I spend time each month with people whose memories are not what they once were. And – dare I admit it? – I’m increasingly conscious that mine is more selective than it used to be. So my ears pricked when this week Baroness Joan Bakewell made a comment about her difficulty remembering characters in a book. Writing in The Telegraph she observed that it’s easier to turn back and check the plot and who’s who in a ‘real’ book than with a Kindle. I agree in part, although of course, in reality it’s perfectly easy to bookmark a page and search for keywords with the electronic version.
I’d also add that there are occasions when I can’t remember why I’m reading a particular book in the first place – a flick to the back cover of a paperback will tell me; it requires more effort on the Kindle.
Joan Bakewell’s comments generated a small flurry of responses, and one from Bedfordshire suggested that all books should list the characters with a brief note on each. I did once include a family tree in one of my own novels (Remember Remember – which incidentally is about dementia), although my editor didn’t think it was necessary. I’m devoutly wishing the novel I’m reading right now had just such a dramatis personae. I’m having to concentrate hard to make the connections in what is a subtle plot with lots of characters (too many beginning with ‘A’: Anselm, Augustine, Agnes, Arthur, Andrew, Aubret, Anton, Armstrong, Adolf), false trails, and a lot of zipping to and fro between the generations. And what’s more several people not who they say, or even think they are. I mean, is it any wonder I’m confused?
It’s The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick which I bought on a strong recommendation from a friend who’s read it several times. Actually if I’m honest I don’t think my difficulty is as much to do with Brodick, as to do with my juggling too many balls at the moment, which means my attention is only partially on the story that I’m reading in odd snatched moments.
Domestic crises and extra responsibilities have been vying with professional demands lately. But this week I’ve made a concerted effort to methodically tick off deadlines. So what have I accomplished? I’ve sent off the usual synopsis and first three chapters for Over My Dead Body to a potential agent; Double Trouble has gone to a film production company who’ve expressed interest in making it into a feature film; I’ve had encouraging conversations with a possible funding body to enable this to happen; and all my various blogs are up to date. Phew. A week in the life of a lowly jobbing writer.
I’m realistic – nothing may come of any of these developments, but at least my report card will read ‘Hazel demonstrates dogged persistence and works hard‘.
Maybe in two weeks’ time when my current overload is a thing of the past (now there’s a triumph of hope over experience, if ever I heard one), I can return to The Sixth Lamentation with renewed enthusiasm and perhaps this time do it justice. See, that’s where that dramatis personae would be a real boon. I’d have a head start.
What makes a good review?
I suspect an author would have a rather different take on this from a dispassionate reader – especially if their own book was under scrutiny. So I was interested in the blog of Simon Thomas on this subject. No, no no, not the politician, not the footballer, nor even the TV presenter – no, I mean Simon Thomas, blogger, of Stuck in a Book fame. On 12 June he wrote:
‘I’ve seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects – from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog. Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences – others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers. I’m not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike’s criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible… what do you think?
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.’
Now, Stuck in a Book’s own reviews are delightful to read. Simon comes across as fair and kindly, discerning but not arrogant. And I had a lovely friendly exchange with him some time ago when he reviewed my own Remember Remember. He readily admits that he has certain ‘blocks’ or idiosyncratic tastes – like his aversion to several high-profile male characters in the classics (Mr Rochester, Mr. Knightley, Heathcliff) for instance. Imagine!
So do I agree with these views on reviewing?
Well, let’s look at the six points first. Basically, yes … for serious review-bloggers. It’s the kind of yardstick I’d like critics to use when judging my books. And I specially approve of the bits about not giving away the plot (a pet hate), and treating the author with respect, and not complaining because he/she wrote the book he/she did and not the one you wanted to read.
Will I change my own reviews? Probably not, although I might just add more quotations from the texts in future. OK, OK. I can already hear several of my regular followers groaning. Short and snappy, they cry. And I know they’d hate lots of secondhand quoting. So fear not, I’ll be circumspect.
And I think I can afford to take this line because my blog is not principally a review-blog. My comments are designed to draw attention to the things I’m reading as a writer; things that are influencing me in some way. Quotes that give a flavour of the author’s style, or that emphasize important points they make, are legitimate in that context. I leave the longer more thorough critiques to luminaries like Dovegreyreader or Cornflower or Stuck in a Book himself who all do it so well. If you haven’t visited them I recommend you do.
Commiserations to all of you who’ve pre-ordered Saving Sebastian from Amazon but still not received it. I’ve done my best to find out what the delay is but action hasn’t followed promises, I’m afraid. It’s available from The Book Depository and Luath Press but somehow has only this morning been processed at Amazon. Believe me, I’ve been grinding my teeth on your behalf.
Frustrating to say the least, so I’ve been immersing myself in other things – writing, reviewing, interviewing, reading, partying, preparing workshops …
And in between vaguely debating within myself : Shall/should I go to see the film about Margaret Thatcher or shall/should I not?
Pros: My long-standing interest in and involvement with dementia. I spend time most weeks with people whose lives are affected by it. My own mother developed it. I’ve written a book about it, Remember Remember. I’ve read piles of other books about it – fiction and factual. I care very much about the way people with dementia are treated.
Cons: an instinctive concern about the ethics of the film being made while Baroness Thatcher is still alive. Is it morally right? Would she agree if she were able to give properly informed consent? Plenty of people have been quick to criticise.
But this week I overcame my reservations and went to see it. My thinking and rationale: I should make up my own mind about the wisdom and rightness of it all, based on the reality, not judge it without a hearing.
I came away surprised by my own conclusion.
Meryl Streep is superb as The Iron Lady herself. Brilliant acting, brilliant makeup, brilliant screenwriting. How someone can inhabit a character to that extent, and be as much Mrs T in her eighties as in her forties, is a mystery to me. She richly deserves all the plaudits and honours coming her way.
Some of the supporting cast are less credibly the big political and family names of the time, but that was a minor distraction. One can readjust without losing too much most of the time.
The depiction of dementia is gentle and sensitive. The reality can be a hundred times worse. The ageing MT/The Boss Lady/Mrs T may be muddled about what’s real, and talk to Dennis (whom she can still see), and struggle to keep up with conversations, but she remains dignified and decently clothed and largely independent. It’s probably sanitised; I don’t know how badly affected the real Lady Thatcher is, but it is altogether appropriate and respectful. And yet a believable portrayal of dementia. The repetition, the confusion, the delusion, the focus on the past, the haunting fear.
Curious and unexpected, though, was the effect on my feelings about the woman herself. Yes, as the Prime Minister she was shown at her most strident and dictatorial, convinced of her rightness both at home and on the world stage. But because we were seeing her power years through the soft focus lens of her dementia, they were somehow muted. Perceiving her as vulnerable, doubting, fearful, unsure of her role in the past as well as the present – well, I felt a huge warmth and concern for her. How good to extend that sympathy now while she is still alive.
I wanted to reassure her when she quaveringly wonders if Dennis had been happy, when she faces the fact that her adored son is not coming to see her, when she packs the last pair of her husband’s shoes in a black bag and says yet another last farewell. You did what you thought was right at the time. You had the courage to stand up for your principles. You made your mark when the opportunity presented. Now let it rest, concentrate on today. Savour each lucid moment, every happy thought. While you still can.
Another realisation came to me as I watched. Somehow the hallucinations and fluctuating memories make a perfect vehicle for conveying an extraordinary life in 105 minutes. I couldn’t have borne an hour and a half of political posturing and unflinching dogmatism. I had no difficulty staying with the meanderings of an old lady clinging to the past; the riots, the war scenes, the speeches, the lectures, brief glimpses through the fog of a clouded mind.
Would I feel the same if I were Carol Thatcher? I don’t know. But that’s more to do with what the film says about family relationships within the Thatcher household than about portraying her mother’s dementia.
So, contrary to all expectations, I personally think the film has the potential to do positive things for those affected by this illness, as well as for the lady herself. Not my favourite film of all time but I’m glad I went to see it.
I’ve been chortling quietly to myself this week as the Man Booker process has reached its grand finale with the announcement of the winner. First there was the criticism levelled at the panel of judges. How dare they dumb down the competition by choosing readable books? How dare they? I mean!
Then, the winner, Julian Barnes, is famous for having scorned the whole MB enterprise as ‘posh bingo‘. Bet he’s not repeating that this week!
And now one of the judges, Gaby Wood, has gone to print saying that ‘Almost nothing happens in the book.‘ That’s the winning The Sense of an Ending she’s talking about. OK, she does go on to qualify her remark: ‘yet it becomes a psychological thriller of extraordinary technical virtuosity.‘ But even so, I think I’d be miffed if someone said nothing happened in my books.
Which brings me nicely to a post written by Simon on Stuck-in-a-book on 7 October. Yes, I know, two weeks ago. But I needed time to mull this one over. And I’ve been much exercised by this matter during those two weeks.
Simon asked the question: How would you rank the three main components of a ‘good’ novel: plot, character and writing style? Of course, the evaluation of ‘good’ is a very subjective business, as he acknowledges. But that makes your own answer to the question the more intriguing.
OK, have you thought how you’d answer? Before contaminating your opinion with his answer. Or mine, come to that.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading of late – not least because it’s that time of year to think about filling the Christmas shoe boxes for Operation Christmas child/Samaritans’ Purse, so I’ve been rattling off woolly hats like a veritable conveyor belt. I concentrate for much, much longer if my hands are busy too. But the more books and bonnets I finished, the more difficult I found it to separate out those jolly old component parts. The best books are a clever amalgam of all three. Can they be assessed as ‘good’ without that balance?
What’s more, the boundaries can be less than distinct. A character can’t be well drawn without skilled writing … can it? And a storyline can reel you in subtly if it’s well written – it doesn’t have to be an overt edge-of-the-seat-whodunnit kind of plot if the writing is seductive. But if either characters or plot are badly written they aren’t going to appeal.
Simon chooses writing style as definitely most important, and from what I’ve just said, I guess I’m initially concluding much the same. He puts character second, but relegates plot to way less important. In his words he ‘can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens – so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.‘
And that’s were we part company. I would say at the end of such a volume: ‘So what?‘ There needs to be some tension, some kind of change or resolution, to leave a satisfied taste for me. Something more memorable and substantial to hang onto other than beautiful phrases and clever metaphors. I like the characters and what happens to them to linger after I’ve returned the book to my shelves.
I also think the balance can change according to the genre. A mystery or thriller can’t work without plot. A romance doesn’t gel without character. And if the storyline is really gripping in any genre, the writing doesn’t have to be spectacularly good to keep those pages turning. Sheer story-telling ability has a power that transcends minor anomalies – though they might irritate at some lower level.
Still with the genre issue: I know that in my own books, the balance of the three components was different in the reflective diary of Adam as he contemplated his own death in Right to Die, compared with the search for Viv’s rapist in Vacant Possession. Writing in Doris’ voice as she sank into dementia in Remember Remember, required a different approach from that of Dr Justin Blaydon-Green when things started going pear-shaped in his infertility clinic in Saving Sebastian. But characters have been important in all of the books, whatever the genre. If you don’t care what happens (which is not the same thing as liking them) why should you bother to read on?
So, at the risk of sounding totally feeble, I personally can’t rank the three components. They all matter to me. It depends. What about you? You can reply to Simon instead if you’d rather. The idea came from him. But if you’re angling to judge the MB books next year … think … very … carefully … before you commit your thoughts to the ether. Simon’s still in the running I should think.
I confess I’ve been feeling rather less perky than usual this week. Two causes:
a. our trusty chariot has been written off after 7+ years of valiant service
b. the beautiful cast iron railings at the front of our property which looked like this two weeks ago
have been crushed to pieces by a vehicle out of control on black ice, and reduced to this.
Now, of course, I’ve told myself (and the shell-shocked driver) many times that these are only ‘things’; nobody was hurt. The floods in Queensland, the murder of Joanna Yeates, the shootings in Arizona – our trials pale into insignificance. And I would defend my healthy perspective to the death! But it still makes me sad to see all that glorious craftsmanship demolished.
So perhaps it wasn’t the most auspicious week to get a mixed review of Remember Remember. I don’t usually comment on reviews of my books – smacks too much of trumpet-blowing; but because this one was qualified I feel I can share it, and in so doing give you a little insight into the life of an author.
Now, nobody relishes criticism; and strangely enough authors are no exception. When you’ve laboured for months or years over a book, agonised over every detail, and given birth painfully to each one of the characters, nurturing them through the growing stages to full maturity, it’s hard to have them slaughtered by someone on mere first acquaintance. And the level of personal commitment and involvement means that a negative comment can linger ten times as long as a positive one. Especially because a review involves fairly public exposure with very little opportunity to defend oneself – bit like royalty, huh?! So I’m sneakily using this blog to redress that imbalance somewhat.
OK, this particular critic, who is he? ‘A Christian-bookoholic-vegetarian-twin’ is how Simon Thomas describes himself. Otherwise known as Stuck-in-a-Book, and currently ranking sixth on the Wikio Top UK Literary Blogs list. And he guarantees an honest review. So far so good. Oh, and I should add, he’s been nothing but friendly and charming and encouraging in his personal contact with me during this process. Sounds very much like my kind of person, in fact.
His grandmother had dementia, and he admits he’s drawn to authors who portray any sort of illness or mental state well, when it requires a ‘wandering narrative voice’. That probably explains why he preferred the scatty voice of Doris in the depths of Alzheimer’s to the more steely logic of her daughter, Jessica, struggling to impose order and everydayness on the chaotic world of a carer. But I’ll come to that.
So what did he take exception to? Well, he was rather dismissive of one of my characters – Aaron. He’s a lawyer in love with Jessica, but she gave him up when her mother needed her constant attention. He (Simon, that is, not Aaron) writes:
‘I did wonder a bit whether Aaron was added at the suggestion of an editor, because he didn’t seem quite to fit with the rest of the novel – does every book need a love interest, really? – but we shan’t squabble over him.’
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Simon, you entirely missed the point of Aaron. He was never add-on love interest. He represents so much:
- yet another sacrifice made by a dutiful daughter;
- the dispassionate but rigid voice of laws and human rights;
- the gentle empathy of someone who has learned to pace themselves to the tune of dementia
Oh no, Aaron was not the suggestion of a dubious editor. He is mine entirely, and he is absolutely intrinsic to the structure and purpose of the book. And I wholeheartedly, unequivocally defend his right to be there.
Jessica’s voice is rather damned with faint praise: ‘perfectly serviceable, but perhaps a little uninspiring’, ‘perfectly good – and perfectly ordinary’. On first reading I felt rather crushed by this. But on reflection, hey, to be regarded as ‘perfectly good’ as a novelist is something. To get a review at all, indeed! I gave myself a mental shake. After all, a few days earlier, on the same blog, this same reviewer said of the highly-acclaimed Sarah Waters who’s up there with the big names:
‘At her best, Waters can tear a story along – but at her worst, it feels rather self-indulgent and unedited … is she destined to always fall short from her potential?’
He talks of her ‘dud 100 pages’, how she ‘drags occasionally’.
Phew! I’m in good company, then.
And then there’s the time line. Now, this blogger is clearly no intellectual slouch, but he admits to being confused by the dates in the second part of Remember Remember. Well, hey. Confusion fits! But I can confide, my editor and I were sorely exercised over the best way to capture the passage of time without bogging the book down with tedious facts. We finally agreed to mark the number of years as chapter headings and drop in occasional historical detail as anchors (obvious ones like WW II), and trust to the reader’s intelligence to follow the clues. I guess you have to care enough to stop and work it out. And Mr Stuckinabook gallops from book to book, so I should be content that he read the book as he did, and not look for more. And I know the chronology is impeccable!
So, against this frankly honest critical context it was particularly gratifying to read his conclusion:
‘What I will say to anybody who does pick up Remember Remember is: persevere. The first half may feel a little ordinary, but I think McHaffie was just readying herself for the second half. That’s when things get interesting – in terms of structure, narrative events, and especially narrative voice.’
‘What McHaffie cleverly presents is a mind, and thus a prose, that gets gradually more and more coherent – the mirror image of a mind disassembling through dementia.’
He reckons it ‘offers a unique twist to the narrative of dementia.’
Why thank you, kind sir!
And he graciously awards a ‘big gold star’ to Tom Bee, the cover designer – as do I. A commendation I’ve been delighted to pass on on to Tom himself.
So, there you have it. I’m genuinely grateful for the review, and on reflection accept is was actually mild criticism. It feels good to have staunchly defended my friend, Aaron, and therapeutic to have written a response. So, here I am back to my perky self. Helped the day after the review was posted by a big box of scented flowers from a grateful bookclub who studied the very same novel. Bless you, ladies – you can never know how timely your gift was.
Well, it’s here! 2011. And a very happy New Year to you all.
The bells rang, the pipes skirled, 80,000 people partied in the streets of Edinburgh to the thunder and shimmer of thousands of pounds worth of fireworks … and yes, it is worth saying, because the official celebrations have been cancelled before, and the jolly old weather certainly threatened to be agin us this time.
Six years ago we took a party of guests to our usual vantage point shortly before midnight and … waited … and waited … and well, nothing happened. Apparently there were ‘safety concerns’. In our embarrassment and frustration we instantly thought Thou-shalt-not-play-conkers-without-safety-helmet-plus-padded-gloves-plus-visors writ large. But nobody wants a fatality for the sake of a mere pyrotechnical spectacular, and we learned later it was something to do with a dodgy roof and the strength of the wind. At least that was the official version.
But it’s not just dynamite that has ignited the change to a new year. The bells have been ringing for other major shifts close to my heart. Indeed the news during this past seven days has been jammed full of my kind of subjects. In no particular order (as they say on ‘talent’ shows) …
Organ donation included on driving licence applications
From July drivers applying for a licence will be asked to indicate which of the following applies to them:
• Yes, I would like to register on the NHS Organ Donor Register
• I do not want to answer this question now
• I am already registered on the NHS Organ Donor Register.
It’s an official step towards increasing the pool of donors. Around 90% of people favour donation but only 27% are registered donors. And given that about 1,000 Britons die each year for want of an organ, and thousands more wait an indecently long time for one, we need to do something. Maybe there should have been one more question:
• Would you be prepared to receive a donated organ for yourself or someone you love?
The novel I’m writing just now is about organ donation so I can get quite fired up on the subject.
Sir Elton John has become a dad
Put aside for a moment any qualms about the 63-year old temper-tantrum-on-short-legs with a £290,000 flower habit as a role model, and disregard the rumours about payment to ensure the birth happened on 25th December as the ultimate Christmas present, and think instead of the whole picture of a financial arrangement between an unknown surrogate mother in California and an aging, overweight, homosexual with dubious priorities. And spare a thought for the resultant offspring: Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Admittedly the pop star did try recently to adopt an HIV-positive toddler from a Ukrainian orphanage, but he was denied on the grounds of his age, and the fact that his civil partnership with David Furnish was not recognised. So what isn’t good enough for an abandoned Ukrainian is suddenly acceptable for Zachary? Hello? How many tribunals in this country would grant permission for such an arrangement without the pressure of fame and fortune, I wonder? OK, it did become legal in April here in the UK for two men to have a child by a surrogate and to have both their names on the birth certificate. But we aren’t talking about your average ordinary man here. Children are not commodities. Nor are they fashion accessories.
Surrogacy was the subject of my 2005 novel, Double Trouble.
A nine-year old becomes a bone marrow donor
Robert Sherwood is only nine. His brother Edward is just five. But Edward has aplastic anaemia; his bone marrow fails to produce sufficient new blood cells. Robert’s donation has the potential to save his brother’s life. But … should he have been subjected to this procedure before the age of informed consent? Does the end justify the means? Should he be permitted to say no?
It’s the bread and butter of my working life!
A grandfather has become the first to donate an organ to a grandchild
John Targett, aged 59, couldn’t bear to see his little one-year-old grandson growing sicker and sicker as a result of biliary atresia. So he offered part of his own liver and had the operation just before Christmas. What a gift: the gift of life.
Another British person has ended his life in Switzerland
Andrew Colgan was only 42 (not much older than my son) but he’d suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for ten years and his condition had markedly worsened recently. He died in that now infamous Dignitas room in Zurich. My own feeling is of immense sadness that this young man had been desperate enough to go abroad for a solution to his terrible dilemma.
I really agonised over these questions for Right to Die; I’m still struggling with them three years after publication.
Volunteers keep libraries open
A new report has revealed that libraries in England are increasingly being staffed by volunteers, to prevent closure under cost-cutting exercises. And this at a time when it ought surely be a priority to make books available to those struggling to find employment or to make ends meet. Books can change lives. Penny-pinching in this area is surely stealing vital resources from the future.
Hundreds of people only read my books as library copies. I want them to continue to have this opportunity. It represents something much more exciting than sales figures.
Bishops defend the rights of Christians
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has urged the prime minister to review the laws which discriminate against Christians in our supposedly-Christian country. And the Bishop of Winchester has reinforced this message. We’ve all heard about the airline worker denied the right to wear a crucifix; the couple denied the opportunity to foster children because of their religious scruples; and the bed-and-breakfast proprietors who won’t take same-sex couples in double rooms in their guesthouse. The law does seem to have sided against ordinary Christians following their consciences.
Religion is closely interwoven with law and ethics and this subject too is a matter of ongoing interest to me.
There was something too about managing Alzheimer’s more cost effectively but I can’t seem to find that. No, it’s NOT a joke about dementia: I genuinely can’t. I looked and in the search found this site which might be comforting for those people struggling alongside this disease. But in the absence of a link to the news item I was looking for, I didn’t want to ignore another topic that I’ve delved into in depth for one of my novels, Remember Remember, because of course, it leapt out of the page at me.
So you see, just in a few days I’ve had my belief that people do care about ethical dilemmas reinforced over and over again. A great spur to another year of writing.
OK, OK, OK. Enough is enough.
It was pretty to start with,
incredible after a few days,
but a major inconvenience now.
Huge mounds of snow being shovelled out of the way day after day;
access to roads constantly in question;
transport by any means chaotic;
enormous icicles an ongoing risk to life and limb
… and no sign of a cessation of hostilities as yet.
Most things I had in the diary have been cancelled or postponed, but one group of hardy women decided they wouldn’t be deterred by a few treacherous pavements or freezing temperatures. No, indeed, the show would go on. We’re British! So in the darkness of early evening on Thursday I found myself battling in from the wild wastes of the country into the city, courtesy of my kindly son-in-law-chauffeur, to make a guest appearance at a book club.
Wow! What an impressively informed and articulate group of ladies. And what a treat to listen to a lively discussion about Alzheimer’s, and my book, Remember Remember, first hand. I had previously sent a message to say they shouldn’t hold back on the criticism; I’d welcome good healthy challenge, but I suspect they were all too polite and kind to risk hurting my feelings. Yes, they asked a lot of questions, and told some moving personal stories, but they said only gracious things about the book.
So I still don’t know what they really thought. Which is a pity. I’d be much more convinced I was getting the truth if I heard ‘I really didn’t like …’ or ‘I hated …’ or ‘I’m not sure why you did …’ But unqualified flattery leaves me uneasy. No book is perfect – certainly not mine. So please, if you’ve read any of my novels and you haven’t posted a review on Amazon or contacted me with constructive criticism, consider doing so (it’s easy via my website – one click and you’re there). And make it honest. (No need to reduce me to total ribbons!) It really does help to know how I could improve my writing. I can’t please all of the people, all the time, but I can listen and learn.
A couple of months ago Professor June Andrews of the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University ordered 600 copies of my novel Remember Remember to distribute to delegates at the DSDC’s 4th International Conference in London. How cool was that!
Well, the conference has just happened. Here’s June blowing out the candle on the anniversary cake with the actor, Simon Callow.
I was wheeled in on a meet-the-author-and-get-your-copy-signed basis. And what an experience it turned out to be. On several levels.
Now, I must confess, London doesn’t feature on my list of top ten favourite places – I’m a country bumpkin at heart and all that noise and dirt and frenzy isn’t for me. But the ExCel Centre in the Docklands proved to be a stunning venue – loads of space; joy-of-joys – immaculate loos with never a queue (and believe me that’s a rarity at big conferences); abundant drinks breaks; helpful staff; a chocolate fountain … ExCellent!
Unfortunately though, there was one serious glitch. In spite of all the careful planning and checking, the books didn’t arrive until lunchtime on the last day. This highly organised team (in pink to make them easily identifiable to those without dementia as well as with) must have been pretty fed up about that, although it was completely outside our control, but to their credit they remained calm and philosophical – at least outwardly.
However, the hiccup had an unexpected bonus for me; it meant that I was free to attend sessions on the previous day. Wow! Lots of inspiring things are going on in the world of dementia and it was great to hear about them from the frontline people. Practical advice as well as careful analysis of research findings. A veritable feast.
Just in case you don’t know, age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia. In a week where I am due to celebrate (?) yet another birthday, that’s quite a sobering reality. As my delightful 7-year-old grandson informed me spontaneously, I shall be older than the number of zoo homes around the world for the snow tiger! (Answers on a postcard please.)
I can’t, of course, slow down time, so I’m concentrating on mitigating other risks:
- taking care of my cardiovascular system
- watching my diet
- keeping my mind and body active
- maintaining a strong social network …
It was useful to have them all rehearsed so succinctly, and if I hadn’t been feeling utterly lousy from a bug on the return journey I’d have started exercising in earnest there and then. As it was I was so dizzy and sick I had to lie down all the way. I even had to pack away the book I’d taken for the purpose –The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a treat I’d been specially saving for this trip. More of that another time.
But let me tell you, being in a conference with people who work in the world of dementia is an incredibly uplifting and reassuring experience. This is my second exposure, and as last time, I was blown away by the sheer warmth and empathy of these special folk. En masse they leave a huge impression. As one of the plenary speakers said, they aren’t interested in a love of power; they believe in the power of love. Too true. It’s positively palpable. It was a real privilege to listen to them and already they’re contacting me with comments about Remember Remember. Lots of them started reading as they travelled home on trains and planes – what a heartening picture that conjures up. Others asked for their copies to be dedicated to colleagues and groups and special relatives and friends grappling with the realities of the disease. Every last one of them was so courteous and appreciative. If the book helps them to feel they are not alone, if it enables them to be even more sensitive, to care even better, it’ll have achieved its aim. I’m only sorry our one-to-one conversations were curtailed because in the event there were only three hours left to sign 600 books.
I’m indebted to my altruistic publisher, Luath Press, and to the wonderful staff at the Dementia Services Development Centre, for making this all possible. OK, the plans did go ever so slightly agley*, but the overall experience was fab! (Oh, and special thanks to Tony Marsh – lovely man as well as talented artist – and DSDC for the photos.)
* For the uninitiated: a Scots word for awry taken from Robert Burns’ famous quote: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley (From ‘To a Mouse’)
PS. Also during this past week, 45 organisations have united to form the Dementia Action Alliance. They say that by signing a National Dementia Declaration they are setting in stone their ‘very real commitment to transform the lives of people with dementia and their carers.’ They’re seeking early diagnosis, adequate support and help, and research towards a cure. All power to their elbow!
Wahey, Remember Remember is now officially launched – a mere three months after publication date.
Last week, as I wrote my blog, you may remember, I was cooking wee delicacies for the nibbles (the very ones pictured below), and juggling several other competing demands (humdrum domestic as well as professional ones), wondering if I’d ever be ready on time.
Anyway, on the day, the food looked passably edible. You can’t go far wrong with fresh Scottish strawberries now, can you? And a 100% silk overblouse I acquired from a wonderful lady in the Royal Highland Show a couple of years ago allowed me to pretend I had nothing better to attend to than the shape of my cuticles and the shade of my eye shadow. Did anyone guess that up to five minutes before guests started appearing I was wielding spreading knives, and sparkling wine glasses, and tangling with clingfilm, I wonder? Actually, doing the physical preparation myself this time (my own choice, I should hasten to add. Well, you know how obsessive I am) was quite therapeutic. Stopped me getting too bogged down in mental preparation – of the ‘I’d-better-read-every-report-and-academic-paper-and-legal-case-on-the-subject-just-in-case-some-omniscient-wiseguy-challenges-my-credibility’ variety.
The sun shone brilliantly, lots of lovely people came from all sorts of different professions and backgrounds and perspectives, and they mingled beautifully. Everyone was polite enough not to spit the food back at me, and they were so responsive to cue that they all sat down spontaneously after early mingling without so much as a raised voice, or a bell, or a gong in sight.
But I’m sure they’d all forgive me for awarding the gold medal for the night to the chairman, John Killick. He’s a poet who works closely with people who have dementia, encouraging communication and creativity – hence his role interviewing me about a book on the subject. You can read more about him on www.dementiapositive.co.uk although his site doesn’t do justice to his international reputation. (Nor does this photo, but somehow importing it lost something of the sharpness of the original. DJ and I laboured long and hard to rectify this, but to no avail. So sorry about that.)
Anyway, John’s a delightful man, and on this occasion he set a perfect tone for the evening with his relaxed and amusing approach, alongside a total grasp of the subject under discussion. We organised the programme much as a book festival interview, and John had dug up some impressively insightful questions for me on the story I’d written. It’s always gratifying for an author when someone has analysed and thought about the structure as well as the content of their book, and John had taken this to an extraordinary level.
One other guest deserves a special mention too. And that was Cornflower. She writes a hugely successful blog about books (recently ranking number four in Wikio’s Top UK Literature Blogs) and was kind enough to review my last one, Right to Die, last year. If you haven’t visited her site you should. (She’s the pretty smiling one with the bag large enough to carry lots of books around.) This was my first time meeting her (and Mr Cornflower) in the flesh, but we’ve already arranged to have coffee together to have a proper chat. If you’re the author at a launch it behoves you to skim over the surface of the pond hovering superficially beside every guest, not dive deep in one spot with any one individual. Regrettably. There were lots of diving companions I hankered after on Friday night.
But hey ho, partying over, it’s now time to get back into the current book about a young widowed mother and her two little girls who’re involved in a serious road accident … and a family faced with a request for organs … and a queue of sick people on the transplant waiting list … I think I’ll soon have got sufficiently to grips with the questions and issues to be ready to sally out into the real world and spend time with transplant surgeons and coordinators and recipients and … well, who knows? It’s a big world out there! And an endlessly fascinating and challenging one. One of the guests at Friday’s launch knows someone who became a live donor and introductions are forthcoming. Oh, yes, that was another bonus – all those links and connections we made that will ripple on. Great stuff.
In the course of moving things about to accommodate several groups of guests, I’ve become aware of a number of largish objects which are cluttering up space in our house without too much in the way of useful returns.
One is an exercise machine. It was bought at the time I started the sedentary life of a novelist – for a bargain price, I might add, as befitted my new impecunious way of life. The perils of working at a computer, at home were obvious – and steps should be taken to counter them from the outset, I reasoned. Initially I energetically increased the numbers of pushes and pulls on a regular basis … acquiring a perky sense of smug self-righteousness as I huffed and puffed and increased my cardiac output … well, until the novelty wore off, that is. Imperceptibly the hefty machine metamorphosed into a white elephant.
When a crowd of 12 visitors simultaneously descended for a week-long stay, I popped the said cumbersome object out of the way, and somehow it didn’t come out again when I reclaimed my territory. Layers of dust gathered. This week another general reshuffle associated with guests (is there a theme emerging here?) inspired me to move it back into operation. It has now graduated to a space beside my desk in the study. The plan (in my head at least) is that I hop onto it periodically to get the circulation going, and tone up the flab. Hmmm. Let’s see how long it takes before it merges into the background and becomes invisible again.
And then there’s DJ’s trombone. The offspring – for whom he’s an ongoing problem in the present department – picked up on a verbal if casual declaration of interest, and kindly treated him to one a few Christmases ago. For weeks he fiendishly practised In the Bleak Midwinter until he was technically (if not artistically) competent. He performed once in public. And since then this gleaming piece of brass elegance has remained locked in its case, still loved but remarkably uncontaminated by recycled breath.
But I’m certainly not one to judge. At the height of my earning potential I treated myself to an overlocker, an expensive luxury for which I’d yearned for decades. (In case you are one of the many who aren’t into such gadgets, it’s a form of sewing machine that over-sews the edges and seams of things to create a beautifully finished edge.) I used it to give a professional touch to the wedding dress I made for my daughter eleven years ago, and nearly gave myself a nervous breakdown grappling with all those threads and intricacies. It has since tormented me on a couple of other occasions, but over time a degree of animosity has built up between it and me to such an extent that I eventually decided to give it away. My daughter would be a much safer custodian of it than I. She is now overlocking with gay abandon, scoffing at my dismal failure to apply myself intelligently to such a ‘simple’ task. But this story has a happy ending. When I need anything finished off now, I simply hand her the garment and back it comes beautifully complete. Not a bad deal, huh?
I’m sure there’s a moral lurking in this somewhere and it relates to … use it or lose it, or something of that ilk. The same thought came back to haunt me again this week when I handmade (as opposed to machine) a batch of bread rolls using fresh yeast for the aforementioned guests. Now, I should confess that for most of my married life (40 plus years) I’ve made my own bread, but then six years ago I sank to buying a breadmaker – just for a change … occasionally. That was the thinking but then the results were so good that imperceptibly it took over; I became more and more lazy. Something about having a dog and barking yourself springs to mind. But ahah! Visitors staying this week? Yes, of course they’d love freshly made, REAL bread for breakfast, wouldn’t they? The recipe was indelibly etched on my brain; indeed I’d never bothered to write it down since it was in constant use. The dough rose beautifully … the shaped rolls browned perfectly … tasting time arrived … alack and alas, the finished product looked wonderful, but it was sadly under-salted. Pride forced me to make a second batch. An unheard-of occurrence. Yes, you’ve twigged. Failure to keep the skill alive meant I nearly lost it.
I guess I’d better keep scribbling …!
Oh, just so you’re in the picture, the launch of Remember Remember is finally happening on Friday 11th – the day after this post goes out – so more of that next time. I’m busy baking titbits for it in between thinking about what I might say. Do I smell burning …?