Hazel McHaffie

Celebrity and courtesy

It’s not every day that I receive an envelope bearing the House of Lords crest. So perhaps I can be forgiven for tearing it open casually without noticing – and ruining the envelope in the process! But anyway it was the contents that prompt me to tell you about the experience, not the crest. A charming throwback to a byegone era.

The letter was from Baroness Mary Warnock – probably the best-known moral philosopher in the country, for those of you who don’t instantly recognise the name. The Warnock Report? Ring any bells?

I’ve read lots of her writing; heard her speak. But I finally met her in person at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year when we appeared together at an evening event about assisted dying. We’d both brought out books on the subject within weeks of each other (her’s: An Easeful Death; mine: Right to Die). She’s in her eighties now but a wonderfully switched-on lady who still sparks controversy in the press periodically (mary-warnock). Good for her. I don’t always agree with her but I hope my synapses are still crackling as merrily if I ever reach that age. Anyway, at her request, a few weeks ago I sent her a copy of my latest manuscript, Saving Sebastian (about a family seeking treatment to have a baby of the same tissue type as an older child with a fatal illness). ‘Sent her a copy’ – sounds casual, doesn’t it? In reality it was a heart-in-my-mouth sensation posting it. Because not only does this amazing woman have a planet-sized brain, but she has committees named after her – distinguished committees on related topics.

And this envelope held her response. Big breaths. Steady the racing heart.

The endorsement was very encouraging. Very kind. So, why do I mention this here? Because the letter itself was exceptional: hand-typed (complete with uncorrected errors – lots of). The crested envelope was hand-written. This famous and brilliant lady took the trouble not only to read the book within a fortnight of receiving it, but to personally and laboriously write a proper courteous letter to me about it – no dictation to a secretary, no hasty email. That kind of attitude towards ordinary people impresses me more than any prestigious awards – and she’s had her fair share of those.

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