Hazel McHaffie

Christmas

Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas.

Chatsworth is a magnificent house at normal times; converted for Christmas it’s truly spectacular. This year the theme was Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas, with each room devoted to a different story or character – who could resist it?! – so we made the trip from Edinburgh especially to experience it … six and a half hours driving there; five back.

From the cut-out characters which greeted us on the way in, through the labyrinth of corridors and staircases,

to the stunning set pieces, the attention to detail and artistic flair was amazing. And what a setting! Priceless paintings gave way to garlands of baubles and foliage; glorious antiques stood cheek by jowl with fairy-lit Christmas trees.

And there, in the midst of all the fictional depictions of his works, in the real Cavendish family visitors book, Charles Dickens‘ actual signature highlighted!

Shop fronts, darkened alleys and famous quotes captured the authentic Dickens we know and love.

The imposing entrance was devoted to paper sculptures and there was a delicious irony in the midst of so much ‘tinder’ to find a real fire blazing in the hearth. Risk assessment? What risk assessment?!!

Cut out letters hung elegantly from floor to ceiling,

huge scrolling quotations festooned the pillars, really capturing the importance of words to the whole display.

Clad in Victorian dress, guides stood in the shadows, adding to the ambience but ever ready with information.

Oliver Twist’s famous rogue, Fagin, prowling around beneath the towering edifice that formed sleeping quarters for his pack of mini pickpockets, enchanted the children with his ‘conjuring’ tricks, and the adults with his smart repartee.

And, as if the sight of the magnificent dining room set for a wedding banquet for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations were not enough,

the lady herself paced from end to end declaiming the treacherous Meriwether Compeyson and revealing her own sweet revenge with adopted daughter Estelle.

Little Miss Dorrit‘s dimly-lit room included one of the countless huge Christmas trees, this time bedecked in lace baubles, reels of thread and button garlands – Amy’s valiant attempt to bring cheer into the debtors’ prison.

Oh, I could go on and on, but you’ll have got the general idea. Magnifique! Such proportions! Such vision! Such skill! Everything about the experience took my breath away. What an amazing literary inheritance we have. I’m so glad I went.

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Christmas blessings

Since it’s just four days to Christmas I’m quite sure you don’t want to be reading about ethical dilemmas or medical conundrums or even writerly angst, so I shall simply send a seasonal greeting.

It would be all too easy to simply write ‘Happy Christmas, everyone!‘ but I know that sadly this will not be a joyous time for many people. So …

 

If you are currently facing devastating loss or grief,
may you be given the strength and courage to go on.

If you are caught in a spiral of stress and anxiety,
may you find a way through which guides you to a safer, more peaceful place.

If life is currently good and you have all you need,
may these blessings continue, valued and treasured.

If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a super-abundance of health and wealth,
may you have the wisdom, compassion and generosity to share wisely.

If you are in a position of power,
may you have the humility and insight
to use it to influence others and effect change for the greater good.

 

 

‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.’

 

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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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Spinning out of control …

Eebie jeebie! Life’s on a steep slope and gathering frightening momentum this week. Where are the brakes …? Anyone seen the safety nets?

Path to Straiton Pond

Outside, hard frosts have made works of incredible beauty out of ordinary spiders’ webs around here, and I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with them. Unbelievably strong, amazingly intricate, yet so fragile if touched carelessly. A bit like the ideas the brain conjures up in creative mode. So, why is the writing life more than usually frenetic at the moment?

Well, to begin with it’s Book Week Scotland; I’m doing a couple of author events locally for that. Lovely to go out there and meet real live people who read my books, and want to know about why and how I do what I do, and wonderful librarians who are so enthusiastic and dedicated to their task of encouraging reading, but space needs to be found to prepare mentally for each one.

Web wrapped around finialI’m also writing not one, not two, but three books simultaneously right now. Three, do I hear you shriek? Yep, three. Completely unprecedented, as regular followers will know. Madness, probably. So why break my own rules?

Well, Christmas is fast approaching, so I absolutely MUST complete the grandchildren’s annual story/play due to be enacted on 28 December to a full house. I need to order props and make costumes before then, and allow for postal hiatuses, so first I have to finalise the text to be sure about what I still need/want. In spare moments, and by way of light relief, I’m also making monster heads – details are top secret (suffice to say that hair and glitter and strange white particles linger stubbornly in the warp and weft of certain carpets). And one whole room is definitely off limits to all, no exceptions.

Frosted cobwebThen my ongoing novel, Killing me Gently, mustn’t be allowed to lose momentum. Pleased to say I’m still with the thriller genre on that one. However, as a safety valve, I’m letting the back burner dictate the pace of this book at the moment, only sitting down to actually commit words to the document when they’re too insistent to ignore, or jotting down thoughts that wake me in the night.

Web tailored to fence postAnd the third book? It’s brand spanking new, jostling for attention at crazy o’clock, keeping me at the desk long past the witching hour. It’s got a working title of Listen and is designed as a shorter story in my usual vein (contemporary fiction set in the world of medical ethics) which can be offered as a free download to give potential new readers a window into my books. I’m having a ball writing this! It’s about a Professor of Medical Ethics who goes on a train journey from Aberdeen to Penzance where a crisis awaits her … I now know some amazing statistics about high speed trains! And about atrocious experiments performed on black people in the 50s in America. Intrigued? Watch this space.

I keep reminding myself … this is all entirely self inflicted!

 

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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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Juggling balls

Reviews for my adult novel, Inside of Me, are slowly trickling in, and it is, as ever, extremely gratifying to get such wonderful endorsements from people whose opinions I value: ‘well researched’, ‘full of empathy’, ‘a gripping story, full of unexpected and emotional twists and turns’, ‘absorbing’, ‘complex psychological issues, handled with a light touch’, ‘raises challenging questions without simplifying the issues or offering any easy answers’. Wow! Thanks, folks!

It would be all too easy to get impatient waiting for the rest of these busy reviewers to respond. After all the delays caused by my illness, I just want to get this book out there. But frustration would be a serious waste of energy, so I’ve turned my mind and pen to a totally different kind of writing: the story/play I write for my grandchildren every year for Christmas. (The eldest is now almost sixteen so the level of sophistication rises exponentially year by year; getting closer and closer to adult fiction.) And guess what: it’s been positively therapeutic! A delightfully refreshing change from looking deep into my soul, and worrying about my own body image and identity.

Costumes in the makingI can’t share anything of the theme or substance of this year’s production with you, lest I bring down the wrath of the entire family on my head – it has to remain a closely guarded secret (ie. known only to me) until the actual day. But what I can say is that it’s currently 16,000+ words long, involves the making/assembling of nineteen different costumes, and the collection of a whole variety of props. And it will require a complete makeover of parts of our house closer to the event. Enough to keep me well out of mischief from now till Christmas. By the way, if anyone has a spare mortar board or a shaggy grey wig and beard do please get in touch!

In between I package gifts and write letters for the most ordinary humdrum aspects of the season. Keeps my feet firmly on the ground. Oh, and of course, watch eagerly for any correspondence from the said critics.

Christmas gifts

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Story telling

Christmas presentEven I am not mad enough to post a blog on Christmas Day!¬† But I can’t resist the temptation to give you a little Christmas present on 24th: a wonderful auditory experience.

The Reith lectures are prestigious radio talks given each year by eminent figures of the day. The 2014 ones were given by a man for whom I already have huge respect: Dr Atul Gawande. He’s a surgeon but also an accomplished writer, and someone who admits he’s in the business of disturbing people’s complacency.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceI’ve read and reviewed several of his books so I had high hopes, and his verbal presentations didn’t disappoint; indeed he made them remarkably conversational and free from humbug and jargon. The gift – to me – was that each one hinged around a compelling story, reflecting my conviction that stories capture an audience but can at the same time convey deep truths. I was instantly gripped; I was receptive to his messages. I hope they captivate you too.

In Boston the first talk began with a moving account of Dr Gawande’s son who, aged 11 days, was found to have a serious heart defect – diagnosed thanks to the wisdom and understanding of a paediatrician who noted that his oxygen saturation monitor was attached to the wrong finger, giving a false reading. Dr Gawande talked of his 37 nieces and nephews in rural India for whom such skill would not have been available, and led into the substance of his message, reasons why doctors fail: ignorance, ineptitude and necessary fallibility.

In the second lecture (in London) he gave a graphic account of a little girl who fell through the ice of a pond in Austria and drowned, but, thanks to extraordinary team work and slow but methodical application of science, was brought back to life and a productive future. From this he developed the idea of how systems built upon the knowledge and discoveries of the centuries can allow doctors to deliver incredible care. Discipline, every member of the team doing what they do best, makes daring possible.

Edinburgh was the setting for the third lecture and this time we heard about Dr Gawande’s daughter’s piano teacher. Peg had cancer and it was thanks to the compassion and sensitivity of those around her that she got to live out her last weeks and months doing what she loved best – teaching music; giving her pupils treasures they would never forget. From this moving narrative he unpacked the question of what to do when you can’t fix the unfixable and how important it is to really listen to the patient’s own priorities. Mere length of life isn’t the only goal; it’s how you live that shortened life.

For the last lecture in the series the speaker returned to his family’s roots in New Delhi. It was knowing that the requisite knowledge to save life existed elsewhere in the world but not in India, that drove Atul’s father to study medicine himself. He wanted that knowledge for his people. From here the speaker moved into the cultural differences that make the elderly a revered part of families, and that allow an elderly widow of 82, newly treated for heart failure, to regain her self respect by becoming a cook in her own huge care facility, whereas in the Western world she would be stripped of her value to society.¬† We segued smoothly into the importance of sustaining the reasons a person wishes to stay alive.

Beautifully done. And it’s those graphic stories that will remain with me. I shall hang onto that thought as we move into a new year and I try to pick up the reins of novel writing again after my enforced sabbatical. I wish you all the joys of discovery through reading.Christmas trees in snow

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you. If you are sad or lonely or troubled, may you share something of the peace it symbolises and the warmth of kindness, and find the courage to hope.

 

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Stocktaking

As one year ends and an unknown year opens up in front of us, it’s a good time to take stock, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to get things out of perspective.

SadNow, you (probably) and I (definitely) both know that self doubt and angst are a recognised occupational hazard for writers – well, accumulated humiliations and rejections of various kinds, and multiple petty blows to the ego, don’t exactly put one in the party spirit, do they? So it maybe won’t come as any surprise to you when I confess that I was feeling rather despondent recently about the constant struggle to achieve sales targets and get the latest book noticed.

Bucked upBut then I found Melissa Benn‘s article: Survival of the fittest, in Mslexia. What a tonic. She knows personally all about the agonies of tiny queues for signings, poor reviews, miniscule audiences, patronising jibes, totally negative feedback, being ignored by the marketing department, the demise of the mid-list author, diminishment … her list is pretty exhaustive. Merely seeing these negative experiences acknowledged as commonplace takes some of the sting out of them. And her encouraging tips on how to survive were balm to my soul. As she says: ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’ Persistence? Yep, that I can do.

ChastenedI was also chastened. I haven’t actually suffered any public abuse or vitriol such as some of the authors she quotes have endured (not yet at any rate!) so I’m instantly berating myself for allowing lesser things to bring my spirits low. I have no right or cause to wallow in self pity. Shoulders back, head high, woman!

And then there was an interview with crimewriter, Ian Rankin. He’s in his early 50s, lives in Edinburgh, and has sold over 20 million books. He’s a success. He’s a rich man. Readers queue twice around the block to hear him speak or get his signature. Our paths cross occasionally but he’s in a completely different league from me. He certainly wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street, I’m sure. However, it took him a good 14 years before ‘money became a happy factor‘ in his writing career. And behind his present fame and fortune lies private tragedy. He says he’d give all the money he has so that his second son, Kit, didn’t have the severe disability he has (Angelman Syndrome).

HopefulThis little story puts my anxieties about book-related issues into a much healthier context. Do sales figures really matter in the bigger scheme of things?  Does anyone suffer because I overlooked a typo? Who benefits if I lose sleep anticipating possible criticism or a vanishing audience? I recall Alison Baverstock saying, think in terms of gaining one reader at a time and appreciate each book sold, rather than feeling crushed by grandiose expectations. By now my mental shake is having an effect.

Sanguine againAnd then some lovely people booked me for various author appearances. Thank you, guys! Flagging morale significantly boosted. See, it doesn’t take much to reverse the trend.

Besides, it being a new year, I’ve resolved not to try not to get myself ridiculously overloaded with busyness, anyway. As Ruby Wax (who, don’t you know, holds an MA in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford and knows a thing or two about mental health) said in an end of December interview for the Telegraph on the secret to a happy new year: ‘happiness is not a shiny 2014 diary already clogged with meetings, phone catch-ups and must-do errands‘: we’re happier when we’re calmer and taking life steadier. That’s a pretty good idea to hang onto as we launch into a new year, I reckon. Me more than most.

So here’s to 2014 … and more peace and giving and understanding and loving in the world. I hope it’s a terrific year for you: healthy, happy, productive and contented.

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HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Christmas baublesAll blessings of the season to you all! Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing stay safe and well.

 

 

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Kurukulla: The Wise Guru

Christmas week! Time methinks for a holiday from all serious debate and difficult issues and deep and meaningful reading. Light relief is called for.

Apparently some of my readers were disappointed not to get some hints as to the Christmas story I was writing for my grandchildren. A deliberate decision on my part because family members (adult) object if I spoil the surprise by giving sneaky previews.

But, after the event, I can now reveal all, and share a glimpse into Christmas Day chez nous. (Apologies for the variable quality of the pictures – still tinkering with settings, but reluctant to spend all of Boxing Day pfaffing with something so tedious, and technical support limited during the holiday period.)

The story centred around four cousins who time-travelled from Scotland in the 21st century, walking backwards up a winding staircase …21st century quartetback in time to the home of a wise guru, Kurukulla, which in Tibetan means dances the rhythms of wisdom.meeting the guru The Wise One gradually transforms them into mini disciples and puts them through a series of initiation ceremonies …initiation ceremonytasting ceremony

learning to be a followerthe guru's suitcaseand as they acquire knowledge and wisdom she adds jewels to their faces … jewelled face 1jewelled face 2jewelled face 3jewelled face 4Magical creatures add surprise elements …magical creatureand a banquet wins the hearts of chocoholics…banquetThe end result: four beaming grandchildren.four happy actorsIt only remains for me to rid the soft furnishings of the smell of sandalwood and musk, and wish you all a peaceful and prosperous 2013 – contentment and gratitude in the good times; strength and wisdom if troubles come your way.

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