December 13, 2012 , 0
I was put on the spot recently when I was asked, ‘How different was life when you were young compared with today?’ (That’s me with the blond curls at the back.) At the time my mind froze and couldn’t rise above mundane trivia like five year old children walking miles to school along main roads without pavements; no TV or computers; the price of a bag of winter mixtures …
Since then news items have positively leaped out and bopped me on the head as happenings that would have been utterly inconceivable in the 50s – much more dramatic and startling things:
* The provision of ‘gender-neutral’ lavatories for university students who don’t identify themselves within the male-female gender binary.
* World-wide knowledge of the fact that a) two Australian radio DJs made a hoax call to the London hospital where b) the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for hyperemesis gravidarum, and c) their ‘prank’ had an unforeseen tragic outcome.
* Open support of gay marriage in churches by the British prime minister.
* One in five parents spending £200 on each of their children for Christmas, with the average overall estimated at £104.
* A work of erotic fiction selling over 40 million copies and occupying prominent places in broad daylight in supermarkets as well as bookshops.
* The mother of a seven-year old boy openly defying medical advice and running away with her son rather than subjecting him to radiotherapy.
* The head of the Royal College of General Practitioners going on record as saying that no organisation – not even one as erudite and prestigious as her own – should trump the views of the general public on the emotive and ethical subject of assisted dying.
Hey, I’d like to wind time back and answer that initial question all over again. With a bit more panache this time.
What would stand out for you, I wonder?
assisted dying, Christmas spending, defying medical advice, Duchess of Cambridge, erotic fiction, gay narroage, gender-neutral lavatories, Hyperemesis gravidarum, reminiscences, Royal College of GPs, The Hobbit, Tolkien
November 1, 2012 , 0
It takes a while to catch up with news after a break away, but in this week’s trawl, two headlines in particular caught my attention.
The first was this one: ‘Take it as read – good fiction teaches us how to be human beings‘, a thoughtful article by Graeme Archer in The Daily Telegraph, where he said:
‘… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.’
Very much the premise upon which I write my own novels.
Indeed, I was thinking about this a lot while I was on holiday in Italy. I took the trusty Kindle well-loaded and managed to read two and a half novels in airports and trains and planes and odd moments of inactivity: Emotional Geology and Untying the Knot both by Linda Gillard, and A Sister’s Gift by Giselle Green. Through these tales I was taken into the lives and minds of characters grappling with mental illness, obsessive personalities, infertility, conflicted family relationships, surrogate pregnancy. Easy reads all (as befits a holiday break), but it’s fair to say they enriched my understanding of the challenges and thinking of other people in these situations. I shan’t ever experience most of these things personally, but I’d like to think I’d have empathy enough should I come into contact with those for whom these things are a lived reality.
The second headline was attached to an article my daughter cut out of the newspaper for me: ‘Why did my brother die in agony?’, subheaded: ‘Terminally ill patients are suffering slow and painful deaths because doctors dare not fall foul of the law against assisted suicide.’ Yep, it instantly grabbed me by the throat, as she knew it would.
Well-known cookery expert, Prue Leith, was describing her brother David’s terminal battle with excruciatingly painful cancer of the bones. When the morphine was doing its job, he was pain-free, joking, and sharing quality time with his wife and four children. But the dosage of morphine was sufficient for only three hours out of every four for which it was prescribed. For that fourth hour he was in agony. The solution seems obvious and simple, doesn’t it? Naturally enough, various relatives appealed, nay, ‘pleaded’, for help. The answer though was what shocked me: the nurses ‘couldn’t’ give any more pain relief. They sympathised, even told the family they would personally be willing to increase the dose, but they were powerless to do so; the law precluded it. They also said, no one admitted these situations existed. (By this time I was at fever pitch!)
Now, of course, no one with warm blood coursing through their veins could fail to be moved by the obvious distress the Leith family all suffered. But the story left me personally feeling frustrated and vexed. This man clearly needed more medication. And it can, it really can be given without breaking the law. Palliative medicine is an extremely well developed discipline; dedicated teams of experts in pain management are fully empowered to administer effective measures (drugs and others treatments) in these circumstances, to ensure ongoing comfort and dignity and a peaceful death. Which they are able to do in all except a limited number of situations. And by Prue’s own admission, David’s pain came into the category of controllable by morphine.
Both the subheading and Prue’s concluding message – ‘The present state of affairs is monstrous. With 80 percent of the population in favour of assisted dying, what are they waiting for?’ – missed the point. It wasn’t assisted death this man needed, it was legal and legitimate, adequate pain relief.
There are indeed exceptional cases where the laws relating to assisted dying need to be challenged (I’ve discussed them at length on this blog in the past), but this is not one of them. Instead of saying they couldn’t give adequate medication, those staff caring for David should have been calling for a man/woman who could. Let’s not confuse the two issues.
A Sister's Gift, assisted dying, Emotional Geology, family relatonships, Giselle Green, Graeme Archer, Infertility, Linda Gillard, mental illness, morphine, obsessions, pain relief, palliative care, Prue Leith, surrogate pregnancy, The Daily Telegraph, Untying the Knot
May 10, 2012 , 0
It’s commonly said that a bad review is better than no review, but I can’t imagine any author enjoys getting slated by readers or receiving poor star ratings. Indeed some writers deliberately never look at the reviews lest they are derailed by them. But what a subjective thing it all is anyway. Your meat, my poison, and all that.
Let me illustrate. Last week I read The Kindest Thing by Cath Staincliffe. It was recommended to me as ‘your kind of book’, and the Kindle version was a mere 99p, so of course I snapped it up. And indeed it is my sort of book. It’s accessible fiction dealing with a thorny on-going medical ethical issue in a challenging way, leaving me asking, What would I do in these circumstances? Familiar? In fact it’s the closest thing to my own novel about assisted dying (Right to Die) I’ve seen thus far.
Basically it tells the story of 50-year-old Deborah who is on trial for helping her husband Neil to die rather than continue life with Motor Neurone Disease. Her own daughter reports her to the police. Her son’s precarious mental health is threatened. Prison gives her too much time to reflect on the repercussions of what she agreed to. Yep, my kind of thing definitely. And I enjoyed it.
As did many others. Most reviews I’ve seen are strongly approving: ‘beautifully written’, ‘pitch perfect’, ‘page turning stuff’, ‘sensitive’, ‘powerful’, ‘courageous’. The main protagonist is both likeable and believable, they said.
But a few folk, reading the same book, about the same characters, have slated it: ‘shallow’, ‘depressing’, ‘tedious’, ‘predictable’, ‘unlikeable cardboard characters’, ‘offensive and narrow-minded’, ‘cheesy’.
Oh dear. If someone said such things of my work, I’m pretty sure I’d succumb to a horrible sinking feeling. Possibly even go into a temporary decline. But why? One step removed, viewing these comments dispassionately, I can see quite clearly it’s a subjective opinion. The readers are free to express it. They might (or might not) even be having a bad day, or going through a rough patch themselves, or they may have a hidden agenda, or feel threatened by the author in some way.
In any event, it’s a known and accepted fact that we all like different kinds of writing. If you’ve ever belonged to a bookclub, even one made up of like-minded people, you’ll have experienced that reality. And haven’t you ever read a bestselling book that’s had rave reviews, and wondered what all the fuss was about? Be honest now, how many Booker prizewinners have you really enjoyed?
Me, I don’t care if everyone else loves a book, if I don’t, I don’t. End of story. OK, I might analyse the pros and cons more carefully if I’m decidedly out of step with respected opinion, but I’m not tempted to trot meekly along in the wake of the majority just to conform. Because there can be a myriad reasons in my life and belief system and experience and preferences why I personally feel as I do about that particular book. I am perfectly entitled to my subjective opinion.
So, what am I saying? Well, criticism feels very different when you’re on the receiving end. But perhaps we authors are unrealistic from the outset. We shouldn’t expect to achieve unqualified 100% five-star ratings. Remember those famous lines from the poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln:
‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’
Cath Staincliffe’s ratings have given me new heart. From henceforth I shall not even attempt to appeal to all tastes. I shall concentrate on being true to myself. And if and when a poor review pings in, I shall pick myself up, dust myself off, and get right back on that writing horse. God willing. Oh, and if that fails, re-read this post!
March 22, 2012 , 2
We’ve heard so much negative comment lately about people with religious beliefs being bigoted and intolerant, I want to share an entirely different experience with you.
When last year I received an invitation to run a series of workshops on the challenges of medical ethics for a group of Christians (from the Christadelphian Church) near London in March 2012, I confess I hesitated for lots of reasons. But the organisers were very persuasive, and I eventually succumbed to their flattery.
The conference was this past weekend. And I’ve survived to tell the tale.
Life has been very pressurised of late and I had a lot of baggage to shed in order to free my mind up to facilitate group work effectively. So I used the journey south to unwind, visiting two magnificent National Trust properties. The first was Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire,with its awesome architecture and stonework, and its dramatic cloister.Just standing surveying all this ancient beauty, soaking up the centuries of peace and devotion, is balm to the troubled soul.
And then on to Ickworth in Suffolk, very grand, housing fabulous paintings, and also steeped in history.
(SORRY: photos inadvertently lost.)
Oh, and a quick trip to nearby Ixworth Thorpe to see the house where I was born. I’ve only visited once before, taking my mother round her old haunts, and it holds no memories for me because I was a mere babe when we moved from here, but it’s part of who I am. (No plaque outside yet though, I see!)
Anyway, suffice to say I’d shed a lot of tension before arriving at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Another lovely building looking great in the sunshine.
From the moment I introduced myself the team couldn’t have been more welcoming and supportive. The whole atmosphere was warmly inclusive. So far so good.
I had five and a half hours to fill with my workshops so that took care of most of Saturday. My sessions are totally interactive and the course they run is partly determined by the cues I get from the participants, which means I have to be ready for anything. Fairly keeps the adrenaline flowing, I can tell you! But I take a few tricks up my sleeve in case things flag.
It’s my belief that, in order to understand the enormity of the choices relating to the big dilemmas of modern medicine, and to empathise with individuals and their families grappling with such questions, you need to engage emotion as well as intellect. So throughout the sessions, as I presented increasingly difficult scenarios, the delegates imagined how they might feel in such situations (eg being infertile, or dying from a degenerative disease, or suffering from psychiatric disorders, or listening to a child begging not to have any more aggressive treatment), and they moved on a continuum from very comfortable (represented by soft easy chairs with lots of cushions) to very uncomfortable (pebbles on seats and upended chairs). There was a fence to sit on for those who couldn’t decide, and we even introduced a moral high ground (high seat covered in a velvet cloth) for the few who took up a fixed moral position.
Were these Christians bigoted or intolerant? They were not. Were their minds closed to new ideas? Not a bit of it. Were they holier-than-thou? By no means. They were impressively honest and compassionate and realistic. Yes, they live to a high standard, based on a foundation of firm principles, but it was obvious there was no party line when it came to assisted dying, abortion, infertility treatment, organ transplantation … They thought for themselves. They might not agree on the solutions, but they challenged each other healthily, respectfully. They acknowledged their own prejudices, recognised the weaknesses in their arguments, and had the courage to admit there was room for change within themselves. Every single person allowed themselves to be uncomfortable, to alter their position. We laughed a lot. Some tearfully shared painful experiences. We engaged honestly with the issues. And the world is a better place because there are folk like this who have the courage and humility to accept that there are no easy trite answers, who are ready to really listen, to understand, and to support others going through life’s traumas, without thrusting their own opinions on them.
Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable and heartening experience.
Indian proverb: Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.
abortion, assisted dying, Christadelphians, degenerative diseases, Fountains Abbey, High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Ickworth, Infertility, Ixworth Thorpe, National Trust, organ transplantation
April 7, 2011 , 2
Anybody who’s given some thought to ethical dilemmas will have come across the old slippery slope argument. Quick intake of breath. Oooh, no. Once you allow … or …, the whole of society will slide into decadence and ruin. Don’t even venture a toe there.
I’ve been tiptoeing through the mountains and forests of philosophy and ethics for rather a long time now, and some of the old chestnuts can taste rather stale at times. So I was delighted to hear a novel illustration used to refute the danger of slippery slopes in relation to assisted dying.
He said, if someone gave him a carrot he didn’t refuse to eat it because of the risk of having to eat a million carrots.
For me it was the highlight of the evening. So I thought this week I’d share that smile with you, and perhaps at the same time modify my putative reputation as a pedlar of serious and sad!
Just in case you’re interested, the audience voted overwhelmingly in favour of assisted dying: 77 to 3 before the debate, 68 to 11 after it. What do you make of that?
April 22, 2010 , 0
I’ve just had a complete stranger contact me to check: Do I exist? Am I really me? Did I actually win a prize in a writing competition as an advert claimed?
Now, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me they’ve seen this photo in the said advert – for a creative writing course with the Writers Bureau. It’s very small fry as prizes go and I was only runner-up, but the advert’s appeared in a range of different publications: Big Issue, The Daily Telegraph and Private Eye amongst others. And it’s been running for seven months now. Wahey! All free – and unsolicited – publicity for me!
But this is the first time I’ve had my credentials – nay, my very existence – challenged. It transpired this gentleman was wondering about taking a similar course but was suspicious it might all be a money-making scam. He checked me out on Google and there I was: a real live person. And a person who writes to boot.
So, now he wanted to check the authenticity of the prize. And that’s when he contacted me. I could easily reassure him that yes indeed, I’d won a couple of awards with the Bureau.
Back he came. Would I recommend the course? I would. Wholeheartedly. Now, a bona fide sceptic might be thinking, Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? It’s quid pro quo. They promote her work; she endorses their course. But my recommendation was most sincere. Why? After all, lots of people say creative writing can’t be taught. You’ve either got ‘it’ or you haven’t. The course showed me that
• Techniques can be taught
Two of my brothers, who are more practically inclined, think I definitely have a seriously abnormal quirk in my brain because I love words so much. I mean, who on earth would scribble a weekly blog from choice?! Well, the inclination may be innate, but the technique of writing publishable work, turning ideas and drafts into polished and focused articles or books which publishers will accept, even pay you for, is an art that can be honed and refined.
• We are not our own best critics
As writers we have no end of baggage cluttering up our discriminatory antennae. There’s all the passion we feel about the subject, the pain of giving birth to that text, the protective instinct of a mother. We need other detached eyes (whoops! well you know what I mean) to see it for what it really is, and help us to identify our faults and relinquish the bits we cherish. And you need to really respect your critic’s skill and judgement to make that kind of sacrifice.
• We benefit from knowledgeable and objective criticism
It’s delightful to have friends and your Mum telling you how much they love what you write, but what you really need, if you’re serious about writing, is people who truly understand what good writing looks like. Most if not all the tutors on the course I took are themselves established writers. They know the reality as well as the ideal. They speak with authority. They give advice that’s worth listening to. But they temper their criticism with kindness because they also know the sensitivities and vulnerability of the novice author.
• Reading purely for pleasure isn’t the same as reading analytically
Tutors can help to direct the would-be writer to good prose, to analyse what makes it sing, and to apply the principles to their own writing.
• Broadening experience of writing is beneficial
I must confess I was slightly begrudging about doing the non-fiction half of the course first. I’d already published nigh-on a hundred articles in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Surely I didn’t need … What a waste … OK; I resolved to complete the early assignments as quickly as I could to get them out of the way, and then concentrate on the fiction component. Which showed me how wrong I’d been in my initial resistance. Writing to order – about things I’m no expert in – was a salutary experience and an excellent discipline. It opened my eyes to new experiences, made me observe in a different way. I wrote about events as diverse as attending a craft fair, visiting an exhibition of photography through the ages, going for a meal as if a food critic. And always there was the challenge: could I make words work for me without the underlying drive that had propelled my writing before? Words moreover that someone else would enjoy. And there was no room for half-hearted effort just because this wasn’t of any interest to me. A real live, eagle-eyed someone was poised ready to rip my mediocrity to pieces; how humiliating would that be? No, it was nowhere near the doddle I’d anticipated.
• It helps to know one’s own strengths and weaknesses
Over the full course I covered everything from writing a letter to a newspaper through to a play for radio. Getting tasters of so many different kinds of writing not only opened up new avenues of experience, but also helped me see where I definitely didn’t want to go. Or probably shouldn’t attempt to go! I confess I was rather pleased with my play, a murder mystery with haunting subtleties and a nice twist in the tale … maybe … perhaps … I began to see the credits rolling … My tutor soon disillusioned me!
• Creative writing courses aren’t like sausage machines
Some cynics dismiss these courses: they churn out clones producing formulaic writing. Not the distance-learning course I took! Far from it. It was always student-focused, individually tailored. The assignments were set, certainly, but I was free to interpret and respond as I saw fit. And my tutor always commented specifically about the work I produced; never forced me into a mould of her making. And her assessments were always fair and focused – on me, my style, my end game.
• It helps to have aims and goals
Right from the start she’d wanted to know, what was I looking for from the course? What were my personal aims and ambitions? I did actually have a clear agenda from the outset: I wanted to write a set of novels about medical ethical dilemmas. To make ethics come alive through fiction. This was to be my unique selling point. My tutor understood and respected my need to be different. And she gave me good honest criticism to that end.
• Knowing the market is vital
Every assignment had to be written for a particular publication or potential buyer. It took hours: analysing the market, trying to understand what editors and publishers were looking for. At times I found it tedious; I was reluctant to put in the effort. After all I had no intention of writing for food journals of women’s magazines or local papers. No way! I wanted to be a novelist. Again, how wrong I was. That discipline taught me much, and since I’ve published my novels, dealing with important life issues, I have indeed written for several newspapers and a range of magazines, bringing my books (and the issues) to a much wider audience than would otherwise be possible. But now I understand how important it is to do your homework.
• Persistence and determination are essential for success
I am constantly amazed that I’ve won any prizes for my writing. I still feel like a raw amateur playing out of my league, in many ways. But the fact that I have serves to underline a sad fact. In today’s climate it’s hard to get published. You need an over-developed persistence gene and a hide like a rhinoceros. I happen to have inherited a stubbornly determined streak that refuses to give up on my ambition.
• Having a niche market helps
I also have one unusual advantage. I inhabit a rarefied world; the world of medical ethics – the dilemmas thrown up by modern medicine.
In real life all of us are touched by these issues. Someone we know, or we ourselves, face these challenges. Maybe we develop a life-limiting illness; should we end our life before the agony becomes unbearable? Maybe we find ourselves unable to have children; do we go for sperm donation or surrogate pregnancy? Maybe we’re fertile all right, but we don’t want this unwelcome pregnancy; should we have an abortion? Maybe a loved one develops Alzheimer’s; how far should we go in caring for them?
But the subject of medical ethics is shrouded in esoteric language and obscure arguments. We need a user-friendly means by which ordinary people can be helped to understand the pros and cons of different sides of the arguments by getting inside the skins of people living through these scenarios. There’s a niche for novels that make the issues accessible.
There is a space for me.
Next week I promise a short post to compensate for today’s essay!
July 16, 2009 , 0
As I mentioned in my previous post, I was away four days last week – no time to keep up to date with the papers. Too busy scattering sheep in darkest Wales, inching through traffic in the tourist mecca that is Devon, and meeting distant relatives at funeral wakes. But trawling through the backlog of news since, I was struck by the frequency with which items related to ethics crop up in the media. No less than eleven new cuttings for my files. Subjects like man-made sperm (hmmm, wasn’t it always a male preserve?), a baby’s life saved using tissue from a cow, a man who seems to collect kidneys – he currently has five in his body, three of them donated … You know the kind of thing.
Assisted dying – the subject of one of my novels, Right to Die – featured strongly. But then, this was the week that Lord Falconer’s proposed amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill came before the House of Lords. Just in case your head’s been under a stone too, it was designed to protect from prosecution those who enable friends or relatives to travel abroad to commit suicide in one of a few countries where the practice is legal.
Result? The amendment was rejected; leaving these vulnerable people technically in limbo. No change there then. But as Lord Falconer himself admits, it’s not obvious that it’ll actually make much difference in real life, because ‘The current situation is that the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) has made it clear that he will not seek out these cases to investigate. If the cases come before him, he will ensure that they are properly investigated and, as long as he is satisfied that there is good motivation, he will not prosecute.’ And really, would it serve the public interest to do so anyway?
If you’re looking for a breath of sanity on this subject why not visit the Journal of Medical Ethics blog. I recommend it.
The six million dollar question though is: should seriously ill patients have to go abroad for help in the first place? Don’t get me started!