Hazel McHaffie

Dickens

Exotic island or private library?

Some writers fly off to exotic islands or remote mountains; some hide away in huts miles from any internet connections or distractions; some spend six months trawling through microfiches and dusty archives. All in the name of authenticity and accuracy. To get in the zone.

Me, I’m knee deep in books which might inform the two stories I’m currently working on. Trips to special locations remain somewhere in the hazy future.

The hypocrisy and mores and prejudices of the upper classes? Julian FellowesSnobs or Past Imperfect will do nicely, thank you.

A bit of terror and psychological trauma? Harlan Coben or Robert Goddard are my go-to choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blend of ethical dilemmas and fiction? Diane Chamberlain, Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf will keep me out of mischief.

Everyday life in bygone eras? Biographies about Dickens, Jane Austen, et al are guiding me nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can pick up and put down, browse or flick, all while I weave in and out of domestic responsibilities and grandparental excursions during the summer season. All without roaming further than my study/library door. No jet lag, no tummy upsets, no grappling with weird currencies and incomprehensible languages and dodgy local mores. And I’m still free to whip into town for Festival performances and assorted exhibitions. Perfect.

 

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A time for giving

Christmas. Time to make contact. Time to appreciate friends. Time to give gifts. Time for a little gentle reflection …

You’ve probably seen the posters:

Comparing what the season means to us here in the fifth richest country, (foreign visitors please substitute your own ranking), with what it will bring for those people caught up in world conflicts and humanitarian crises, it’s all too easy to sink beneath a burden of injustice, maybe even guilt, isn’t it? We see the horrors everyday on our screens, in our papers; our contributions feel all too meagre. Today, however, I don’t want to dwell on the depressing aspects of our global inequalities, rather I want to send out a positive message.

Let’s go back to the beginning of my thinking … I read somewhere (can’t now remember where) that David Cameron is charging £120,000 per hour to give talks about Brexit. That’s £2,000 per minute. Hello? He was only getting £143,462 per annum when he was running the country! – OK, I know, I know, that was his basic salary; he had sundry other substantial incomes alongside that. And don’t get me started on the obscene salaries sportspeople earn rake in, or models, or … Yes, yes, you get the picture.

Instead, let’s turn to face in another direction, and consider the unsung heroes in our society; contrast their incomes with £2,000 per minute.
The average wage for a carer patiently looking after our elderly and demented relatives, is £7.25 an hour.
A school teacher educating our precious children gets a starting salary of £19,600.
A qualified nurse with our lives in her hands can expect to take home £21,692 a year at the start of her career.
A fully competent trained fireman putting his own life on the line will get £29,345.
I could go on.

They aren’t on the front cover of glossy magazines, they aren’t being pursued by the paparazzi for celebrity shots, they aren’t winning Nobel prizes, they aren’t wowing us with their luxury homes/yachts/cars/handbags/jewels, they aren’t attracting mega bucks. No, but they are helping to create/preserve the caring society I want for my children and grandchildren. They are making the world a better place. Indeed many of them will be looking after our relatives and friends instead of being at home with their own loved ones this Christmas. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by such people, ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, and I see at first hand the extra miles they go, the difference they make, the quiet satisfaction they get from a job well done. I want to take this opportunity to comprehensively salute them all and wish them joy and contentment, not just at this festive time, but every day.

As Tiny Tim would say, ‘God bless them, every one!’

Let’s all resolve in the coming year to truly value excellence, dedication, selflessness and service.

 

 

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The Resurrectionist

On Monday this week I stood in front of the real skeleton of the legendary body snatcher/anatomy murderer William Burke. I had to stand still and quiet to absorb that fact.Anatomical Museum

We, a small number of writers from the Society of Authors, were being given a private conducted tour of the Anatomical Museum in the old Medical School in Edinburgh – a fascinating visit. In a former life I’ve given many a lecture (though never a dissection!) in the steeply-tiered theatre in that same building where anatomists used to do public demonstrations on human corpses, but this was my first trip to the third floor.

It’s quite spooky to be inches away from all these remains – bones, cross sections of various parts of the anatomy, pickled organs, even a full size corpse from the 1880s showing the lymphatic system filled with mercury – and realise that these were once actual living breathing people. OK, some of them may have been vagabonds and criminals, some of them solitary unloved creatures, nevertheless they had beating hearts and brains and thoughts and motives and rights. So it’s hugely reassuring to hear that today these human remains are being treated with enormous respect and care, and that they’re protected by strict ethical codes (hence no photos). I couldn’t help a wry smile standing in front of Burke’s bones though. Ironic that, in death, this man, who was hung for his crimes at the age of 37, is now being accorded far more reverence than he ever showed others during his life, although of course, his hanging took place in front of a crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 in spite of the torrential rain, and the following day his body was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the University’s Old College (now the Faculty of Law buildings). We’ve come a long way since those barbaric days.

Standing in the austere and echoing back courtyard where bodies were smuggled in to the medical school three hundred years ago … listening to tales of the great anatomists who are honoured still … putting flesh on the bones and muscles and organs in front of me … my mind went back to an evocative account …

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this a second conception. A rope behind the knees to hold them thus, another to bind their arms, then the mouth of the sack closed about them and bound again, the whole presenting a compact bundle, easily disguised, for to be seen abroad with such a cargo is to tempt the mob.

A knife then, to cut the rope which binds the sack, and, one lifting, the other pulling, we deliver it of its contents, slipping them forth onto the table’s surface, naked and cold, as a calf or child stillborn slides from its mother. The knife again, to cut the rope which binds the body to itself, the sack and rope retained, for we shall use them again, much later, to dispose of the scraps and shreds.

The ResurrectionistSo begins James Bradley in his novel The Resurrectionist, a dank, fetid, bleak tale of corruption and murder, which has received a lot of very bad reviews as well as the accolade of being a Richard and Judy Summer Read.  The year is 1826 (the same era I was in at the Anatomical Museum). Gabriel Swift has arrived in London to be apprenticed to the great anatomist, Edwin Poll. Step by step we follow him as he washes the bodies methodically with water and rags and vinegar, ‘wiping the grave from these stolen dead’, noting as he goes with an almost forensic eye the markings and emissions and anomalies. Just as methodically he shaves them, tidies away the sacks, rinses and dries the rags, writes up the accounts.

We watch with his scientific curiosity the careful incisions, internal explorations, surgery, autopsies. We accompany him out to a silent wasteland where no birds sing, the barren earth scorched and filthy, the barrows disguised with wood heaped upon the sacks of human remains for their passage through the streets. And see the hell of a pyre fire spitting and crackling where it encounters human fat; flesh bubbling and blackening; limbs jumbled, broken, burning; oily black smoke clinging to clothes like a stain as the remaining embers are beaten until all the evidence is obliterated.

It’s a brilliantly evocative opening chapter, the Dickensian style of writing perfectly fitting the times, the context, the nature of the profession. But perhaps more macabre still is the rest of the book, viewing life through the eyes of a grave robber, a murderer, eeking out a meagre living in an age where life is cheap, seeing how boundaries for what is acceptable can become increasingly blurred. Bradley’s writing, his unusual perspectives, bring to life the darkly seamy and sinister underworld of Georgian London in the 1800s, the abject poverty of the underclasses, when a ha’penny piece would buy you enough food for a week and enough opium to deaden the hateful aspects of everyday life.

The ResurrectionistLife for Gabriel becomes increasingly compromised as competition for bodies, and questionable loyalties, challenge his moral code. He finds himself drawn to his master’s nemesis, Lucan, the most notorious and powerful resurrectionist and ruler of his trade in stolen bodies. Now he lives constantly under the threat of imminent detection, arrest, hanging, keeping company with evil traitorous men and desperate prostitutes.  ‘No one refuses‘ the offer of bodies though they be increasingly fresh, mutilated even, decidedly suspect. Life is indeed cheap.

Little by little we see how easy it can be to segue from witness to spectator to collaborator to active participant. Gabriel moves ever deeper into crime until even murder becomes ‘such a small thing, to take a life‘, no harder indeed  than drawing a tooth. Asking himself why? ‘I did it because I could.’ ‘I should care I know, but I do not.’  In his head he manages to distance himself from the act of killing, even whilst acknowledging that by doing so he has now moved outside the boundaries of decent civilised society. But in time, years after the event, he feels ‘a sort of hopelessness, a loathing for this thing I am, this half-thing of lies and circumstances’. He feels compelled to reinvent himself and eventually concludes: ‘It is so easy, to forget one’s self, to mistake the masks we wear for the truth of us’.

I’m not at all sure Bradley intended this to be a moral tale, but it holds salutary lessons for us all, to take stock, and not let ourselves become insidiously brutalised. Far better not to begin that process by condoning the dubious; be neither a passive witness nor a party at any level to anything unseemly or wrong.

So, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Admittedly it’s rather thin in places, disjointed at times, and you need to work at keeping the secondary characters firmly in their place, but it captures a grim time and place too often romanticised by writers. Hats off to a man brave enough to tread a bleaker truer path.

 

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Storytelling

I know, it's been far too long. Oscar will have grown beyond all recognition.    ‘We make stories to make sense of our lives,‘ says psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. ‘But it’s not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.‘ I’m here for my last event of the Book Festival for 2013 so it’s fitting that it’s about storytelling – my job. As before in the Peppers Theatre, it’s baking hot – the poor chairman is visibly melting. And there’s a booming voice competing from next door where a children’s storyteller sounds to be adopting amazing voices.

In his acclaimed book, The Examined Life, Grosz contends that storytelling is key to sanity, and essential in helping us change. But we can be reluctant to accept the need to change – as the well known saying goes: ‘I want to change but not if it involves changing.‘ This is partly because there can’t be change without loss. But loss is part of living, so Grosz has written a collection of short stories about different patients, tracking the trajectory of life from birth to death, with all the attendant losses and changes that involves.

He selects one man with HIV who consulted him for 22 years to illustrate his work and the relationships he builds up. His aim is to reveal the patience needed to help any patient find out who they are. To capture what there is between analyst and patient; to feel one is there in the room with them. To appreciate the privilege it is to face things with someone else. To see ourselves more clearly through the stories of others.

At the heart of his clinical practice is the idea that ‘All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.‘ It may take a long time for someone to eventually tell their story, but Grosz provides a place of acceptance whatever the person is grappling with. The analyst, he says, has to haunt the patient with ghosts of his past and present and future; haunting makes the patient alive to the realities that he might not want to see, just as it did for Scrooge in Dickens‘ famous A Christmas Carol: this is what is going to happen if you don’t change.

What do you need in order to change? Courage to see things that need changing. Acceptance and tolerance of loss. To be ready to let go of some things in order to have others. And one of the signs of good health is the capacity to ask for help in doing so.

But says, Grosz, a good book can also change the way you think. Yes, indeedy. And what more appropriate quote to use as I bow out of the Book Festival for another year. I’m back for a party thrown by my publisher in the Party Pavilion tomorrow night, but this is my last ticketed event. I’ve enjoyed all the sessions I’ve attended. I hope you’ve gleaned something worthwhile from peeping over my shoulder.

Quote in the entrance tent at the Book Festival

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In the footsteps of great authors of the past

The eagle-eyed among you might have observed a slight delay in my post this week. I’ve been basking in the sunshine of the south of Italy, hoping the genius of luminaries such as Ibsen, Byron, Hugo, Dumas, Woolfe, Dickens, et al, who roamed these streets, would rub off on me; recharging depleted batteries.

And indeed creative juices flowed, the imagination ran riot, amidst the startlingly clear blue Mediterranean waters …the Medcruising round Capri, peering into mysterious caves …caves on Capriwandering up narrow streets, approached by smooth-talking, black-eyed, beguiling strangers by day …Narrow streetsspooked by the shadowy recesses at night …Streets at nightWonderful scenarios were conjured up by the soaring architecture …Soaring architectureand the stunning Amalfi coast, playground of the rich and famous … who might also feature …Amalfi coastVesuvius, dominating the landscape, became a character in its own right …VesuviusPeering into its crater brought the eruption of AD79 into vivid relief …crater in VesuviusExploring the scenes of complete devastation below provided fertile material for … maybe an historical novel … set in Pompeii …Pompeiior perhaps Herculaneum …HerculaneumAnd the amazing artefacts excavated from these sites, now housed in the museum in Naples, alongside other gems of the area, brought the culture, the lifestyle, the splendour close enough to smell …Statuecarved out ofa single piece of marble in Naples museumWhy not have hair-raising chases along precipitous roads, a moment’s inattention away from certain death …precipitous roadsa glimpse of those vertiginous views enough to have our hero in dire jeopardy …vertiginous cliffsYou get the idea. Fertile ground indeed. You’ll be glad I spared you the other 750 plus photos!

 

 

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Internet addiction

It’s hard to imagine how we’d function nowadays without access to the internet, isn’t it? I wouldn’t even right now be blogging on my website. But recently a number of big names in the writerly world have admitted to taking quite draconian measures to limit exposure to the net. Seems to be the in-thing in fact!

Zadie Smith, for example, in her latest novel, goes so far as to acknowledge a debt to two computer applications that block access to the internet. They helped to ‘create time.’ Hello?

And Jonathan Franzen says: ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.’ Ouch!  This is the chap who’s alleged to have worn a blindfold and earplugs to minimize distraction while he wrote parts of The Corrections. Conjures up brilliant caricatures for any decent cartoonist, huh?

And many other authors – Jojo Moyes, Dave Eggers, Danuta Keane, Stella Duffy to name but a few – all admit to using computer programmes to fight distraction.

OK, I concede that

a) writers need space and peace to concentrate, to think and to hone their prose. Me too.

b) writing can be a pretty lonely experience that drains the personal batteries at times

c) nowadays authors are expected to make contact across the ether with their readers

d) some people find that words flow better using longhand or typewriters.

Fair enough; nothing wrong with that. But what’s going on with Franzen and Smith et all?

Don’t these successful, talented people have any will power? Enough at least to resist the temptation to flick across to the net during writing stints? Aren’t their characters and plots sufficiently enthralling to hold their own interest and concentration? Can’t they just ignore the ping of incoming emails, and twitters, and blogs, and network-messages and whatever, until leisure time? Come on!

OK, OK, OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a Luddite in these matters. But then, I was born long before digital technology became commonplace. My first experience of computers was with mainframes – machines the size of rooms, that required elaborate instructions to change so much as a comma, and vans to take the disks between departments at the university. We developed a healthy respect for their majesty, might and mysteries.

Moreover I grew up in an isolated rural cottage. We made our own fun and entertainment; we were content with our own company; we treasured our privacy. Something of that whole ethos has remained with me and is reflected in my cautious attitude to more recent intrusions inventions like mobile phones and Facebook. I told you I was a Luddite.

Smith and Franzen (sounds like a slightly Dickensian firm of lawyers, doesn’t it?) are, of course, of a generation that has never known a world without personal computers and easy electronic communication. Digital know-how is hard-wired into their brains. What’s more, they’re household names; they’ll have huge fan-bases. Maybe therein lies the difference. Perhaps everyone wants a piece of them.

But in my case, the net, though a truly useful mine of information, is definitely and emphatically not an addiction. I maintain that, as with dictionaries and encyclopaedias, it is not in control, I am.

So why did I fly across to my emails when I heard that ping just now?

 

 

 

 

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