Hazel McHaffie

abortion

By the way

The old brain is somewhat discombobulated by rather too many competing demands at the moment. Not a time for deep analytical reading or serious long distance writing, but  even in the busiest times, my obsessions won’t allow me to abandon writing and reading altogether. And it’s curious what life throws in your path when you’re not looking, or when you’re tramping through the autumn leaves.

Who’d have thought to find the ethics of stem cell research buried in a Kathy Reich‘s murder mystery?! Grave Secrets is billed as a chilling murder in the searing heat of Guatemala. Forensic anthropologist, Dr Temperance Brennan, is searching for the remains of twenty-three women and children, victims of a brutal massacre. She’s then somewhat distracted by the disappearance of four teenagers who go missing, not to mention being physically involved in the retrieval of a skeleton of a young woman from a septic tank. I confess I got rather bogged down in the complexity of the plot at times, but interest was reignited by the excursion into my field of ethics.

And the newspapers yielded their usual challenging real-life sensations.

In the central German state of Hesse, for example, police are investigating a woman who forged documents to pass herself off as medically qualified, to see if she’s responsible for multiple deaths. She worked as an anaesthetist/anaesthetic assistant – different papers, different claims – either way, the mind boggles! How could she not be detected in that high-risk arena over two years? It’s reported that evidence links her with repeated medical failures and botched procedures, and many more are likely. If I’d put that in a novel, the critics would deem it ‘too far fetched to be credible’!

A birth coach has resigned from an association called Doula UK, claiming she’s been driven out because transgender activists took offence at one of her Facebook posts. Reacting to the trend towards gender-neutral descriptions she wrote: ‘I am not a cervix owner … I am a woman; an adult human female … Women birth all the people.’ Up flew the activists objecting to ‘trans exclusionary comments’. Out went the mother-of-four birth coach. Hello?

A 29-year-old Christian man who uses a wheelchair after breaking his back in a climbing accident, has become the first person to be arrested and prosecuted for praying in public outside an abortion clinic in Ealing, west London. A Public Spaces Protection Order is in place creating a buffer zone around that particular clinic, forbidding anyone to show either approval or disapproval with respect to issues relating to abortion. However, the case has collapsed because there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. Cue another outcry re injustice!

Never a shortage of challenges to keep the grey cells buzzing whatever else my hands and feet are busy with in this gloriously autumnal month. In those situations, what would I do? What do I think? Could I defend my position?

What would YOU say?

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Rights and wrongs

What a week! And still the debate about the rights and wrongs of Brexit agreements and arrangements grinds on … and on … and on. Conflict. Tension. Lies. Threats. Who do we believe? Who can we trust? Whose interests and rights should take precedence? Who/what are these politicians really acting for – themselves, their constituents, their party, their consciences, or what? How much is Joe Public entitled to know? What will history make of these unprecedented shenanigans?

I sigh for the simple philosophies of a McCall Smith character … Todd the surveyor in 44 Scotland Street, perhaps, reprimanding his dishonest employee caught out in a lie: ‘All of our life is based on acts of trust. We trust other people to do what they say they’re going to do.’ Hmmmmm. If only.

No one is immune to doubt and uncertainty. Those much feted and privileged royals, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, revealed in an interview this week that they’re both struggling with the conflict between their privacy and media coverage in their lives. Taxpayers contribute towards the upkeep of the monarchy, but does that entitle us to put them under the microscope? What should be considered legitimately in the public interest? Where do the limits lie? What if their mental health is less than robust? Is the loss of a parent in childhood an ‘excuse’ for the rest of one’s life? Should they have broken with royal tradition and confessed to human frailty? Is it different when a child is involved? And so on … and on.

Then there’s the Northern Ireland abortion laws, decriminalised this week, although implementation of the change is still hedged about with caveats and fraught with peril. Was it ever fair that a woman was legally prevented from having an abortion, even for a lethal fetal abnormality or when her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest? Is it right for Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland coming into line with the United Nations rules on human rights? Should religious belief influence laws? Should someone else’s scruples limit my choices? If you’re pro-choice, this is a momentous victory for women’s human and reproductive rights; if you’re pro-life in all circumstances, it’s a sad day for Northern Ireland … Where do you stand?

Speaking of women’s rights … the jolly old debate around gender continues to blow my mind. Not only must provision be made for gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms; not only must transgender women be permitted to win the awards in female sport; but now a rapist must be recorded as female if that’s how they self-identify. What about the rights and feelings of the victims in all this? A quintessential female symbol has even been removed from sanitary towels – yes, you heard right, sanitary towels – by Proctor & Gamble, apparently because not everyone who has periods identifies as a woman. Hello?!! As a leading feminist campaigner put it: ‘We’re now moving towards the total elimination of women’s biology’ . The rights and wrongs, the questions arising, are too numerous to enumerate on this blog.

Welcome to my world – constantly asking what’s permissible, what’s morally right, what’s fair, what’s expedient? And nowhere do I probe more deeply than in my fictional characters’ lives. I have to be totally immersed in their emotions and thoughts and beliefs and experiences in order to make them authentic and believable. Their dilemmas haunt me day and night. Especially when the novel is at an early stage and I have no idea how, or ever whether, they’re going to survive or resolve or surrender to the pressures. Their pain and anguish swallow me whole.

Ideas for my twelfth novel are at an embryonic stage at the moment, so tender and fragile indeed that they might even miscarry altogether. I have several characters lurking around disturbing my peace, and eventually one group of them will send down roots and cling on with more persistence than the rest. Once they’ve claimed my full attention, and I know they’re here to stay, that’s when I’ll start to sink below the horizon of their stresses. All those what-ifs and rights and wrongs scrambling for answers. I might be gone some time!

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Future possibilities

There will never be a shortage of subjects for me to write about! I lose tracks of scientific breakthroughs and medical marvels. And today, given the breadth and range of material available, I’m not going to even attempt to link everything I mention to scientific papers – Google the key words and you’ll get the information if you’re interested.

When HIV/AIDS first came to our attention in the 80s there were doomsday predictions of biblical plague proportions and real-life devastating statistics. I was a researcher at the time and saw it, wrote about it, first hand. Then came huge public awareness campaigns … followed by the development of anti-retroviral wonder drugs … then combination therapies, that could hold the disease at bay. Now here we are, with stories of stem cell donations from people with ‘natural immunity’ rendering patients free from the virus. You could weave a pretty complex plot with that one! And in 2019 my file marked HIV/AIDS looks completely different from the slim wallet of 30 years ago.

Inside of Me coverThen there’s the transgender issue. Wow! So many dimensions. About young children wanting to transition. About people wanting to reverse the process; the irreversibility of some therapies. About misleading statistics. Eebie jeebie – how crazily tortuous a plot could you construct in that area. The imagination goes into overdrive. Makes my little sally into that world in Inside of Me, pale into banality.

It’s 41 years since the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was created, and infertility was very much top of my pile when it came to choosing subjects for my set of novels. Now despite widespread opposition, criticism, vilification, stigma, as many as 8 million babies have been born by IVF. And the endless thirst for knowledge and understanding, coupled with a bottomless pit of compassion, drives researchers and clinicians in this area to seek more and more solutions to the problems couples have in conceiving, or avoiding perpetuating deadly genetic diseases. There’s mileage for several more books to follow on from Paternity, Double Trouble and Saving Sebastian. Did you know, for example, that the success rate for assisted fertility is way way higher (50%) than for natural conception (25%) … plenty of scope to work up a story-line there, huh? Imagine a gang of 35-year-old career girls going to the freezer to select artificially-created sperm … or genetically screened/modified embryos … ticking selection boxes along the way for green eyes, athletic ability, fiery temperament …? Endless possibilities!

The statistics on abortion reflect changes in society’s mores and values; programmes like Call the Midwife have increased public awareness of how things have developed in a generation. Add in dating apps, modern career paths, cohabitation, social expectation, fertility statistics … I feel an historical reflective story coming on! I well remember, in the 70s/80s soon after the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced, women coming in for a second, perhaps even third, abortion were looked upon askance. Recent Government figures have highlighted that of almost 68000 abortions carried out in 2017, 1049 were undergoing their fifth abortion and 72 their ninth! And there’s a story behind every one.

Then there’s the horrific topic of female genital mutation … don’t get me started! The recent story of the first person to be convicted in Britain briefly reported in the national press was shocking enough – the little girl was three years old; the mother cut the child herself in her London home; indecent images and animal pornography were involved. I absolutely couldn’t go there with fiction. But … should our collective conscience be prodded?

Resources, caps on the cost of medical and social care … I’m somewhat allergic to numbers, but reading about the human consequences of budgetary restrictions brings out the indignant in me. And might just compel me to write about it if I’m around long enough to get to that file.

Even the topic of assisted dying – a recurring hot potato – has subtly changed since I published my novel on the subject, Right to Die, eleven years ago. The issue’s been described by lawyers for the Royal College of Physicians as ‘one of the most controversial and morally contentious issues in medicine’, but ongoing polls of both medical and public opinion show a definite move towards accepting the need for some change. This might be simply taking a neutral professional stand as against opposing it; or a swing towards legalising some form of assisted suicide in the UK. A novel today could look very different.

Yep, I’m endlessly adding to the possibilities in my files as medicine and science reveal more and more, and society’s tolerances and expectations change. This is just a superficial skim. Anyone out there keen to pick up the gauntlet?

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Splinter the Silence

In Splinter the Silence, Val McDermid explores the issue of internet trolling/hate mail/harassment/villification/abuse of women who put their heads above the parapet to speak about discrimination and injustice. In this fictional case, the public figures are apparently hounded to the point of suicide, although the reader knows from the outset that they are actually being murdered, each killing disguised to mimic the suicides of famous feminists. The murderer has his own reasons for objecting to women who step outside their domestic role and tell men what’s right or wrong.

Well, sadly, I know people in real life who would still tether women to the kitchen sink if they could. I have myself come in for criticism for being a woman and daring to voice and defend an opinion; for having ideas above my subservient station. Fortunately, positive responses have far, far outweighed the negative, so it hasn’t been that difficult to maintain perspective, but then, I’m not an A-list celebrity, so such pernicious or malicious activities don’t hit the headlines, the number of critics doesn’t reach stratospheric levels. Nevertheless, I can vouch for the discomfort of being on the receiving end of such unjust vitriol. It’s not as far fetched as you might imagine.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the matter of standing up and being accountable, and about all the cases coming to public attention right now that lend themselves to strong column inches. I’ll itemise a few, but please note, I have no privileged access to information on any of them, so the facts I include are as subject to distortion and prejudice as any other media-generated stories.

OK, serious time, folks. And in every case multiply the questions many times over.

Ten days after legally completing his transition from female to male, a transgender man, TT, underwent intrauterine insemination, resulting in a pregnancy. He has now taken his case to the High Court in an effort to be the first to have no ‘mother’ registered on the birth certificate. Hello? ‘Cake’ and ‘eat’ instantly spring to mind. Expensive legal and parliamentary resources are to be deployed to look into the ramifications of the current laws governing fertility treatment.
One British doctor is reported as saying, now that it is medically possible to transplant a womb into biological males, it would be illegal to deny them access to this opportunity to carry a child to birth. What do you think? Would it?
What about the rights of the unborn child?
One author of a letter to the Telegraph outlined the scenario and concluded, ‘The lunatics truly have taken over the asylum.‘ Do you agree? Or is this a case of establishing the deep-seated needs of people who have struggled all their lives with their dysphoria?

Then there’s the issue of rights and dignity and bodily integrity and mental welfare of female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels? Renewed calls have been made for such women to be given drugs to lower their levels before they compete, or for them to be channelled into other categories such as intersex competition.
What about the effect on these sportswomen of the abuse and accusations levelled at them?
Is it a fair playing field?
Other scientists have cast serious doubt on the integrity of the research behind this latest demand; how many people either know of this or have the scientific or mental wherewithal to judge the issue fairly?

Exactly four years ago, on their half-term break, Shamima Begum and two school friends fled this country, aged only 15, to join Isil and become jihadi brides. In those years, Begum has borne three children, two of whom died of illness and malnourishment. She has told the world she doesn’t regret her actions, that she was unfazed by the sight of severed heads, that’s she’s into retaliation, but wants to bring baby number three back to her home country.
We have no way of knowing just how much coercion lies behind her public pronouncements, but her responses to interviewers chill the blood. The government have refused to jeopardise more lives by sending anyone to rescue her, but at first the lawyers told us, she’s a British citizen, she cannot be rendered stateless, so legally speaking, there is no choice; we must have her back. Then a couple of days later we hear that no, the government are not obliged to repatriate her … and indeed the Home Secretary has revoked her British citizenship … she has dual Bangladeshi nationality … the baby has a Dutch father  …
What consequences should this girl’s actions have?
Whose rights take precedence?
What kind of a future lies in front of her or her baby son?
Who should assume responsibility?
Is it a measure of our own more civilised behaviour that we rise above the terrorists’ creed and show compassion now towards this girl?
What of all the other people who’ve dabbled in terrorism but who now want to return?And a zillion other questions.
No wonder opinion is divided.

Retired accountant, 80-year-old Geoff Whaley, diagnosed with MND two years ago, decided that an agonising and undignified death was not for him; he would go to Dignitas in Switzerland for a controlled end to his life. But his careful planning was threatened days before his proposed departure by the appearance of police at his door, interviewing his wife of 52 years under caution, in response to an anonymous tip-off. It was this unwelcome intrusion, coupled with the laws of this country opposing assisted suicide, not his impending suicide, that engendered fear and anguish in this man, provoking him to protest to the BBC and MPs:
‘The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding.’
Put aside for a moment your personal views on assisted dying, and ask, what could possibly have motivated someone to blow the whistle in this way at the Whaley’s eleventh hour? Genuine concern, self-righteousness, extreme religious views, a sense of public duty, malice? Or what?
Should other people’s private scruples be allowed to control the rights of families in such tragic circumstances?

Imagine being born in war-ravaged Yemen, stranded in a hospital in a country where social, political, economic and health care systems have all collapsed, where about half of the 28 million inhabitants are living on the brink of famine. Now add to that the babies being conjoined twins. Their picture appeared in the British press; the Yemeni doctors appealing for help from the UN to get them to Saudi Arabia.
What should our response be?
What is our responsibility in such cases?
What chance did they realistically have?
At least 6,800 civilians have been killed and 10,700 injured in the war, according to UN statistics. Did these two extremely vulnerable boys warrant such an exceptional rescue mission?
In the event they died in their homeland, but the questions remain.

I could go on … and on …

All the youngsters who become victims of disturbing material on line … the BBC being criticised for not offering abortion advice after an episode of Call the Midwife featuring a backstreet abortion … impecunious students being paid to contract dangerous tropical diseases like typhoid and malaria in the search for new effective vaccines … the matter of a 97-year-old Duke of Edinburgh flouting the country’s law on the wearing of seatbelts …

I have opinions on all these issues. You don’t have to listen to me. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with me – fundamentally and even vociferously. But you ought not to shut me up! Especially not in a threatening or damaging way.

 

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A Spark of Light: Jodi Picoult

Among the stacks of files for possible novels-I-might-write-some-day is one labelled ABORTION – a hot potato and one with evolving ethical and legal and philosophical issues.

I’ve personally lived through major change as a clinician in this area of practice. When I was in my early twenties, deliberately terminating pregnancy was illegal, and we midwives saw at first hand the damage done by so-called backstreet procedures carried out by unskilled hands. Then in 1967 the law changed to allow abortions to be carried out by trained professionals in certain circumstances. And gradually, over the years, those strict criteria have been relaxed. Nowadays, social circumstances and personal preference can be used as reasons to proceed; the mother’s mental well-being is invoked. But somehow a novel on the subject has slipped farther and farther down my priority list.

It remains a much more controversial issue in the States. Girls/women procuring an abortion have been incarcerated in prison for murder/homicide; professionals have been killed by ardent pro-lifers; centers offering the procedure have been attacked. (Jodi Picoult lists some of the sobering statistics in an appendix to her book on the subject.)

So perhaps it’s better that an American author has picked up the gauntlet and run with it. And I’d have said, Jodi Picoult was a natural choice to do so. She’s one of the four authors closest to my own genre of writing, and I’ve read (and own) pretty much all her books.

In A Spark of Light – just published – she’s tackled many of the issues I planned to include. The scene is The Center – formerly The Centre for Women’s Reproductive Health – the last standing abortion clinic – in Mississipi. The building is a hideous orange scar on the cityscape, everything inside it is run down, shabby, used. It’s protected by a perimeter fence, a border patrolled by zealous vigilantes /activists demonstrating outside it and against it.

Into this centre of controversy strides a very angry man with a gun and a personal agenda. He cold-bloodedly shoots some of the women and a male doctor before taking others hostage. His murderous rampage is fuelled by rage, because it’s in this place that the life of his own potential grandchild was taken; all he can think of is exacting revenge on those who were responsible.

Police negotiator Hugh McElroy is drafted in, initially unaware that his own teenage daughter and his sister are inside The Center. The two men establish contact. When he discovers that Bex (his sister) has been shot and seriously wounded, and that his girl Wren is being held hostage, it all becomes horribly personal.

The story unravels backwards in hourly increments. Hmmmm.

Picoult explores profound questions. Just where does the right to life end and the right to choose take over? When does killing for a cause (war, unwanted pregnancy) become murder? How can black and white legislation deal with the multiplicity of greyness that is people’s lives and experiences and beliefs? So far, so appropriate.

But sad to say this book did little for me. Sorry, Jodi.
Stylistically it simply doesn’t work. It starts with the shooting and unravels back to the reason each person is in that building at that time. Had I cared about any of the characters I’d have been interested in their backstory; but they were either too unbelievable or two-dimensional. As it was, with each chapter giving snippets about each one, I struggled to hold their identities in my head.
I was more concerned with how far the shooter would go, but then, blow me, after all that effort to follow the threads, the ending falls very flat. Promising story lines are left in limbo.
The agenda glares through the narrative, both visible and contrived.
The cod psychology is both intrusive and pervasive.
Everyone philosophizes and juggles competing ideals and thoughts and wise reflections, makes profound statements, encapsulates deep existential ideas in succinct phrases – completely unbelievable … especially in a crisis like this!
So disappointing.

So why do I offer such a negative review? Because the experience reminds me of the burden on authors – myself included. My own next book has the potential to disappoint my readership. I’ve strayed outside my comfort zone with this story and just this week one of my critics has pointed out many flaws – even questioned the appropriateness of the genre!  It’s on hold at the moment, but in the new year I’m going to have to forensically dissect it and try to up my game.

Oh, and I dare to criticise Picoult on two counts. I’ve given her plenty of positive publicity in the past. And she’s rich and famous and confident enough not to be derailed by my humble opinion!!

 

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Living the dream

What a week I’ve had! OK, I may be confined to barracks post-surgery, strictly forbidden (by authoritative medical personnel no less) from all housework or exertion of any kind, having to keep my leg elevated day and night … but, bored? Not a bit! Frustrated? Nope. Secretly sorry for myself? Certainly not! I’m capitalising on the situation and achieving far more than I ever anticipated. And buzzing! Has to be good for the soul.

OK, I knew it was coming. Before surgery I accumulated the usual materials for sedentary occupations like knitting, reading, writing, DVDs, etc etc. What I hadn’t bargained on was a complete takeover bid!

It started as soon as I began to actually write the annual Christmas story/play I compose and direct for my grandchildren. As part of my research I began dipping in and out of my all-time favourite books … soon lost in memories and other lives, somewhere in my head my own quite distinctive characters from different strata of society and various times in history who form the core of the play.

Then it was time to start actually committing ideas to the computer.

I began tentatively, feeling my way gently, setting the scene, getting to know the principals, but suddenly one after another they assumed accents and speech patterns and habits of their own. And away we went! Enormous fun. All without the constraints of my other kind of writing (this story is for a very select and exclusive readership indeed; not a single literary critic or publisher’s delicate sensibilities to be factored in).

On the day of the play itself, the youngsters will bring their own personalities to the characters as they assume their roles, but afterwards, once it’s in book form, I want these people to live on the page. Their mannerisms, their language, their reactions, must convey so much. It’s proved both a welcome challenge and a runaway delight!

Then there’s the side effect of recuperation. Lots more thinking-time. Without all the usual time-consuming domestic responsibilities there’s more leisure to watch TV and read papers, and it’s astonishing how many programmes and articles impinge on my own fields of interest. Factual as well as fiction, they make me reflect, which has to be good for my mental state.

So, for example, there’s the news this week of a patient who’s been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, who has now had his vagus nerve stimulated to some effect, putting him into a minimally conscious state. Progress, you might think. Clever stuff. Could this be the start of new hope for many? But hey! Is it really better to be aware you can’t move or do anything spontaneously? Would I want such a thing for my husband/son/brother in his thirties? Does this influence my thinking on assisted dying?

Then there are the up-coming court cases. Victims of the contaminated blood scandal from the 1970s/80s have finally won a ruling allowing them to launch a High Court action. Imagine! Forty years of waiting! And they’re a long way from a resolution or compensation even now. Something in the region of two and a half thousand2,5000! – have already died. Whose fault is/was it? What are the pros and cons of a legal system that grinds so slowly? How could we deal more effectively with such a catastrophe in the future?

And what about the families devastated by the consequences of giving Sodium Vaproate to pregnant women. That too goes back decades and it’s left to the families to fight on for justice. My brain is throwing up questions and doubts right left and centre. Not necessarily for a book; just challenges about the morality of what’s done in the name of medicine.

Ahhh, back again comes that old chestnut, abortion. Irish girls have been coming to England and Scotland to have pregnancies terminated for decades. (I remember being troubled by the questions way back in 1960s when I was in clinical practice and saw it first hand.) This week it was announced that Ireland is to hold a referendum next year on whether to repeal its ban on abortion in almost all circumstances. Are the issues any different today? Could this have been resolved more appropriately? Should religion influence laws? Is a referendum the best way forward? And what about all the other forms of medical tourism …?

Inside of Me coverThe BBC2 programme aired a couple of days ago, Being Transgender, was billed as dealing with ‘one of the hot topics of the moment’. Well, that was my thinking when I published Inside of Me last year. But even though I’d immersed myself in the topic of gender and identity for a couple of years, I was still fascinated by these personal experiences, still wondering about the issues, but be warned, the footage of reassignment surgery in this case is pretty shocking.

So all in all the days are flying by faster than I feared they would. My mind is in overdrive. And I’m hoping to be ahead of the game when I return to normal functioning … God willing.

 

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A Place Called Winter

All except one of my trusted readers/critics have now given me their feedback on my latest book, Listen. Exciting times. But before I sit down for a serious edit, I’m immersing myself in some exquisite writing, beautiful language from the pen of a master, that will be a incentive to me to raise my own game – I hope!

The author? Patrick Gale. The book? A Place Called Winter. A sad, tender, compelling tale of Harry Cane’s battle with his own demons, the taboos of his day, and the wild wastelands of a new country. It’s an intensely personal novel inspired by a true story from Gale’s own family history: one gay man reaching out with sympathy and deep feeling to another (his mother’s grandfather) across a century of social change.

Harry Cane is born into privilege, raised to ‘believe that what mattered was to be unmistakably a gentleman’. He rides horses; others muck out their stables. His soft hands remain idle while callouses build up on the palms of his social inferiors. But his childhood is emotionally impoverished, with his mother dead and his father absent, schooldays punctuated by all the trials upper class boys can inflict on those they see as weaker prettier mortals. Consequently his life is centred on his younger brother Jack. It’s Jack who drags his shy insecure brother into society after their father’s death and introduces him to Winifred Wells, his future wife. Theirs is a gentle undemanding relationship which reluctantly produces one daughter before it settles into platonic coexistence.

The time is the early 1900s; apartheid is unchallenged; class distinctions rule; abortion and homosexuality are unlawful, the latter punishable by hard labour and utter disgrace; ‘treatment’ for psychiatric illness and ‘deviance’ is draconian. When his brother-in-law discovers Harry’s guilty secret, Harry – now an exiled ‘unmentionable‘ – signs up for a new start in a new country, Canada, one of 511 passengers on a ship sailing to the unknown.

The vast impossible prairies are simply waiting to be tamed, and after serving his year-and-a-day apprenticeship to a Danish farmer, Harry commits himself to converting 160 acres of wild wasteland into a self-sufficient thriving homestead within three years. Setting out with simply the map coordinates SW 23-43-25-W3, and directions to a place called Winter scribbled on the brown paper the cheese was wrapped in. An English innocent in a harsh unbroken landscape where there is ‘not much call for cash‘, and ‘neighbour is a relative term‘.

His closest neighbours are a brother and sister, Paul and Petra Slaymaker, whose lives become intimately entwined with his own. Beautiful relationships are established which are tested in the cauldron of  gossip, violence, war and illness. But their peace is threatened much more by the reappearance of a common enemy whose actions and knowledge cast a long shadow over their lives.

Gale’s writing is superb. His characters are beautifully realised, their emotions are captured with tenderness and palpable truth, and the abiding fear of loss, disgrace and exile haunts every hour of reading. Much as I revelled in the writing, though, I had a powerful feeling of desolation at times. Harry’s apologetic personality, his sad acceptance of the degrading things that happen to him, his gentle resilience, his innate decency even in the face of extreme provocation, stand in sharp contrast to the militance and ferocity of modern day campaigners for individual and collective rights. I wanted to reach out to him with compassion, understanding and reassurance.

But it’s a novel. I must instead give you a flavour of the lyrical prose:

… hot breakfast rolls as soft and pale as infancy.

… torn rags of sentences.

… they gave the impression of having emerged, fully formed, from eggs, as brittle as the waxy shells they had discarded.

There’s the heir and the spare and the heiress-beware.

A horse is ‘like a sofa with hooves‘.

‘Vaccinated by this cruel loss of his first daughter, he approached fatherhood the second time round with a certain reserve. He did not consciously harden his heart, but he loved with hands metaphorically behind his back.’

… war was declared in August, when harvest preparations were at their height. The news was sown swiftly, shaken from pulpits and scattered by posters and threshing gangs.’

I rarely give a book 5*s – this novel reminds me why. It wholeheartedly merits them. Highly recommended.

*****

 

 

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Peeling back the gilt of Christmas

Nativity carouselAt this time of year it somehow seems extra tragic when bad things happen to good people. Aside from the global crises afflicting our world and unravelling before our eyes in our living rooms, I personally have a number of friends currently facing serious illness, impending death, sudden bereavement, and yet it must seem like everyone around them is caught up in trivia and pleasure, festivities and excess – in reality of course, who knows how many others are only hiding stresses and problems from public consumption?

Mrs Santa straw figureIt’s in this spirit that my mind has been wandering over the huge dilemmas facing different families; what would I choose in their circumstances? how would I cope?

Metropolitan police officer Heidi Loughlin, 33, discovered she had an aggressive form of breast cancer the day after finding out she was pregnant with her third child. She decided not to have a termination of the pregnancy but to delay treatment until after the birth. Her condition became so serious however that her baby girl was delivered by Caesarean Section on Friday, 12 weeks early, and Heidi has been given a short time to recover from the operation before starting powerful chemotherapy next week. She faces a pretty gruelling Christmas, but is determinedly looking forward to March when she will get her baby girl home to her two brothers. She has risked her life to give her daughter a chance and says she has no regrets; it was all worth it. What would I have chosen in this situation, I wonder? What would you?

Then there’s fireman Patrick Hardison. He entered a burning house in Mississippi; the roof collapsed on him leaving him with severely disfiguring burns across his face, head, neck and upper torso. Think for a moment of the pain of a small burn from an oven shelf, a hot iron … Multiply that by ten trillion. Even after 70 operations he was still so terribly mutilated (see pictures here if you can cope with them) that he would only go out heavily disguised. What kind of Christmases has he endured, I wonder? He recently underwent the most extensive face transplant ever performed. Factor in not only the excruciating pain at every stage but the risks … would I have been courageous enough to want to go on living? Would you?Antique Santa candle holder

Within the last two months, two transgender women have been found dead in their cells in all-male prisons: 21 year old Vikki Thompson in November, and 38 year old Joanne Latham in December. No more Christmases for them. Many difficult questions present themselves where transgender people are concerned and there is generally much greater sensitivity to their issues, but what about when they commit crimes, serious offences that land them in prison? Not only their own welfare is at stake but that of their fellow prisoners. Where would you have housed these two? Nearly 150,000 people signed a petition to house a third person, 26 year old Tara Hudson, in a female institution even though she had been convicted of assault. Would you have signed it?

A 50 year old woman, mother of three, is so determined not to grow old and ‘lose her sparkle’ that she has refused to undergo kidney dialysis. Her kidneys were seriously damaged when she took an overdose following a diagnosis of breast cancer. For years her life style has been chaotic to say the least, and one wonders, what is Christmas like in that household? Whatever, the Hospital Trust responsible for her care appealed to the courts to have treatment imposed against her wishes. But a senior judge has upheld her right to an autonomous choice to die. Was he right to do so, do you think?

I’m merely scratching the surface by way of illustration. Remember all the cases we’ve heard about recently – various scandals around abortions carried out on the grounds of gender alone; teenagers killing themselves because they’re obsessed with losing weight; all the dire warnings about how to deal with declining fertility; the consequences of a simple blood test at 18 weeks pregnancy that allows screening for thousands of genetic conditions  … the list goes on and on. My files are bulging with clippings and articles.

Scandinavian figuresSo at this time of celebration and joy, let’s spare a thought for families caught up in tragic circumstances, and the courageous souls who try to support and guide them. May they find wisdom, courage and strength. And I wish all visitors to this blog peace as you prepare for the festive season whatever it means to you.

 

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Away from it all

KinlochlevenI’ve just spent four days in the Highlands of Scotland, walking boots on my feet, camera in hand, no intention of working in my head. A complete break after all the frenzy around publishing the latest book.

I absolutely love this stunning scenery; the majesty, the mystery, the rawness, the sheer peace of it all, so indulge me while I give you a glimpse of its beauty.GlenfinnanView from top of Aonach MorGlenfinnanBut in spite of my best intentions, medical ethics (as portrayed by newspapers) did winkle its way into that bolthole. My eye and brain homed in on two issues close to my heart at the moment. Individual rights: triggered by the discussion on veiling the face in court or in school. Abortion: the question of whether there’s any meaning at all in the Abortion Laws of this country if doctors are not prosecuted when they’re caught authorising the abortion of fetuses because they happen to be the ‘wrong’ gender. But my resolve held! I merely saved the relevant articles, and refrained from scribbling a single word into my notebook.

Now I’m back in harness, refreshed and raring to go. The work of promoting Over My Dead Body goes on, and invitations to speak about it are coming in, but I’m ready to get thoroughly immersed in a new topic too. I’ve just downloaded 14 e-books and ordered 21 paperbacks on the issue of eating disorders which should hopefully get me started.

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A few statistics to conjure with

Out and about with the granddaughters this week, we’ve learned a lot of fascinating statistics about owls, debunking a fair few urban myths along the way. (Did you know that The Scottish Owl Centre houses one of the largest collection of owls in the world? Yep – fact not fantasy. Everything from the huge Siberian Eagle Owl to the dinkiest Scops Owl – 40 species, 100 birds.) Anyway, contrary to popular conception, owls are not wise, which makes them a fitting symbol for what I want to say in this blog.OwlLast week the following email appeared in my Inbox: ‘On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.’

Wow! Goodreads is ‘the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations!’ – by it’s own description anyway, so I indulged in a little warm glow. Top 1%, huh? Not to be sniffed at. But then I discovered that they’ve just announced that they ‘now have 20 million members, up from 10 million members just eleven months ago.

OK, do the maths, and I’m one of 200,000 top reviewers. Hmmm. Not that impressive, eh? Especially not since reading is part of my job. But I find their site really useful for keeping tabs on what I’ve read, when, and what I thought of each book. So thanks, Goodreads, for a very useful facility.

You might remember I was toying with two topics for my next book: anorexia or abortion. Well, I decided the next step might be to see how many other novelists have written in this area – suss out the competition. Assess where the biggest gap is.

Type ‘novels including anorexia‘ into Google and up come 52 titles through just Goodreads and Amazon. With a footnote saying ‘218 best eating disorder books’ which presumably means non-fiction. Do the same thing for abortion, and 27 come up. Hmm. Not what I was expecting. Of course, it could all be to do with shelving, the blurb available, keywords, that kind of thing. I’m sure more will surface once I start reading. And I quickly discovered that a large proportion of the eating disorder ones are teen fiction.

By reading synopses and reviews of them all, I’ve whittled it down to a dozen must-reads on abortion and probably 29 on anorexia. Looks like I’m in for the long haul, anyway. Watch out for an onslaught of reviews, Goodreads!

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