Hazel McHaffie

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The joy – and therapy – of reading

Sitting on the bus … walking along the street … in coffee shops … at the meal table … in hospital … during conversations … watching TV … wherever, eyes seem to be glued … no, not to a rivetting book, to a small screen. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, Snapchat, Messenger, whatever, seem to demand constant checking. It’s become a national obsession; a veritable addiction.

We’ve all heard about the risks to mental as well as physical health, but it’s also been officially acknowledged that online lives are interfering with reading for pleasure. Even amongst serious writers! How sad. Because reading is known to broaden the mind, add to knowledge, improve mental health, increase empathy, aid relaxation and sleep. There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a well-written story.

Which all led me to think about solutions to this kind of addiction … and thence to the discovery of various ventures started up to give people the right conditions to remedy this malady. I was familiar with retreats and opportunities for writers, but not those for readers. Try Googling the words reading retreat, and you’ll see there are a number, but a couple of illustrations will suffice today.

One is called Reading Retreat, a bespoke service that arranges short breaks for busy people who’d like to escape from all the distractions of modern living and read in peace. It was the brainchild of a literary consultant from Cambridgeshire, Cressida Downing by name, who recognised that ‘social media damages your attention span, 100 per cent‘ with its constant clamour for attention and pressure not to miss anything. With deluxe catering laid on (mmmh-mhmmmmm!) and assorted creature comforts (oh joy!), this service is described as a literary pampering delight. (Sounds good to me.)

Another venture offers the solemnity, grandeur and peace of the great monasteries of old. (Ahaaaaa.) It’s The Life House, a three bedroom property in a quiet Welsh valley, which comes complete with a library of books on self-knowledge, relationships and emotional intelligence. (Yesss!) A weekend visit there is the equivalent of visiting a religious sanctum to regain personal peace and ponder the meaning of life, but without the bleak cell or meagre rations. (Bring it on.)

Well, I haven’t personally sampled any of these facilities, but my recent lengthy recuperation after surgery has given me the same kind of benefits … without the expense, or the need to travel, or any worries about fitting in with other people! Safely ensconced on a sofa, embedded in cushions, feet elevated at the required angle, a personal chef at my beck and call, I’ve been consuming books at a hitherto unheard of rate. Thinking. Reflecting. Making notes. And loving it. Hour upon uninterrupted hour, fully immersed in books of my own choosing – a veritable library awaiting me in an adjoining room.

And peace. No more-pressing demands on my time. So, no need to retrace my steps to check up on forgotten names or plot lines. No skimming. No dipping in and out. Just settling down to read right through from beginning to end, and losing myself in the whole experience. Brilliant therapy. And I’ve learned so much for my own writing in the process.

What’s not to like?

 

 

I must confess I’m one of those annoying people who gets fidgety doing only one thing at a time, so since childhood I’ve always knitted and read simultaneously. Squirrelled away in a room on my own these past weeks there’s been no one to be irritated by the clicking needles, or hurt by my complete absorption in a fictional world. So I also have a stack of garments finished for various good causes.

Sheer indulgence. And firsthand evidence of the value of reading. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but there’s been a definite silver lining to my experience so far.

 

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No experience wasted

They say no experience is wasted on a writer. Well, inasmuch as broadening horizons and sharing feelings and empathising with others goes, that’s probably true. But I think it’s also a fact that if we’re receptive we can make the most of unexpected opportunities life throws at us too.

Last week, for instance, I had to visit my dentist. No big deal. Once there I didn’t have long to wait but long enough to read an article in Good Housekeeping about Jo Cannon whose recent (as of January this year) phenomenal success as an author has been emblazoned on Facebook. What I didn’t know was that she left school at 15 with one O-level in French, she worked at some pretty mundane jobs, but then decided medicine was the career for her. Hello? Ambitious then. Prepared to work jolly hard, too.

She did indeed apply herself with huge determination, funding her studies by delivering pizzas at night, and finally qualified as a medical doctor at the age of 41. Wahey! What a triumph. Psychiatry appealed to her, but she was troubled by many of the cases she saw, so by way of catharsis, she began writing a blog. Success with that led her to do a creative writing course, which in turn led to a top agent taking her on, and terrific success with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. And along the way she was always ready to use her experiences across the board to authenticate her writing.

Her impending second book has attracted a seven figure sum. What an inspirational tale. All power to her writing elbow! Ten minutes in the dentist’s waiting room well spent for me too.

Holly Bourne booksThen, taking yet another break to wander in a motorway station to unravel my poor compressed spine on a long journey, I chanced on these two books by Holly Bourne: Am I Normal Yet? and The Manifesto on How to be Interesting. Now, I confess that YA books really aren’t my thing, but having just included a fifteen-year-old narrator with issues in my own latest novel, Inside of Me, I was curious enough to buy both of them. The style of writing swings between breezy, funny and poignant, capturing the everyday reality for youngsters grappling with teenage insecurity, bullying, obsessive compulsive disorders, self harm, illicit relationships. Holly Bourne is another writer who has used her own experience of life as a teen and a journalist and an agony aunt, to get inside the skin of her protagonists.

As the heroine in TMOHTBI says: It’s material; it’s material; it’s material. Question is, what material can I get out of my current experience: promotion of my latest book ……?

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Frozen

I’m shocked, frankly.

Newborn babyBabies are precious and special, aren’t they? And couples who can have them naturally are well blessed. Yes?  Ask any infertile couple going through expensive and emotionally draining treatment. So what do you think of the latest recruitment incentive?

Apple and Facebook are offering a perk for female employees: the company will pay to freeze their eggs (and you’re talking about c£13,000 a pop here). Why? To help them ‘avoid having to choose between motherhood and professional progression.’ To ’empower them’. Hello?

Apparently there’s a dearth of top women in Silicon Valley and this offer is designed to encourage them to defer motherhood until they are well up the promotional ladder. The frozen eggs bit is part of a package already in existence in Facebook in the States and due to roll out with Apple in the new year (although there are currently no plans to bring it to the UK). Facebook is also offering adoption and surrogacy assistance and other fertility services for both male and female employees. The mind boggles. Serious serious issues all; the kind of topics I grapple with on a regular basis.

When I think of the heartbreak and tragedy of couples who turn to fertility treatment or surrogacy or adoption as a desperate last measure for medical or other devastating situations, I want to weep at this news. To offer these things as a job-inducement seems to me bordering on sacriligious. I bet the small print doesn’t tell them there are no guarantees for women who voluntarily mess about with their biological clocks.

That’s my personal rant, but what do YOU think? Would you allow your employer to pressure you into something this private and personal? How does this square with your values and personal lifestyle and choices? I’m quite sure there are plenty of people out there who disagree with me or the offer would not be on the table.

 

 

 

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What the papers say

This post should carry a government health warning: If you are quickly bored with facts or allergic to conundrums do not continue with this week’s blog.

I’ve always maintained that the subjects I write about are issues which challenge us as a society; they repeatedly hit the headlines. And this remains the case. To illustrate the point, I decided to monitor the medical ethical challenges that were reported in one newspaper (The Telegraph) for just one week (4-10 August 2014) and share with you what I found. Wow! Even I was bowled over with the sheer volume of material in this category in just seven days.

Please bear in mind as you read, that papers have their own agendas and the facts might not all be correct. However, on this occasion I’m not going to research every issue or attach links or hedge the topics around with qualifiers and alternatives; all these ‘extras’ would detract from my focal point. I’ll simply itemise the issue, and leave you to ask yourself: How would I feel in this situation? What would I do in these circumstances? What should society do? What is fair and just? What are the implications for educating the public, or our limited resources, or competing demands? … Or you can just accept the point if you prefer an easier life!

So … are you sitting comfortably? …

Perusing the newspapers

ASSISTED CONCEPTION

There’s been an outcry against the first national sperm bank (in Birmingham) which openly caters for lesbians and single women who want to start a family without having a relationship with a man.

The ongoing story of Gammy, the baby with Downs Syndrome (discussed in my last post) who was allegedly rejected by his commissioning parents following a surrogate twin  pregnancy, rolled on with almost daily updates unravelling more and more bizarre aspects, bringing the whole question of surrogacy under the spotlight.

A Japanese businessman is said to have fathered nine babies during the past two years using Thai surrogate mothers. Seven nannies have been hired to care for them. Reports vary as to his motives: from ‘he wanted a big family for himself’, to ‘he’s part of a child trafficking ring’.

ASSISTED DYING

Former teacher, Dawn Faizey Webster, has been in a locked-in state following a stroke at the age of 30, two weeks after giving birth to her son. She was featured this week completing a university degree 12 years later, by blinking using a laptop that translates her eye movements into text. And yet other people in a similar state are pleading for assisted dying because life is intolerable.

MATERNAL v FETAL RIGHTS

Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy slow the development of their children’s brains, reported researchers in Los Angeles. They compared the brains of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and unaffected children over a period of two years.

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DEMENTIA

Saga conducted a survey of the over 50s and found that far more are afraid of developing dementia than cancer.

A study of 1658 Americans aged 65 and over has found that a severe lack of vitamin D appears to more than double the risk of dementia. But hey, the winter sun in the UK is too weak to generate adequate vitamin levels and older skin is less efficient at doing so. Cue salmon, tuna, mackerel and fortified foods etc etc etc.

A report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research has estimated that the number of people who are forced to retire early because they have (or a loved one has) dementia will double within 15 years.

PERSONAL LIBERTY v PUBLIC SAFETY

Several Britons have been quarantined over fears of the Ebola virus entering this country. It’s alleged that certain ‘special’ patients have been given specific experimental untested drugs to good effect which are not available to others.

MENTAL HEALTH

A nationwide survey of people with bipolar disorder, their carers and the professionals who treat them, is about to begin in this country. The researchers say it’s too often the case that other people remote from the sharp end are the ones who influence research expenditure; they want to remedy this. Critics question the morality of including people with mental illnesses.

A teenage girl in Merseyside took her own life after visiting pro-anorexia websites and self-harming.

ORGAN DONATION

A 24 year old, Stephanie Reynolds, has launched an appeal for a kidney for her mother via Facebook. Thousands of strangers from around the world have offered to be tested to see if they are compatible as potential donors. Her mother, Elaine, has an autoimmune element which means she cannot have an organ from a blood relation. The odds of finding a match are less than one in 10,000. Hence Stephanie’s Facebook appeal. Apparently such appeals have been successful in the USA.

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Shutterstock image

PUBLIC HEALTH and LIFE STYLE CHOICES

Grizzly bears gorge themselves and become obese prior to hibernation but they don’t get diabetes. Scientists are asking: Could this offer a clue for treating humans?

A report in Annals of Oncology has stated that if everyone between 50 and 64 took a low dose aspirin daily for 10 years it would prevent 6518 cancer deaths each year and 474 fatal heart attacks. But the price would include an extra 896 deaths per annum from strokes and stomach bleeds. (Hmmmm. This one affects me personally. Some years ago, taking that small prophylactic dose for only six months triggered lymphocytic colitis which has plagued me ever since. So I wouldn’t myself describe it as poetically as Christopher Howse: ‘Aspirins are the vanilla cynosure of the rattling world of pills; unsparkling but attractive, like pearls’. Not in my book, matey! Sorry, I digress.)

It seems that prostate cancer screening could save more lives than programmes to detect breast cancer – so says a European study of 162,000 men from 8 countries. That would mean saving around 2300 lives per annum in the UK. And yet … the research has concluded that such screening should not be introduced. Why?  Because a high level of over-diagnosis (resulting from the unreliable PSA test) would mean thousands of men going through needless treatment and ending up with incontinence or impotence.

RESOURCE ISSUES

A staffing agency, Prestige Nursing + Care, has issued new figures which indicate that pensioners’ incomes have fallen further behind the cost of care homes. This is adding to the pressure on NHS hospitals and putting vulnerable elderly people in danger. Also the number of people receiving home adaptations has fallen by 12% since 2010, heightening the risk and incidence of falls and injuries.

A report, The Future of Loneliness, has predicted that hundreds of thousands of pensioners will be all but cut off from services, shops and their local communities within 15 years because of the rise in the use of the internet. The result will be a hugely inflated risk of loneliness, already a worrying aspect of old age.

A ‘wonder drug’, metformin, normally used to treat diabetes, has been found to increase the life expectancy of patients with other conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. This could mean an extra two and a half – three years for today’s 65 year olds. What’s more it only costs 10p a day. But hey, we’re already struggling with the problems of an aging society …

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has decided that a revolutionary drug, Kadcyla, that is said to give women with advanced breast cancer an extra six months of life, will not be available on the NHS because it is too expensive, even after the manufacturers have offered a discount. Countries elsewhere in Europe fund it. Ahhh, the old chestnut: if you look at the individual cases, doesn’t every family want to hang on to their loved ones for as long as possible? – well, most families anyway. But add up all those astronomical bills and balance them against only a few more weeks of life and set that against all the other treatments competing for the limited pot of money, and the perspective looks different.

Researchers at Imperial College have found that injecting a patient’s CD34+ stem cells into their brain following a stroke encourages tissue repair and may save them from death or severe disability. However, an expert has said these improvements could just be due to chance or the special care this small safety trial has provided for a tiny number of patients.

FAILURES IN CARE

The Care Quality Commission has admitted that at least 750 homes providing care for the elderly and disabled have been failing to attain at least one basic standard for more than a year. Why? Because the CGC feared legal threats from the owners of the homes. As a result vulnerable people have been knowingly put at risk. The CQC say that a new regime is being introduced to make protection much more robust.

Official statistics on NHS waiting times have revealed that the number of patients forced to queue in ambulances outside A&E departments has almost doubled in three years. In addition, over 3 million people are now on waiting lists for operations – a rise of 700,000 compared with 2010 figures.

Phew! As you can see, I shall never run out of triggers for new novels! I’m constantly thinking, What if ……?

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Autumnal reflections

Cue weary sigh. Why, on such a beautiful autumnal day?Early autumn gloryMy computer has been throwing serious hissy fits this week, that’s why, and I’ve been alternately bereft and frustrated and stressed, and hugely resentful of the time wasted trying to get it sorted out. Yesterday it died – terminal in both senses. So I’ve been acutely aware of the immense benefits of modern technology I normally take for granted.

Which brings me nicely to a current big debate. Are agents and publishers right to expect their authors to have a significant online presence? Writer Jonathan Frantzen has stirred the self-promotion pot again this week with his claim on Radio 4’s Today programme that agents are refusing to even look at a manuscript from new young scribblers unless they have at least 250 followers on Twitter.  Frantzen reckons that they should be concentrating on developing their authorial voice not messing about shouting about themselves. Is he right?

On one level maybe. And I for one would hate to crush creative ability just because someone is seriously allergic to technology. But hey, competition out there is tough. How do you get your book or yourself noticed if you turn your back on all the advantages of 21st century communication?

Personally, being a Luddite at heart, I prefer the line taken by most literary advisers: use the networking which feel most comfortable to you – website, blog, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter – whatever. Tweeting happens to be one avenue I’ve avoided to date but I have every reason to be grateful to others who use it. Why, only last week an organisation who generously reviewed Over My Dead Body, tweeted the comments to over 17,000 followers. Thanks hugely, folks at The Bookbag. I couldn’t have reached that audience.

Another relatively recent development is that many agents and publishers simply say to would-be clients, If you don’t hear back from us within X months you can assume we are not in a position to represent you. Hmm. Off goes your precious manuscript into a great black hole. X months pass. X +1. X + 2. OK, they warned you. But you have no idea why it wasn’t accepted. Of course, it saves them valuable time, but it also denies you the opportunity of learning from the experience. Or framing their scathing comments and hanging them in your loo when you sell your first million copies of the said work.

In days of yore publishers did comment, and plenty of big names have shared their rejection with the world, evidence of serious errors of judgement which can be hugely entertaining for the rest of us. And incidentally engender renewed respect for authors who persevered in spite of the damning criticism.

You’ve probably heard lots of them. If not, click here or here or here for some salutary examples to make you chortle. I’ll share just one quote to put you in the mood. A publisher sending John le Carré’s first novel to a colleague: You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.

As Frank Sinatra famously said: The best revenge is massive success.

 

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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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Marriage, death and blueberry muffins

I’m frequently amazed at how many articles in the newspaper touch on my subject area on a daily basis. Sensationalised often. Distorted even. But drawing attention to important issues nevertheless. Take yesterday’s edition for example.

A judge has just ruled that a 67 year old man who has had Motor Neurone Disease for 10 years, may be allowed to end his life peacefully by declining treatment. So? you might be asking, I thought any mentally competent patient had the right to refuse medical treatment. Indeedy. But in this case the patient has been unable to communicate his wishes directly for some time; he can only use eye movements. An advance decision was formally drawn up last November after several discussions and with all the important people present. Watertight you might think, but apparently a carer who wasn’t there, cast doubt on the nature of the patient’s consent, hence the case went to the High Court for clarification. Sad that the family needed to endure this additional delay and burden. The question is: Would you consent to this for yourself or your loved one? As a professional, would you have allowed it to go ahead unchallenged?

Still with death, an American study (published in Personality and Social Psychology Review) has discovered that awareness of mortality can have positive effects. Really?!! The headline put it: ‘Save your marriage by thinking of death’. Not surprisingly, it makes people value the finer things of life more. But, how ready would you be to clutch at this particular straw?

The social network site Facebook has just launched a new feature to encourage users to sign up as organ donors. It’s reported that 6,000 signed up to Donate Life America by the end of the first day. A ‘health and well-being button’ allows users to register with the optional extra of telling their friends (or the world if they prefer) that they have become potential donors. Question is: Are you a registered donor? If not, would you be more inclined to join up this way?

Me, I’ve been in the business long enough to have registered as a donor online years ago, and to have drafted a formal advance directive which has been duly signed and witnessed, and to have notified my family of all these wishes and intentions. But I’m only too pleased the media are raising the nations’ consciousness of the issues.

But to end of a lighter note … also in the newspaper this week a survey carried out by a food company, actually reported that one youngster in six regarded a blueberry muffin as ‘fruit’ that counted as part of their five-a-day recommended intake. As they say: You’re avin a larf!

Seems to me journalism could be fun!

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Online reviewing

As I briefly mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m a recent pilgrim to the review blogosphere.

Now, I freely confess it, I’ve been overtly sceptical about social networking sites. Come on! Get out into the real world, make flesh-and-blood friends, explore life in all its richness. That kind of reaction. But since I joined Facebook myself, (on the solemn advice of those-who-know in the literary world, I hasten to add) I have revised my opinion: the two are not mutually exclusive. You can have warm touchy-feely actual relationships and still have meaningful contact with geographically distant friends or link up with folk from the past electronically.

The same goes for reviews. There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit. Time was when authors relied on newspapers, magazines, radio shows, etc to bring their books to public attention. A good review in a broadsheet? Extend the house; book that exotic holiday. A bad review? Reach for the whisky; stick pins in an effigy. No review? Empty the Prozac; steal into the nearest burrow, leaving a note. But with the decline of literary editors, the rise of the celebrity cult, and the increasing struggle of small independent publishers, times have changed. So it’s good news for non-celebrity authors hovering somewhat below the plimsoll line of bestseller. There’s a whole new review world out there accessible by the touch of a computer key!

And I’m not just talking about Amazon reviews. Everyone knows they can be written by proud parents, press-ganged friends, and even by unscrupulous authors themselves. No, I’m thinking of very readable blogs written by well-read, articulate bookaholics who give measured and honest appraisals of a vast range of books. Some of them have huge followings of equally avid booklovers, ready to pick up on the books that appeal to them, even occasionally add their own tuppence-worth. Great stuff for authors. As you can see, I’m full of the zeal of the newly converted!

But don’t take my word for it. Have a look for yourselves. A good place to start is with an exceptionally good example … or two … or four … or … Well, a few of my personal favourites are Cornflower Books, Dovegreyreader Scribbles, Farm Lane Books, Meandmybigmouth and Vulpes Libris (alphabetical to avoid playground squabbles).

But be warned … you could be gone some time!

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