Hazel McHaffie

Festival time again

It’s that time of year again: the Edinburgh International Book Festival is in full swing. My happy place!

On Saturday I had the pure delight of listening to three excellent speakers all dealing with topics very dear to my heart, all having just published or just written new books.

Retired neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, talked about the lessons he learned from admitting his mistakes as a surgeon, and how vulnerable he’s been facing up to his own diagnosis of advanced cancer and his impending death. The transition from one side of the consultation table to the other has proved surprisingly difficult, he admits.  Given his stature and experience, his honesty and humility are compelling, and somehow give us all permission to feel vulnerable and afraid. I’ve read his earlier books and listened to him several times, but with his latest one called And Finally, I fear he might just have laid down his pen.

Abi Morgan, is an award winning screenwriter, with brilliant TV series like The Split, and films like The Iron Lady, to her credit. She’s also dealing with treatment for cancer, but the main message she was sharing at the Festival was the experience of her husband, Jacob, developing a condition known as brain on fire, a form of encephalitis, which caused him to believe she was some kind of imposter. It has taken eighteen months and a long stay in hospital for him to recognise her. She too talked with such frankness and insight. The film rights to this most unusual love story have been sold, with Morgan herself writing the screenplay, and already thinking of POVs and actors – I’m already eagerly anticipating it.

Nihal Arthanayake, an Asian BBC radio presenter, used his wealth of experience interviewing celebrities and interesting people to talk about the art of making conversation. In this digital age where social media is cultivating an increasing sense of narcissism, he feels, we need to learn to take a real interest in people, engage in meaningful empathetic dialogue, and ‘listen to understand’ rather than ‘listening to talk’, as he put it. I totally agree. He’d be just the kind of person you’d want beside you at a long dinner party!

Then, on Monday, this was followed by Amy Bloom talking about her husband Brian’s Alzheimer’s and taking him from the USA to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. She’s an author, screenwriter, teacher, therapist, social worker, and spoke so eloquently of the slow realisation of what was going wrong with him, and his passionate wish for autonomy and agency in death as in life, which she respected. In her State of California there is no right-to-die provision, and she vividly captured the hoops they needed to go through to establish his capacity to make this choice even when dementia was taking away so much of his true potential. I loved her robust no-nonsense approach.

Medical ethics is alive and very well in the world of books! What a fabulous opportunity to listen, without interruption or distraction, to these fascinating super-articulate people, for whom writing has been therapeutic and cathartic, to travel with them into some most intimate and troubling places, and to do so from my own home, at an affordable price, choosing just those topics that really float my boat. A brilliant facility which has come out of the pandemic – thank you EIBF.

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