Hazel McHaffie

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Festival city

Wow! Once again, how fortunate am I?

I live just south of the city of Edinburgh, home to the biggest arts festival in the world and in history. For years I’ve been a keen supporter of the International Book Festival. My record of attendance to date is 23 events in 2008 in that famous tented village!

Fringe ticketsHowever, since my granddaughters have demonstrated a keen interest in the performance arts, I’ve divided my time between the EIBF and the Fringe, taking in lots of plays, shows and concerts with them. A real treat. So I have a fat wallet full of tickets ready for an exciting couple of weeks this month.

This year’s events began well for me with the Writers in the Fringe event in Blackwell’s Bookshop on the first Thursday in August. Five authors gave us a fifteen minute glimpse into their latest books; entertaining as well as informing. One even put on her own little side-show involving a suitcase and audience participation! Very clever. (Five different authors each Thursday in the month if you’re interested. Oh, and it’s free!)

Food Festival teapotThe Foodie Festival in Inverleith Park was new to me but great fun, offering tastes and experiences well outside my usual comfort zone. Jam made with chocolate as well as fruit? Toffee vodka? Blue cheese oatcakes? Lemongrass chocolate? Marmite popcorn? Frozen passion fruit prosecco? All quite delicious. That was gloriously sunny Saturday – fortunately; the event was closed for its third and last day on Sunday because of the high winds!

Tomorrow evening, I’m off to a beautiful old church in Palmerston Place (creating a grand stage) to see a fab theatre company Saltmine for the third consecutive year. They’re a hugely talented young Christian group who convey powerful moral messages about society in their polished and very artistic performances. This one’s called The Soul in the Machine and tells the story of George Williams, Founder of the YMCA –

“We are more than bodies to be fed to a machine. We are made for more than work. We have souls, we have spirits and somewhere in this dead city there must be a place for those things.”

London, 1844 – Centre of Empire, crucible of the New Jerusalem. Her gutters run with effluent and blood and her skies are choked with the smoke of a hundred factories and foundries, but above the smoke, the stars still shine. George Williams is a country boy who comes to the city to find his place in the world and to make his mark. Appalled by the spirit-crushing rhythms of the Worker’s life he fights to spread the light of God, and create a place where the soul can be nurtured.

I have high hopes.

Next week we begin the serious daily show-hopping, but of course, the streets are also strewn with market stalls and performers strutting their stuff for the millions of tourists cluttering up the city, to the everlasting frustration of the natives who’re simply trying to get on with their ordinary everyday lives.

 

Pavement artistes

Street market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LiliesBut living where I do, I have the luxury of escaping the mayhem and sitting in the garden enjoying the peace and fragrance all about me with only the boom of the Red Arrows and the muted-by-distance explosions of the Tattoo fireworks to remind me of the frenzy a few miles away.

As I say, extremely fortunate.

 

 

 

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Festival brilliance

Well, that’s the Festival over for another year. 50,000 Fringe events; 800 free events. 2.3 million tickets issued, bringing in £3.8 million. Huge and spectacular. But as the last explosion of fireworks lit up the night sky on Monday watched by 250,000 people, my own reflections were good. I’ve enjoyed more variety this year and seen parts of the city’s underbelly I haven’t explored before, as well as the old familiar haunts of the Book Festival and main Fringe venues. And I’ve marvelled at the amazing talent gathered here in one small city.

I’ve tried this month to capture a flavour of each week for you. So, in that spirit, I’ll give you a glimpse into two events this week that were especially commendable in my view.

Blackwells Bookshop EdinburghEvery Thursday evening in August, Blackwell’s Bookshop put on an event – Writers at the Fringe – with 4/5 writers introducing their work. Unfortunately I was only free for the last one, but what a feast it was. All five speakers were witty, entertaining and interesting; all stuck to their 15 minutes; all gave tempting tasters of their writing; all were friendly and available afterwards. We had the full gamut from two debut authors to a Booker nominee!  In order of appearance: Michael Cannon (reading a short story about being belted as a child), Malachy Tallack (introducing his travel book about places on the same latitude as the Shetland Islands), Carol Fox (reading from her Memoirs of a Feminist Mother – she’s a lawyer and deliberately single mother), John Mackay (talking about his writing as both journalist and novelist), Andrew O’Hagan (reading from his latest book about an elderly lady with dementia and secrets). Hats off to Blackwells for a great line-up.

Austentatious characters Then on Friday I went to a show called Austentatious where six young actors performed a Jane Austen-lookalike comedy billed as completely improvised. As we queued we were asked to write down a fictitious name for an Austen novel; then one was picked out of a top hat on stage. The cast were accomplished actors and so funny. I presume they cooked up a rough outine for a plot beforehand, but what skill and quick-wittedness to ad lib as they did. And it was obvious the actors themselves were hugely entertained by the play they were creating. Not surprisingly they were a sell-out.

So that’s it for another year. But how fortunate am I to live on the doorstep of this cultural Mecca. As they say in the world of entertainment: If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead!

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Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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Guest blog

I am currently travelling back from Switzerland, so decided it would be a good week for a guest blog. I’ve invited my son, Jonathan, who is himself an avid reader and critic of books, to talk to you this time. Over to him.

I have an amazing inability to remember some things because I refuse to write them down.  However, I do know that at some point in the last year or two, I was reading something in which the question of belief came up, and the answer given was “I believe in books”.  That part stuck in my head, even if the person saying it didn’t.  So what is it about books?  Let me go off on a tangent for a minute, I’ll get back to the question unless I forget that as well.

The imminent arrival of the Edinburgh Book Festival programme is an eagerly awaited day in our family.  We actually have the day marked on the calendar.  For some reason, I get two copies, which is entirely a good thing because there is now one copy for the adults to read and one for the two girls to take away and mark up.  Their approach is to highlight anything by an author they think they’ve heard of, a title that sounds fun or a picture that appeals to them.  We then sift out the events that are for 5 year olds, much older teens and those where they can’t actually remember why they were interested in the first place.  That tends to take care of ninety percent.  My approach to the programme has evolved over the years.  I now go through it very very slowly so I don’t miss anything.  And then do the same again, backwards, and find all the things I missed.  I then forget to book and in a blind panic try to find the programme some days after the booking opened and hope for the best.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I find other people at work asking me if I’m going to so-and-so because it’s something they know I’ll be interested in…and I discover I’ve missed that as well.  It really is pathetic.

One event particularly resonated with me this year (actually, it was three, one of which I didn’t even see until someone else checked that I was going…and I wasn’t… but I’ll stick with the one for now).  Michael Rosen, the only poet we all read together at home because we tend to end up crying with laughter after a few of his poems.  It turns out he also wrote Going on a Bear Hunt.  It also turns out I’m not very good at putting authors’ names with books as I didn’t know those two belonged together until the girls were, well let’s just say it was a good ten years after they had last read the book.  My summary of what I was expecting him to talk about is why books are the most important thing on the planet.  I might be exaggerating a little, and he was in fact somewhat more measured than that, but the power of books can be remarkable (this is me getting back to the question, by the way, I didn’t forget).  A lot of the books I read are just good stories, an insight into someone else’s life, mind or experiences.  Some of course are non-fiction.  And then there are the ones you can’t forget, the ones that help you to see something you knew was there but didn’t want to recognise or acknowledge.

I’ve had a book on my shelf for a good number of years now, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Cried by Paulo Coelho.  Now, to me he is definitely not the best writer in terms of style or even storytelling.  But sometimes he understands something and tells his stories in a way that can change lives.  The story in this particular book is nothing special really and you could argue that it meanders around sometimes later on.  It’s the story of a man and woman who knew each other when they were younger and then meet up again years later when they have both lived very different lives, even though they are still fairly young.  So far, so nothing special.  But the book – for me – is really all about not giving up on something which is in our hearts, not allowing ourselves to be so rational that we forget that we once had dreams and still do.  Because out there there are enough people telling us what’s sensible, what we should do.  This particular book was one that I knew I would come back to, but only when I was ready to make a change in my life.  I knew that re-reading this one book would be the trigger for making that change, and that there would be no going back.  As Coelho writes,

“You have to take risks, he said.  We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.”

And here’s the beauty of words, of stories, of books.  That sentence (and a lot of others in that book) really hit me.  Maybe nobody else will ever have even a similar feeling reading that, but in each book, we find something that we didn’t know or didn’t recognise before.  And the same is true of the person writing the story.  I’m experiencing that at the moment as I work on writing my first novel (let me tell you, it looks easier than it is!).  I find characters saying or doing something that surprises me.  It turns out you can’t control it any more than you can control a conversation with another person because you cannot know what they’re going to say and each word changes how the conversation will develop.

So although I knew that Michael Rosen would probably say nothing that I was expecting him to (despite the fact that I had already imagined the whole event in my imagination), I knew that something special would happen just because there was be a conversation between him and an audience and we were all changed by it.

So I believe in books too.

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Book Festival

Like Joan Bakewell I say with some amazement that ‘Edinburgh’s jamboree will have to fizz without me‘ this year. Yep, for the first time for donkey’s years I have no tickets for the International Book Festival. Nary a one.

Why? Well, various other responsibilities and commitments have swallowed up these two weeks and I simply can’t spread myself any more thinly. I am, of course, a tiny tad disappointed to be missing the excitement of the tented domes of Charlotte Square, and listening to fellow-authors telling of their inner lives and exploits. Oh yes, and those interesting conversations that crop up every year as we wait in queues or compare notes over a coffee. But I confess I’m also aware of a smidgeon of relief that I’m not up writing reviews at all hours for this or anyone else’s blog.

However, I have been festivalling. Yes sir! I’ve taken to the Festival Fringe – the unregulated unofficial part of the programme – big time, in the delightful company of my appreciative guests. For those of you who aren’t aficionados, the Fringe sells over 2 million tickets and attracts over 3000 acts and events; it’s been described as the world’s largest arts festival … and it’s on my doorstep!

On the way between shows, we’ve been taking leisurely strolls through the Old Town, and the craft stalls of the West End … Craft Fair

… pausing to enjoy the street theatre, (even in the teeth of hurricane Bertha one decidedly damp afternoon!).

Levitating alien

Headless man

And wow! were we lucky with our choice of events. Every single one we went to was well worth seeing (it’s a hit and miss experience normally). Particularly impressive were the Saltmine Company‘s production of John Newton – Amazing Grace (relating the story of the slave-trader cum hymn writer through music and drama); and a dramatic telling of Michael Morpurgo‘s 16 year old Private Peaceful looking back at his life on the night before his execution by firing squad. We were all spell-bound.

Both these events were well attended, but some of the others had tiny audiences and yet were excellent performances. Imagine baring your soul about a suicide or depression or loss or hopelessness to an audience of one for a whole hour! But they grit their teeth and do it. I wish them all huge success. After all, that lone listener might just be a top agent or critic. Many a famous name has been discovered in the Fringe.

NB. You may be reading about Edinburgh at Festival time, but I’m actually currently soaking up the incredibly beautiful scenery and pure air of Switzerland … of which more on my return.

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Festival frenzy

While the Book Festival‘s on I thought I’d give you little dips into the performances and events as I see them, take you into those famous venues with me. And to avoid confusion and overload I’ll post more often than my usual once a week.

So today? Come with me into the Writers’ Retreat, the tent in the far corner of the Square. The two women authors are competing with loud traffic noise and wind whipping the canvas, so I’m listening hard. I have to smile. It’s Sunday afternoon and the shared topics are faith and family; exactly right for the characters in both books.

First up is Jenn Ashworth. She herself grew up in a Mormon household but left in her late teens and officially resigned several years ago, so in her decidedly skimpy diaphanous skirt she’s making quite a statement already. In The Friday Gospels she’s used her own experience as well as that gleaned from talking to other past and present LDS members, to capture the voices of five members of the dysfunctional Leeke family on a single day. The Leekes are anticipating the imminent arrival home of Gary, who’s just completed his two year stint as a missionary in Utah. His mum has been proudly boasting of his numerous conversions (in reality he hasn’t made any; well, just how many non-Mormons are there in Utah?) and is hugely excited about his triumphal homecoming. His father is only hanging on till Gary can assume the role of man of the house so he can escape his wife’s constant expectations and demands. His sister Jennie can’t wait to confide her burning problem in him. But Gary brings his own baggage home.

This is Jenn Ashworth’s first attempt at creating voices other than white young middle class; she admits it was a personal challenge to find five. But she’s attempted something possibly more valuable. We’re probably all familiar with rather remote-from-us tales of rigid, exclusive and polygamous American LDS families with hordes of children. The Friday Gospels presents a view of this cult which is closer to normal everyday British life, a closer-to-home couple with just three children, dealing with the consequences of the pressures from standards and practices imposed by their religion.

Next up is Peggy Riley. She’s an American, now living in the UK, and she has created a fanatical polygamous sect for her debut novel, Amity and Sorrow (what a glorious title, huh?), based on research into the many such religious radical societies found in the US. Sorrow (15 and the eldest) and Amity (12 and never outside the confines of the cult) are sisters, their wrists bound together, as they sit in the back of their mother, Amaranth’s car, fleeing from a fire. They’re running away from Zechariah, his other 49 wives and their collective children. Peggy Riley gives us a lovely description of the power within these pyramidal families, with the man at the top – the oracle, the figurehead, the preacher, and all the life-givers, the women at the bottom looking up at him instead of at each other, constantly measuring themselves against the yardsticks of others. Fleeing this closed community and facing a completely alien culture takes huge courage. These girls know absolutely nothing of the outside world, of being alone. This faith, this family was their norm. One of the girls is desperate to get away but the other one, Sorrow, identifies with the oracle, the preacher. She aspires to be like him, an ambition destined for heartache. But within that closed community, she’s an adolescent surrounded by men who are related to her; other men are sent away to preserve the power of the pyramid. I think we can guess what they were running from although the author only spoke of ‘inappropriate’ things with a twist in her smile.

Researching their topics, living with their characters, both these writers found that such faith was more complicated, more dangerous and more beautiful than they’d previously thought. There was something almost ‘out of control’ about a sense of being connected to the divine.

Both seem to revel in their very flawed characters. As Jenn Ashworth says, we are all flawed; flaws are the most human part of her characters. Now there’s a thought straight out of a Sunday sermon!

A jolly good start to the EIBF for me.

Sorry folks, forgot my camera today.

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Strength in collaboration

Well, our lovely city has turned into bedlam once more as the festivals get into full swing. Stalls, tourists, artistes, craziness, noise, performances, wherever you turn.Festival cityBut I’m conscious that I view the events differently now that I write fiction. Which reminds me … writing a guest blog this week for Sparkle and Dark Theatre Company I was quite shocked to realise that I’ve been a novelist for almost twenty years now. Of course, for over half that time I was also working full time at the University as a researcher, but still … twenty years! Hard to believe.

A lot’s happened in those decades. Not least an increase in the number of people working to illuminate science through the arts, compared with when I first saw a niche for myself in this role. So I was delighted to be invited to participate in a couple of events designed to bring together artists and scientists. This collaboration has been inspired by Sparkle and Dark’s new play, ‘Killing Roger‘, which raises contemporary bioethical issues, and is being performed during the Festival Fringe (and yes, of course I’ll be there –  next Monday actually. With bells on!). Sparkle and Dark have got together with The Mason Institute at Edinburgh University, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, to host these additional events. Hats off to them.

The first is a debate on assisted dying, the subject of ‘Killing Roger’. Ahah! Ears pricked. As you know, one of my novels is about this very issue, and I’ve maintained a keen interest in developments since. A panel of experts will lead the discussion and there should be lively exchanges, probably a smidgeon of dispute too. I have my own solution to the current legal impasse – question is: will I have the courage and opportunity to present it?

The second event is a symposium to discuss the place of the arts within policy and practice, and how to enhance collaboration between artists and scientists. I’m being wheeled out as a scientist-turned-artist, I think, someone who combines and embodies both. We shall see. There’s a wine reception afterwards so I’ll be able to fortify myself if anyone heckles my credentials!

But the main objective of both events is to establish a network of interested parties in this area of arts and biomedical ethics which is absolutely my bag. As Henry Ford once said: Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

So what with this, and various relevant performances in the assorted festivals to attend, and of course, THE Book Festival – here’s the famous tented village well under construction this week …BookfestfBook Festival venue under construction… August is promising to be a terrifically exciting month. Edinburgh is certainly the place to be.

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Summer holidays

Holiday time is here again for Scottish schools, and my calendar has several weeks blocked out in indelible ink for the grandchildren who come to stay every summer. A lovely excuse to forget work and get out and about exploring this beautiful and historic land. We’ve made for the sea several times just to escape the intense heat!

EI Book Festival programmeeAlso written in capital letters in the diary are assorted slots for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – always a highlight in the year. As usual some sessions were sold out before tickets even went on sale to the public (grrrr! Why do they do that?), but by dint of buying them on the first available day, I have seats for events about topics as diverse as fleeing a religious cult; a journey into dementia; a history of the Dukes of Devonshire; the neuroscience of memory; the death of Dr David Kelly; the ethics of dying; one woman’s experience of acute encephalitis; and the role of storytelling in maintaining sanity. Sounds pretty good to me.

I’ve also had invitations from elsewhere to attend a debate on assisted dying and to showcase my work in an arts and ethics symposium, both in August, so lots of excitement ahead.

Over my Dead Body coverOn the Over my Dead Body book front things are moving steadily.  Lots of double checking needed to be sure every step is taken on sure foundations, but this week the final final details are going off to the cover designer, and as soon as he’s worked his magic, the whole thing goes to the printer. Too late then for any more tweaking … Help! Hard to believe we’re in the home straight.

 

 

 

 

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Counting my Chickens …

It’s Christian Aid week so lots of extra fundraising activities to shoehorn into the daylight hours … time for a Blue Peter moment methinks. And the-one-I-made-earlier? A post about an easy-to-read book which includes heart-warming tales of good animal- and land-husbandry. Appropriate in this week when we’re all working to relieve the hunger of 870 million people around the world. (Sorry – I’ve just noticed the superfluity of hyphens!)

As you know, I visited Chatsworth recently and was bowled over by it. So I was keen to read Deborah Devonshire‘s book: Counting My Chickens, which went straight on to my tbr pile.

chicks

She has, of course, got plenty of tales to relate, having lived a colourful and exciting life: first as the youngest of the six famous and scandal-ridden Mitford sisters, and then as Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (since 2004, Dowager Duchess). I’ve heard her speak in the flesh at the Edinburgh International Book Festival too, and she’s most engaging, with highly irregular and forthright views, so I had high hopes for her written word too. She’s known great tragedy as well as huge celebrity, but what I didn’t know before I looked her up for this blog, was that she lost four of her seven children (as babies). What heartache.

She gets you on her side from the outset, admitting to struggling long and hard with her opening sentence. She consults others, listens to advice from writing tutors, but is still so exercised by it that she concludes: ‘As 50,000 books are published every year the first sentences must add hugely to the level of anxiety in an already anxious race.’ What author could resist?

Though enormously privileged herself, she clearly applauds humility and down-to-earth-ness within her class. I loved the story of her mother-in-law (the previous Duchess) and her friend, the Duchess of Rutland, who arrived at a Dior collection in Paris in ‘their tweed overcoats, which had done years of war service, and ditto shoes‘. They were refused entry. Although they were disappointed, they were not surprised, and calmly ‘sat on a bench eating their sandwiches to pass the time till they could decently return to the embassy where they were staying.’

Counting my ChickensAnd Deborah (Debo to her friends) Devonshire has no truck with humbug or pretentiousness herself. ‘I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows, and good stout things they are. Much better than the strange looking garments in desperate colours at £1,000 each in the Knightsbridge shops.

After a mild lament about the uselessness of knocking old ladies to the ground and snatching their handbags, she writes: ‘I pity the thief when it’s my turn. My bag is positively septic inside,so if he’s got any sense he will wear one of those things that dustmen and dentists cover their noses with when delving into unpleasantness. He will find handfuls of tiresome credit cads sliding about in their meaningless way, heaps of copper coins which don’t even buy a newspaper, unanswered letters of top priority, combs in variety, scissors, rubber bands, an Old Age Pensioner’s railway card and Biros without tops which all help to make it filthy.’

She never went to school or sat an exam; nevertheless she takes a keen interest in everything from dry stone walling, wild edible fungi, floral art, fine wine, architectural fashions, gardening, chickens, courtesy, through to bread making, and writes engagingly about them all. Indeed, she’d be high on my list of people-I’d-most-like-to be-sat-next-to-at-a-banquet.

Though she was born ‘The Honourable Deborah’, to a minor aristocratic English family, in a large property with many servants, she was taught from an early age the value of work. ‘My sisters and I were brought up close to the land. We knew it from the sharp end – trying to augment our meagre pocket money by keeping hens and goats and selling their produce to our long-suffering mother. She had a real chicken farm whose slender profit paid our governess.‘ And it’s clear from her writing (and from Chatsworth) that she has a keen understanding of animal husbandry. Indeed she was so appalled that children today know so little of where their food comes from, that it inspired her to create the famous farmyard at Chatsworth, the forestry demonstrations, and the gamekeepers’ plot. But having been raised herself on milk, cream and butter from Guernsey cows that failed the tuberculin test, she has continued to lament the rigorous rules that prohibit sharing the natural products of the farm without certificates and testing and outside scrutiny and sterilisation and pasteurisation and all the other ‘isations’. And as Duchess, she has taken great delight in defying regulations, using what her mother called ‘unmurdered foods‘ for her own household.

Not only impatient with the petty rules and regulations imposed for ‘health and safety reasons’, she also has a great sense of the ridiculous. The written criticism levelled at floral art exhibitors leaves her cringing: ‘I would give up after spending hours trying to shove a lily and a fern into yards of velvet, bits of glass or a straw teddy bear, only to find the judge’s note saying: “A good attempt but you should try to be flatter in front”, or “a pity there is a crease in your base”. Difficult for some lady competitors to obey the first directive and impossible for anyone to comply with the second.

And speaking of the beautiful old churches she knows and has frequented, she slips in a lovely parenthesis: ‘The feel, smell and taste of the oak pews at Swinbrook (I suppose that all children lick pews under cover of praying for their guinea-pigs) are not the same as those at Edensor.

Lamenting the habit weekend guests have of appropriating one’s books, she tells with some relish of her sister whose books carried a message on their plates: ‘This book was stolen from Bryan and Diane Guinness.’

The least enjoyable part of this short but thoroughly entertaining book is her penultimate section on Books and Company. As she says herself: ‘I have read very few books and I have minded finishing them so much that I have often vowed not to start another.‘ And it shows. But even here she redeems herself by happily linking her limited reading to her own experiences as an unusual home-taught child, a duchess running a stately home, a ‘shopkeeper’ attracting customers, a chatelaine overseeing innumerable priceless artefacts.

A must-read for anyone who visits Chatsworth House.

 

 

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Week 2 of the Book Festival

I’ve now returned to my usual invisible self, my stint as official blogger for Genotype over, my press pass archived.

Two sessions to share with you this time. Friday morning was close to my own current preoccupations. How much responsibility should parents take for their children? How far would you be prepared to go to protect those you love? And when is it right to sacrifice the interests of an individual for the greater good?

Two books were under discussion: The Donor, by Australian Helen Fitzgerald, formerly a criminal justice social worker, working with rapists, murderers and psychopaths, (gives her a head start, huh?) and The Dinner, by Dutch TV and radio producer, actor and writer, Herman Koch. Both dark books with largely unsympathetic, unlikeable characters. Hmm. Do I like unlikeable characters?

Fitzgerald’s novel, The Donor, is billed as a ‘tense thriller’ – genres are rather elusive labels at times and I’d say this was a loose categorisation. It’s about single father, Will Marion, a passive, unproductive man whom one of his girls describes as ‘a rubbish dad‘. His teenage twin daughters are polar opposites, but both have inherited a kidney condition, which means they both need a transplant. Will has two perfectly functioning kidneys. What should he do? Naturally, given my need to read any novel on transplantation, I’ve got this one, but it wasn’t the sentimental tearjerker I was expecting. It’s set in a world of drugs and violence, crime and punishment, dysfunctional families and misplaced loyalties. ‘Gritty’ is my summary.

The Dinner deals with the sombre undercurrents that lie beneath middle-class respectability. Two very different brothers – one a teacher, the other a high-ranking cabinet minister a whisper away from becoming prime minister of the Netherlands – and their wives, are in a smart restaurant, exchanging polite but banal conversation. But behind the empty words lurks an horrific secret: their fifteen-year-old sons were together accountable for an act of terrible brutality. They weren’t identified at the scene of the crime so will the parents report them to the police, or will they protect their own reputation and careers? The actions of any one of them could affect them all.

Both authors talked about the triggers to their stories, their use of humour, how they balanced the story line with the issues – all issues relevant to me. I could usefully compare and contrast their decisions with my own. They too challenge the reader to ask, What would I do in such circumstances?

The Monday session was much further outside my comfort zone: Letting the Genome out of the Bottle. Genomics – essentially the study of all the genes of a cell or tissue at the DNA level – is a relatively new field of enquiry which has raised huge questions for society, and the knowledge it provides has widespread consequences for individuals, for families and for society.

My Beautiful GenomeThe author, Lone Frank is an internationally acclaimed Danish science writer with a PhD in neurobiology. Mercifully I’d read her book, My Beautiful Genome: Exposing our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time, so I wasn’t completely lost during her talk, even though the sound effect of rain thundering down on the roof of the tent was rather distracting, and I was still suffering from motion sickness after almost 1000 miles on the road over the weekend.

Consumer genetics has been ‘portrayed as a panacea for the plague of diseases, a cornucopia of health and prevention – with the Holy Grail being the advent of personalized medicine, tailor-made for your individual genes.’ Frank was clear: illness is indeed an important aspect of genetics, but it’s only part of the picture. Clarity is something she aims for. And accessibility. She manages to make a complex subject engaging by taking us on her personal journey of genetic discovery. She became a research subject – no easy task given the family history of depression, mental illness, alcohol problems, breast cancer – unravelling the Lone Frank genome with all its strengths and vulnerabilities. She shares the accumulating secrets with her readers. Then, having reeled us in, she broadens the issues through discussions with an impressive array of scientists from around the world. A clever tactic.

The end result is a book that’s at once engaging, informative and intriguing. How about this for a withering aside to a pompous boss: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components‘? Or this to prick an over-inflated ego: ‘human beings share ninety-eight percent of their genome with a screeching chimpanzee, sixty percent with a skittering mouse, and even twenty percent with a lowly roundworm a millimetre long‘? Brilliant!

And her honesty means she doesn’t shirk the difficult questions about the consequences of biological fortune-telling. There were times when I felt decidedly genetically challenged, but I scribbled furiously, and came away with a rather reassuring picture. Consumer genetics isn’t about checking your genes for a diagnosis of specific diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses, or Alzheimer’s. Rather it’s a risk assessment; a collection of indicators that compare your chances of getting a disease against the same risk in the general population.  And if you’re fearful of knowing about your genetic underpinnings, remember ‘None of us are free of mutations and genetic weaknesses – the flawless genome does not exist.’ Knowing what these weaknesses are could potentially empower us to protect ourselves from developing those illnesses to which we are susceptible. But analysis of our genes will only take us so far. Exactly what tactics to adopt requires understanding of what turns the genes on and off – the new science of epigenetics to which attention is now turning. So we aren’t there yet. And secretly at times I was wondering if we were any further forward than the days when we simply looked to our parents and grandparents to see what we had potentially inherited.

There are though, many, many other issues to consider in this more scientific approach: privacy, questions of intellectual property, the consequences to relatives, the implications for prospective parents wanting to minimize genetic disadvantage in their children, commercial pressures, the implications for employers using these tests as part of a selection process, DIY genetic testing, surreptitious testing of celebrities, paternity testing, genetic dating … I was left reeling. There were clearly some experts in the audience – they challenged Frank to tighten up her language and thinking. No dumbing down for the uninitiated here!

But the last word has to go to Lone Frank. It was she who put herself in the firing line, exposing her own vulnerabilities for all to see, she who wrote this fascinating book, after all. Her conclusion is that her genome is ‘not a straitjacket but a soft sweater to fill and shape, to snuggle up and stretch out in … it is information that can grant me greater freedom to shape my life and my essence.‘ How comforting is that?

So, the Book Festival is over for another year. And for me it’s been one of the most enjoyable yet. Hats off to all those people who make it possible.

 

 

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