she speaks unwisely. When she is, she feels the disgrace keenly.

In The Lady Elizabeth, the second work of fiction by Alison Weir, we see the world of the Tudor court through the eyes of this, one of the most famous characters of all time, Elizabeth I, (1533 – 1603) who reigned for 44 years as the last of five monarchs in the Tudor period. Yawn, yawn, you might be thinking; it’s surely been done to death. But no. Weir starts with Elizabeth as a tiny tot and takes us up to the moment she is declared sovereign, imagining vividly how such a pampered and revered child would perceive the world around her, how react to inexplicable tragedies, how reconcile her dream of power and wealth with the changing edicts of her father, how respond to her own fluctuations on the ladder of inheritance and divine right. We watch her preparing for her coming destiny, responding to a series of stepmothers, to the adulation of men, to banishment, to threatening death.

As we saw last week, this is an era when the monarch commands frightening power, the power of life and death. Elizabeth sees it at work in her own beloved father, whom she both adores and fears. After his death, without his majestic presence and absolute control, her world becomes a confusing and threatening place. Under her sickly young brother Edward VI, she is suddenly barred from court, forced to ‘rot’  in obscure properties away from the public eye. Bewildered and enraged, she is consumed by pain, loneliness, resentment and suspicion, all too aware of fickle loyalties, suspect motives, intrigue, back-biting, rumours, an ever-present sense of impending peril.

But this highly educated and clever young woman has inherited something of her father’s formidable will and presence herself, and in spite of her youth, she develops strategies for survival and getting her own way.

Her older sister Mary who assumes the throne next, is also King Henry’s daughter, however – determined, implacable, imperious. What’s more, she is devoutly religious, bent on bringing the country back to Catholicism. ‘Heretics’ who refuse to recant are burned at the stake or beheaded. Aghast at the brutal persecution her sister supports, Elizabeth outwardly succumbs to Mary’s demand that she attend Mass, whilst inwardly vowing to be a more compassionate Queen if and when her turn comes.

Mary is only too conscious that Elizabeth’s conformity is not genuine; the only problem is she can’t prove it; her young half-sister is devilishly clever. And although we know the eventual outcome, Alison Weir’s descriptions of their battles, of Elizabeth’s fall from grace, imprisonments and house arrest, the accusations and threats, keep us in suspense. The more I learned of the historical detail – around her mother’s execution, her own bastardy, her precarious childhood, the scandal of her relationship with the Queen’s husband, her religious rebellion, her imprisonment in the Tower and subsequent house arrest, Queen Mary’s mistrust, the schemes to marry her off against her will and to banish her from the country –  the more I could only marvel that she survived. But in reality, Mary’s brutal regime predisposes the people to support Elizabeth and strengthens Elizabeth’s own certainty that the only way to keep the throne safe is through the hearts of the subjects.  ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’ as she herself puts it.

The author admits that she has speculated in places, but on the basis of evidence and factual records, her surmisings are perfectly plausible. When she was fourteen Elizabeth did have a highly suspect and indiscreet relationship with Admiral Sir Thomas Seymour, the Queen’s husband. Whether or not it resulted in a pregnancy can’t be proven, but there is sufficient known to support such an hypothesis. She most certainly recognised that it was a small step between the warm tumbled bed and the cold axe and grave.

Much as I found this book compelling and engrossing, I was again disconcerted by points of view abruptly changing within sections. There’s a case to be made for an omniscient narrator, but Weir purports to be seeing the world through the eyes of her characters, and it’s discombobulating to have the perspective blurred by sudden unheralded leaps into another mind. Perhaps this is a throwback to her more academic writing where history allows such tactics. Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for such a brilliant insight into life in Tudor times.

A salutary reminder that the shenanigans of the present incumbents of the royal dynasty pale into insignificance against the lives, loves and deaths of their forebears.

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Living breathing history!

14th November 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.

What a fab opening paragraph; dramatic, intriguing, suspenseful. And credible. Here is a 16-year-old girl surrounded by ambition, scheming, greed and treachery: ‘I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.’ And we know it to be true. That’s the thing with historical fiction about famous figures. We know the basic plot, we even know a lot about the characters, but Alison Weir brings them totally alive. And because she’s an authority on the historical detail, she weaves in so much real life, that we can easily believe the fiction too. We’re in extremely safe hands. Some parts of this book may indeed seem far-fetched, the author concedes, but they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.

A word then, about this remarkable author. Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the UK since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books. Her biography makes fascinating reading in itself.

Having published ten factual history books, she moved into fiction, ‘which is something serious historians attempt only at their peril‘, as she says herself. But it gave her ‘a heady sense of freedom’, allowing her imagination free reign, trying to penetrate the minds of her characters. In telling the shocking stories of life in one of the bloodiest and dangerous times in history, her aim is to enthrall and appall in equal measure. And indeed she achieves that aim.

Her writing is masterly. We can smell those fetid, hot, dark, fearful birthing rooms; sense the backbiting and treachery behind the obeisance; fear each fickle regal mood change and caprice; despair at the restrictions and inequalities of court and diplomatic etiquette, class and gender; tremble with the naive maidens, pawns in their destiny as obedient and virtuous brood mares; cringe at the barbarity of religious fanaticism. Weir weaves together a massive cast of characters, intricate contextual detail, politics, religion, romance, with consummate skill.

Innocent Traitor is the first of two books set in Tudor times, telling the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her death through, not just her eyes, but those around her.

Lady Jane Grey is the granddaughter of Henry VII, great-niece of Henry VIII; cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Precious Tudor blood runs in her veins. From the moment of her birth, she is in direct line to the throne, and destined for great things. As a growing child she is bright and articulate, extremely well educated and articulate and a devout Protestant. Unwanted daughter of a ruthless mother and a scheming father, she nevertheless becomes a pawn in their dynastic power games. They set her up to be Queen of England, a reign which lasts a mere 9 days from 10th to 19 July 1553.

These are the times when a sovereign could command a whole country to espouse his/her preferred religion. With a change of monarch or a regal whim the people are required to swing from Catholicism to Protestantism … and back again. Protesters are put to death as heretics. Following Lady Jane’s brief reign, Queen Mary demands a return to the Catholic faith. Initially she is keen to show leniency and give people time to change, but  unscrupulous schemers (including Jane’s father) take advantage of her gentleness and plot to overthrown her. She is forced to accept the dangers of giving them a foothold – heresy, revolt, treason – and concludes: ‘I have thought long on this, and prayed for guidance and I have decided to revive the old statute against heresy, and root it out, for it is like a canker that gnaws away at the very vitals of the Church. Those who do not recant will be burned at the stake. If my people will not come to salvation by gentler means, then they must be constrained to it, for the safety of their souls.‘ As the French Ambassador puts it: ‘…a foretaste of hell-fire on Earth wonderfully concentrates the mind, and can bring about the conversion of the most stubborn heart.‘ Gibbets are placed at every street corner to help the people ‘learn that it is no light thing to rebel against their lawful sovereign.‘ And Weir doesn’t spare us the horror of what burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering, mean. The people of the time thronged to watch the spectacle; she drags us into the crowd, forces us to watch with them. But looking on through the eyes of a 16-year-old innocent girl counting down the days to her own beheading, walking to that feared block, kneeling, praying for the last time … it’s powerful, harrowing stuff and definitely not for the faint-hearted.  As a reviewer from The Times says: ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.’

Faced with the burden of consigning that innocent girl to death, Queen Mary says: ‘I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.’  I suspect there are royals closer to our time who might embrace the same sentiments at times!

 

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The Apprenticeship

Saturday 28 December 2019: our twentieth (!!) Christmas story/play with the grandchildren. The culmination of a year knitting over forty hats while I devoured all those psychological thrillers you’ve heard me talking about!

It’s now twenty years since the first child was born and I was asked to create a new tradition for a new generation. Back in 1999 I wrote a simple story for a ten-month-old that involved her floating away on a balloon to a distant land and rescuing a little African girl from poverty. Actual printed-out photos of our baby granddaughter enacting the story back then were glued into position on the page to illustrate it. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I’d still be doing this two decades later! But of course, in that time, technology has changed out of all recognition. The hard-copy books of the story are digitally produced, liberally illustrated; the narrative and the moral within it infinitely more sophisticated.

This year the drama took place largely outside – a first, and a big gamble given our uncertain weather! Thankfully it was dry and relatively mild, although slushy mud in one place claimed one victim (me), and a keen wind towards the end made lighting sparklers tricky. The in-between generation took responsibility for being one step ahead of the actors, setting up each scene in different places throughout our local nature reserve and town. I simply had to trot along, narrating the story, with the youngsters following a lantern, working out clues at each stop.

The story basically revolves around four young people who notice an advert in a shop window for an apprentice to an inspirational and magical milliner. All four decide to apply. Selection is through an initiation ceremony where they have to identify desirable attributes for such an employee, using magical thinking caps and various tools and artefacts – a different colour of the rainbow at each stop.

Puzzling …

 

Concentrating …

Recording …

Collaborating …

We began at 1pm and it was dark by the time we stood around a fire in the garden, finally  learning who had been successful in gaining the apprenticeship.

The day ended with a rainbow meal, some of it assembled by the teenagers themselves, using colourful ingredients.

Now here we are, post the event I’ve been preparing for all year, racing to get the books created before 12 January – our annual target date for publication, which this year coincides with our second granddaughter officially becoming an adult!

It only remains for me to wish you all every blessing in 2020. To those who are sad or struggling: may you find peace and solace. To those whose lives are rich and full: may you find contentment and gratitude. To those who fear the future: may you find hope and confidence. And may God bless you, everyone.

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Season’s Greetings!

Boxing Day! Christmas can be a troubled time for some, a joyful one for others. Whatever your circumstances, I wish you peace and blessings.

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The Story of Lucy Gault

After all the thrills and scares of the psychological thrillers I’ve shared throughout this year, it seems like a good idea this week to give you a real change; something gentler. and more contemplative. Something calm to counter the mad hurly-burly of the festive season. A book moreover that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Story of Lucy Gault was first published in 2002 – the year its author received a knighthood in recognition of his services to literature, no less!  OK, sounds a pretty exalted pedigree to me. I’m listening.

As you know, I do periodically try to read acknowledged literary works, and this one looked promising when I found it squirrelled away in a little independent bookshop in Wigtown – Scotland’s National Book Town.
Slim volume – tick.
Described as ‘gravely beautiful, subtle and haunting‘ – tick.
By William Trevor a multi-award winning novelist – tick.
Set in a specific historical period: provincial Ireland at the times of civil unrest and anti-English violence – tick.

I’ll do my best to give you a flavour without including spoilers, if I can.

It’s 1921, the slow gentle pace of fires lit in the waiting rooms of railway stations, servants knowing their order in the echelons of society, solid rubber car tyres, communication snail-paced, barefoot children and be-shawled women begging in the streets, the smell of poverty oozing from infested buildings, the backdrop to the central drama a country in a state of turmoil and unrest, a people torn apart by violence and rivalry.

‘It is our tragedy in Ireland that for one reason or another we are repeatedly obliged to flee from what we hold dear. Our defeated patriots have gone, our great earls, our Famine emigrants, and now the poor search for work. Exile is part of us.’

Setting fire to properties, poisoning pets, destruction and invasion – all are commonplace, and Lahardane, the Gault’s family home, is not immune. Heloise, its mistress, fears her English ancestry makes them a particular target, but her ex-army husband, Captain Everard, doubts it; the status of the house, the possession of lands, his own military connections, would be more than enough to attract trouble already. One by one, neighbouring families have moved away, and when local youths try to incinerate their house, Everard shoots his gun from an upstairs window to scare them off. He doesn’t intend to wound but nicks the shoulder of one of the youths. The Gaults are now at even greater danger; they have no choice, they must leave Ireland.

Their only child, Lucy Gault, is eight years old. She’s a somewhat solitary child, staying close to the glens and woods above Lahardane, only occasionally rebelling enough to sneak out for a forbidden swim alone in the sea. Eavesdropping on adult conversations, she picks up something of the adults’ tension. She, however, is determined she will not go into exile from her beloved home; rather she will take steps to force her parents into staying.

When the time comes to leave, she is nowhere to be found … then her sodden summer vest is found in the shingle, one sandal in a shrimp pool … her mother is haunted by the local fishermen’s conviction that nobody has ever escaped the sharks in that part of the ocean … In the end the bereft parents give up hope, and set out for Europe, nomads, leaving no forwarding addresses, no record of their destinations – a tiny sad part of the Irish diaspora.

Only those remaining in Lahardane, arrested in time and memory, wait and keep hope against the day the Captain and his wife might return. And in the waiting, keeping faith. Rooms dusted, ornaments left in their accustomed places, summer vases full, beehives nurtured, footsteps on the stairs and cobbled yard – all these are offered as tokens of that hope.

But what of the rebellious Lucy, the lad whose shoulder took that bullet, the faithful retainers, the solicitor doing his best to keep Lahardane functioning? Their stories unravel alongside the abiding sorrow of Captain Gault and his wife. Guilt, remorse, torment, superstition, faith ebb and flow, denying them peace. The advent of war in Europe changes hopes and aspirations, alters perspectives; influenza sweeps through whole populations. And gradually out of a life shaped by calamity comes a mystery: tranquillity, a faithful offering, a gift of mercy, that astonishes all who see it.

The gentle pace, the antiquated style, of this quiet unfolding story perfectly reflects the emergence of that humbling peace and redemption. I closed the book with a sense of reverence. Would that the world held more such quiet heroism and boundless mercy.

‘Written with grace and finesse and charged throughout with a pervasive disquiet’
‘Unusual, beguiling, beautiful’
‘Stark yet tender’
‘Silence, secrets, muteness, tell the loudest stories here’
‘A homage to the gift of redemptive love’ …
All true.

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Celebration everywhere

Do you dread the old Secret Santa malarkey? Well, one organisation that has this down to a fine art is the Society of Authors. We rock up for the Christmas lunch bearing one of our own books gift wrapped, pop it on the table before we go in to eat, then collect someone else’s on the way out. And as we’ve all had a convivial lunch together in between we’re agog to see the product of a colleague’s blood, sweat and tears. That’s what I call a meaningful gift.

I’m taking a bit of time out from literary pursuits this week to prepare for three upcoming events I’m masterminding. This includes moving lots of photographs from archives into documents, filling mini bags with frankincense, preparing talks, and plotting itineraries. A welcome change from pouring over tricky prose, and as they say, change is as good as a rest. So I thought I’d give you a little holiday too, and keep this really brief; a few more minutes for you to do your own preparations. Have fun!

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The Midwife of Venice

‘At midnight, the dogs, cats and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin … It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.’

How about that for an opening hook?

And this for a delightfully evocative spooky cover …

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich is an ambitious debut novel set in the sixteenth century. (Echoes of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are, I presume, deliberate.) Hannah Levi is a Jewish midwife famed throughout Venice for her exceptional skills. However, the law forbids her to attend a Christian woman, the penalties being severe, endangering not only Hannah personally, but the entire Jewish ghetto. It’s a time when anti-Semitism is rife: ‘if a sparrow falls from the sky in Venice, it is considered the fault of the Jews.’ So when a Christian nobleman, Conte di Padovani, appears at the door of her hovel in the Jewish ghetto in the dead of night, demanding her services for his wife, she is torn between a natural compassion and a fear of retribution. He offers her a handsome reward – sufficient money indeed to ransom back her husband, Isaac, who has been captured and held as a slave by the Knights in Malta.

Both the Contessa Lucia and her unborn son are near death by the time Hannah is summoned. If she were to fail to save them she would be in terrible jeopardy. But by some miracle and the application of her special instruments, the child is delivered. Alive. Just. Thwarting the machinations of the Conte’s greedy and feckless brothers who are poised to inherit everything if the child dies; leaving several people bent on revenge.

Hannah’s story in Venice is interspersed with Isaac’s experiences trying to escape his captors in Malta. Having been to both places, I found the scenes evocative, mesmerising and convincing. For me, the suspense in Venice feels more compelling than that in Malta, but there is the added tension of wondering whether this couple will ever see each other again. Hannah and Isaac parted after an argument. Desperately seeking to be reunited, to make reparation, they are thwarted at every turn. Will their joint disappointments and sadnesses ever end? As they both set sail towards each other on broiling seas we are held in suspense … even now will their paths cross cruelly as their respective ships plough on through turbulent waters?

Love, blackmail, murder, plague, intercultural tension, rescue … it’s a tale which rollocks along, weaving a tapestry of pictures of Renaissance Italy, and religious and cultural bigotry, and family rivalries.

The rigid discipline of ancient laws and entrenched customs forms an immovable spine for this book. Even when lives and happiness are a stake, the Jews fear disobeying their ancient codes and commandments. The Rabbi has been urging Isaac for years to divorce Hannah  because of her barrenness; now the Society for the Release of Captives is ready to release private funds to pay his ransom … if, and only if, he signs the divorce papers. Such inflexibility is a complete mystery to gentiles – as a Maltese man says to Isaac:  ‘Your laws are designed to create unhappiness.’ But they too have their own strong prejudices and suspicions.

For the most part the pace, the language, the style of writing, is entirely apposite for the period, and the glossary and biography at the back are testament to the care Rich has taken to ensure authenticity. However, I must confess I harboured a sneaky feeling that a few of the more modern expression or pithy insults might have been doctored for our more twenty-first century ears. But I might be entirely wrong.

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Quotable quotes from the writing journals

When the news is dominated by politics, and right royal revelations, we could probably all do with something to make us smile, so I thought I’d brighten your day with assorted wise or amusing quotes.  It’s a long time since I shared entertaining snippets from the literary journals, but, as 2019 draws to its end, it’s probably timely to give you a resume of my favourites, all taken from the Society of Authors’ official magazine: The Author, throughout 2018/19. Names in brackets are the people who submitted these gems.

A definition of stories
‘…  wonderful made-up people whose tangled stories are tattooed on woodpulp’   (Richard Smyth)

Wry humour
A Wilde Wit competition asked for original quotes that sound like something Oscar Wilde might have said. The winner came up with the two top entries:
‘I’m frequently misquoted – often accurately.’
‘An insult from the right person can be as agreeable as any compliment.’   (Andrew Taylor)

Dubious advantage
Ian McEwan‘s youngest son was obliged to read his father’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love, for his A-level course. As part of his studies he had to submit an essay on the book. The author gave him a little private tutorial on it and told him the main points to consider. Unfortunately his English teacher disagreed fundamentally and the lad got nothing more than a C! Just goes to show how subjective reading is, huh?   (Andrew Taylor)

Reporting on research into older people writing
‘… to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.’  (Robin Lloyd-Jones)

Occupational hazards
There’s currently a move to encourage authors to abandon their too comfortable writing chair, but did you know the idea has an august pedigree?
Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Soren Kierekegaard all worked standing up.   (Alice Jolly)

Unsung wives
Leo Tolstoy‘s wife Sonya made eight fair copies of different versions of War and Peace, bore 13 children, and even worked on the manuscript in bed while recovering from puerperal fever, the childbirth infection that killed many women.  Yet, how many folk laud her efforts? (Karen Christensen)

The place of books in our lives
‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’   (Philip Pullman)

Reader appeal
Waterstones in Swansea tweeted a message in 2018 that went viral:
‘Doors closed 15 minutes ago. As we do every evening, we’ve turned all the books upside down so the words don’t fall out overnight. It may seem like a silly waste of time, but ask yourself this: when did you last see piles of words on a Waterstones’ carpet? That’s right – NEVER.’   (Andrew Taylor)

It’s a joy to read a publication written by people who really know how to write!

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Out of left field

Well, this was a first, and it taught me a useful lesson.

I’m a great believer in thorough preparation. Whatever the occasion. Could be a sign of insecurity … or obsessive tendencies … or whatever, I don’t know. But I need to feel in command of the situation, in order to relax into the actual event. When it comes to speaking appointments, I do my homework, try to be totally to grips with my material, have a clear structure and aim in my head, blend humour into serious material, and make sure I’m respecting the parameters of the commission. Even so, mishaps do happen. I remember once, years ago, being unable to use my slides at a big conference because the feet on their carousel had melted! Ever after I carried my own. And another occasion where a lady in the audience became unconscious and caused a major incident.  But this week a very different unexpected event came out of left field.

As part of Book Week Scotland, I’d been invited to our local library to talk about my writing life and latest publication. Our local librarians are lovely enthusiastic people, so thank you, I should enjoy doing that. I love the fact that libraries use my work in their bookclubs. And it should be a breeze – if I hadn’t got that information at my fingertips, I was in the wrong job! Well, it should have been …

First hiccup – a streaming cold out of the blue two days before it. I went into overdrive with medicaments and positive thinking, snatched sleep and distraction therapies. I’d protect my throat by keeping silent most of the day beforehand. I’d take the car to the library instead of irritating my fragile chest with cold air. So, when I stood up to speak, no one would have suspected the battle I’d had to reach that point.

Next hiccup – a mere five minutes in, the fire alarms started up. Speaking above that level of decibels would strain the hardiest of vocal chords! But the librarian indicated to continue, it’d just be a false alarm, and went out to investigate … only to return with the instruction the building was to be evacuated, the fire brigade were on their way. Freezing temperatures outside, chatting in the icy air … I could feel my raw throat and chest palpably tightening. It took a further twenty minutes for the fire crew to arrive, pin down the problem, and let us back in. Twenty minutes to outwardly respond to conversation with all those hardy souls prepared to wait and not abandon ship (all of them!), whilst inwardly revising the structure and content of my talk. Mercifully it was completely without notes or slides so there was no need to do anything physical, and since no one else knew what I’d planned to cover, they were quite unaware of the mental gymnastics to accommodate the changed time frame.

A salutary lesson for me: you can never be totally prepared for all eventualities; accept vicissitudes with good grace. And useful reinforcement of a piece of advice given to me very early on in my speaking career: ‘if you’re feeling out of your depth, at least look the part!’

 

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When children vanish …

It’s hard to imagine anything more devastating than a child being abducted, not knowing where they are, if they are even alive. Didn’t we all shudder in our beds when Madeleine McCann vanished while on holiday in Portugal back in 2007? Imagining … Fearing … Would you ever stop searching every face, every place?

But … imagine finding out that your kidnapped child has been systematically abused, tortured, degraded … Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? I could only approach this topic from the safe distance of a writer’s analytical perspective. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the courage to let myself creep inside the head of such a parent in order to write from their point of view, so I’m intrigued by authors who do dare such a thing.

SB Caves is one such.

In his debut publication, I know Where She Is, Francine Cooper’s daughter Autumn has been missing for ten years. Francine has been bombarded with crank calls and cruel bogus contacts, and has eventually moved house to escape, putting herself beyond the reach of all except her ex-husband and work colleagues. Or so she hoped. Then, out of the blue, she gets an anonymous note containing just five words ‘scrawled in jagged chicken scratch’: I KNOW WHERE SHE IS. She’s ready to dismiss it as yet another cruel hoax by a twisted mind, a sick creep who gets a thrill out of torturing vulnerable people. But then a young girl appears, encrusted in dirt, stinking, claiming to have sent it, and knowing things that only Autumn would know – a favourite lullaby, family names, a photo.

If you thought entering the world of Francine’s grief would be harrowing, you might well baulk at the prospect of hearing the full horror of what this ragamuffin child has to tell her. Behind the expansive opulence of wildly expensive mansions and gated communities and celebrity adulation, the truth is laden with such depths of human depravity it’s nauseating to read, never mind consider possible.

Without delivering spoilers, it’s fair to say this shocking tale falls somewhere between the reality of Jimmy Savile‘s reign of terror and the dystopian horrors of the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale And the ending leaves so many questions unanswered. Definitely not a book for the faint-hearted or insomniacs. And not a scenario I’ll be including in any of my own books, I’m quite sure of that.

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