Hazel McHaffie

Daily Telegraph

Assisted dying wrapped in silk

Photo courtesy of Photolia

Image courtesy of Fotolia

Joanna is a young woman in constant pain. She’s tetraplegic following a car accident, totally dependent on others for her every need 24 hours of every day, and facing the prospect of another 20-30 years in a similar state. A bright nimble brain in a paralysed body. Trapped. She isn’t physically able to end her own life; the law doesn’t allow her to be killed by others. No wonder she’s depressed.

But so too, is her mother Sarah, trapped with her. She asserts that her daughter said on many occasions, ‘If you loved me, you’d kill me,’ although, as the prosecuting lawyer reminded her, ‘We only have your word for that.’ And yes, Sarah is in court because she has admitted to killing Jo with a lethal cocktail of drugs.

On the surface it looks like a straightforward battle about the morality of helping someone to die. It’s not until Sarah is under questioning that her own defence lawyer senses something is wrong with her testimony. Who is she protecting? What did actually happen in that bedroom?

That was the essence of the story in the courtroom drama, Silk, on BBC1 on Monday 10 March. It’s a programme I enjoy watching normally – although I confess the private shenanigans between the characters often make me cringe. When the topics creep into my areas of particular interest I’m doubly hooked. And this particular storyline was particularly timely because the papers at the weekend were predicting significant developments in the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the next airing of the Assisted Dying Bill, due in a few months, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs and peers – including Coalition ministers – will be given a free vote on the Bill that would enable terminally ill patients to be helped to die. And although neither the prime minister nor his deputy are in favour of a change in the law, the Government has now made it clear that it would not stand in the way of such a Bill where strict safeguards are in place. (Incidentally Joanna wouldn’t qualify as she’s not terminally ill, though she is in constant pain.)

Of course, opposition remains. Doctors, disability campaigners and church leaders are still cautioning that a relaxation in the law could put vulnerable people at risk, and damage the doctor-patient relationship. Furthermore, it’s argued, this is a dangerous time to consider a relaxation because of ‘an atmosphere of growing hostility towards disabled and elderly people‘ in the wake of the recession.

Is there ever a good time? Which way would you vote? Given your own circumstances? Or if you were Sarah, experiencing at first hand the impact of extreme disability of your beloved daughter, and on the rest of the family? Or if you were Joanna herself, facing unremitting pain and indignity for the rest of your life?

At the same time as this play was airing, I was reading Debbie Purdy‘s book, It’s Not Because I Want To Die. You’ll remember she’s the doughty fighter with MS who fought through the courts for the right of her husband to help her die at a time of her choosing, without fear of prosecution. And as the title of her book suggests, she contends that the reassurance that he would not be prosecuted means that she can prolong her life with impunity – prolong not shorten, please note. But, wait a minute … the new Bill wouldn’t help her either because she’s not terminally ill. Hmmm. So who exactly needs new legislation?

I’m with a certain AMS Hutton-Wilson writing in the letter pages of the Telegraph on 11 March: ‘The people most in need of a change in the law are not the terminally ill but those who, although still mentally capable of making an informed judgment and expressing it clearly, have had their quality of life profoundly compromised by conditions leading to an inability to talk, swallow or breathe without difficulty.’

What would you do about them?

, , , , , ,

Comments

IVF – a luxury or a right?

It’s odd how when your mind is steeped in a particular subject you see related things everywhere, isn’t it?

As part of preparing for the publication of Saving Sebastian I’ve been thinking a lot about fertility treatments, the rights and wrongs, benefits and risks, should we-shouldn’t we? Because as well as working on the book itself, I’ve had to bend my mind to the assorted peripheral tasks that dog any writer – publicity and marketing, updating my website, events, that sort of thing. Not nearly as much fun as the creative writing but just as necessary, I’m afraid. Anyway, I was deep into drafting questions for bookclubs, and challenges for teachers and students of related subjects, when lo and behold, two articles jumped out at me.

One was a news item saying that a Brazilian fertility expert – the very one who helped the famous footballer, Pelé, become the father of twins – is suspected of having deceived patients at his Sao Paulo clinic into raising children who were not biologically their own by implanting other couples’ embryos to boost his success rates. Wow!

And why did this leap out and sock me between the eyes? Because in Saving Sebastian, a Nigerian couple have twins through IVF – one black, the other coffee coloured – and there’s a big old stooshie going on in the fertility centre to establish just what went wrong. Was it deliberate? Was it a genuine mistake? Is there something else lurking in the undergrowth? Too bad real life beat me to it, eh? If my publisher had stuck to the original publication date of 1 May my novel would have been out a fortnight before this Brazilian story broke. Heigh-ho.

The other sucker-punch was by Daily Telegraph columnist, Dr Max Pemberton (16 May). He starts by saying he thought long and hard before writing this particular article because he knew he’d attract condemnation. OK, I’m listening, Doc. The gist of his argument – please note his not necessarily mine (I want to keep my powder dry meantime!) is
– the NHS is strapped for cash
– hard decisions have to be made about how to use limited resources
– there is now an expectation that the NHS will provide fertility treatment on demand and the belief that everyone has a right to be a parent
– childlessness is not a disease but a grief based on people being unable to have what they want
– in these straightened times life-threatening and debilitating diseases should take precedence
– therefore, he concludes,  ‘IVF is a luxury the NHS just cannot afford‘.

And the relevance of this piece? Well, in Saving Sebstian, Yasmeen and Karim Zair are fighting to have a baby by IVF who is the same tissue type as their son, Sebastian. The little lad has a rare blood disorder from which he will die if he doesn’t get stem cells from a saviour sibling. And already he’s having punishing treatment to keep him alive. At four years of age … imagine! Should they be allowed to have this treatment? There are plenty of people opposing them. What do you think?

Maybe reading the book will help to crystallise your own thinking so you can agree or disagree with Max Pemberton more logically. But in the meantime please do have your say on my blog if your dander is up, steam is exploding out of your ears, and you feel like adding to the debate right now! You can always publish an addendum or a retraction later. Remember …

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind (William Blake).

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

A laugh a minute

Lots of varied commitments this week, chopping up my days, so I’ve been dipping in and out of author-related reading – reducing the pile of journals, newspaper cuttings, etc. which tend to accumulate when I’m lost in writing during more creative phases.

I’m quite sure you wouldn’t be interested in most of it – gloomy news about declining advances, abuses related to electronic publishing, tax anomalies, and such like woeful developments guaranteed to send any mid-list-or-below career writer into a deep depression. Yawn, yawn. But you might just be amused by a few gems discovered in amongst the serious stuff, so here goes.

Recently the Society of Authors did a survey of its members asking about author appearances – at literary festivals, signing events, schools and conferences, that kind of thing. The report made interesting reading, but my favourite bit was the postscript:
‘There’s always someone in the audience who knows more than you, even when you’re talking about yourself.’
Just the thing to tattoo somewhere on the mind as reassurance for that nasty moment when someone flummoxes you with a totally unanswerable question.

Then there was Simon Blackburn writing in The Author. He quoted the late Bernard Williams’ lament that much philosophical prose seems to aspire
to resemble scientific reports badly translated from the Martian.
I know exactly what he means.

In a different edition of The Author I found an article commiserating with authors who get one star ratings on Amazon. Mercifully I haven’t suffered from that affliction thus far (says she, tempting fate very unwisely) but it must surely be demoralising. Not necessarily, says Nigel Wilcockson of Random House. Sometimes it’s a case of personal jealousy/vindictiveness against a writer. And that’s been the case from as early as the 19th century. Blake received this:
an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.
And Dickens got:
he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community.’
So lift up your hearts and sing, all you vilified writers; at least you’re in good company!

Even frankly abusive comments can be well-expressed. How about this invective against Croker from his rival Macaulay in 1831:
the merits of Mr Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be “as bad as bad could be – ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed”.
Ouch!

Or much more recently, Steven Fry’s dismissal of Baron Christian de Massy’s memoir as
that marriage of style and content we look for in all great writing. A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.
Wonderful – as long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

One of my personal favourites came from the Letters Desk of the Daily Telegraph in response to a piece about school reports:
When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.

Have a fun week!

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Am I really me?

I’ve just had a complete stranger contact me to check: Do I exist? Am I really me? Did I actually win a prize in a writing competition as an advert claimed?

Now, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me they’ve seen this photo in the said advert – for a creative writing course with the Writers Bureau. It’s very small fry as prizes go and I was only runner-up, but the advert’s appeared in a range of different publications: Big Issue, The Daily Telegraph and Private Eye amongst others. And it’s been running for seven months now. Wahey! All free – and unsolicited – publicity for me!

But this is the first time I’ve had my credentials – nay, my very existence – challenged. It transpired this gentleman was wondering about taking a similar course but was suspicious it might all be a money-making scam. He checked me out on Google and there I was: a real live person. And a person who writes to boot.

So, now he wanted to check the authenticity of the prize. And that’s when he contacted me. I could easily reassure him that yes indeed, I’d won a couple of awards with the Bureau.

Back he came. Would I recommend the course? I would. Wholeheartedly. Now, a bona fide sceptic might be thinking, Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? It’s quid pro quo. They promote her work; she endorses their course. But my recommendation was most sincere. Why? After all, lots of people say creative writing can’t be taught. You’ve either got ‘it’ or you haven’t. The course showed me that

Techniques can be taught
Two of my brothers, who are more practically inclined, think I definitely have a seriously abnormal quirk in my brain because I love words so much. I mean, who on earth would scribble a weekly blog from choice?! Well, the inclination may be innate, but the technique of writing publishable work, turning ideas and drafts into polished and focused articles or books which publishers will accept, even pay you for, is an art that can be honed and refined.

We are not our own best critics
As writers we have no end of baggage cluttering up our discriminatory antennae. There’s all the passion we feel about the subject, the pain of giving birth to that text, the protective instinct of a mother. We need other detached eyes (whoops! well you know what I mean) to see it for what it really is, and help us to identify our faults and relinquish the bits we cherish. And you need to really respect your critic’s skill and judgement to make that kind of sacrifice.

We benefit from knowledgeable and objective criticism
It’s delightful to have friends and your Mum telling you how much they love what you write, but what you really need, if you’re serious about writing, is people who truly understand what good writing looks like. Most if not all the tutors on the course I took are themselves established writers. They know the reality as well as the ideal. They speak with authority. They give advice that’s worth listening to. But they temper their criticism with kindness because they also know the sensitivities and vulnerability of the novice author.

Reading purely for pleasure isn’t the same as reading analytically
Tutors can help to direct the would-be writer to good prose, to analyse what makes it sing, and to apply the principles to their own writing.

Broadening experience of writing is beneficial
I must confess I was slightly begrudging about doing the non-fiction half of the course first. I’d already published nigh-on a hundred articles in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Surely I didn’t need … What a waste … OK; I resolved to complete the early assignments as quickly as I could to get them out of the way, and then concentrate on the fiction component. Which showed me how wrong I’d been in my initial resistance. Writing to order – about things I’m no expert in – was a salutary experience and an excellent discipline. It opened my eyes to new experiences, made me observe in a different way. I wrote about events as diverse as attending a craft fair, visiting an exhibition of photography through the ages, going for a meal as if a food critic. And always there was the challenge: could I make words work for me without the underlying drive that had propelled my writing before? Words moreover that someone else would enjoy. And there was no room for half-hearted effort just because this wasn’t of any interest to me. A real live, eagle-eyed someone was poised ready to rip my mediocrity to pieces; how humiliating would that be? No, it was nowhere near the doddle I’d anticipated.

It helps to know one’s own strengths and weaknesses
Over the full course I covered everything from writing a letter to a newspaper through to a play for radio. Getting tasters of so many different kinds of writing not only opened up new avenues of experience, but also helped me see where I definitely didn’t want to go. Or probably shouldn’t attempt to go! I confess I was rather pleased with my play, a murder mystery with haunting subtleties and a nice twist in the tale … maybe … perhaps … I began to see the credits rolling … My tutor soon disillusioned me!

Creative writing courses aren’t like sausage machines
Some cynics dismiss these courses: they churn out clones producing formulaic writing. Not the distance-learning course I took! Far from it. It was always student-focused, individually tailored. The assignments were set, certainly, but I was free to interpret and respond as I saw fit. And my tutor always commented specifically about the work I produced; never forced me into a mould of her making. And her assessments were always fair and focused – on me, my style, my end game.

It helps to have aims and goals
Right from the start she’d wanted to know, what was I looking for from the course? What were my personal aims and ambitions? I did actually have a clear agenda from the outset: I wanted to write a set of novels about medical ethical dilemmas. To make ethics come alive through fiction. This was to be my unique selling point. My tutor understood and respected my need to be different. And she gave me good honest criticism to that end.

Knowing the market is vital
Every assignment had to be written for a particular publication or potential buyer. It took hours: analysing the market, trying to understand what editors and publishers were looking for. At times I found it tedious; I was reluctant to put in the effort. After all I had no intention of writing for food journals of women’s magazines or local papers. No way! I wanted to be a novelist. Again, how wrong I was. That discipline taught me much, and since I’ve published my novels, dealing with important life issues, I have indeed written for several newspapers and a range of magazines, bringing my books (and the issues) to a much wider audience than would otherwise be possible. But now I understand how important it is to do your homework.

Persistence and determination are essential for success
I am constantly amazed that I’ve won any prizes for my writing. I still feel like a raw amateur playing out of my league, in many ways. But the fact that I have serves to underline a sad fact. In today’s climate it’s hard to get published. You need an over-developed persistence gene and a hide like a rhinoceros. I happen to have inherited a stubbornly determined streak that refuses to give up on my ambition.

Having a niche market helps
I also have one unusual advantage. I inhabit a rarefied world; the world of medical ethics – the dilemmas thrown up by modern medicine.
In real life all of us are touched by these issues. Someone we know, or we ourselves, face these challenges. Maybe we develop a life-limiting illness; should we end our life before the agony becomes unbearable? Maybe we find ourselves unable to have children; do we go for sperm donation or surrogate pregnancy? Maybe we’re fertile all right, but we don’t want this unwelcome pregnancy; should we have an abortion? Maybe a loved one develops Alzheimer’s; how far should we go in caring for them?
But the subject of medical ethics is shrouded in esoteric language and obscure arguments. We need a user-friendly means by which ordinary people can be helped to understand the pros and cons of different sides of the arguments by getting inside the skins of people living through these scenarios. There’s a niche for novels that make the issues accessible.

There is a space for me.

Next week I promise a short post to compensate for today’s essay!

, , , , , , , ,

Comments