Hazel McHaffie

lockdown

On my bookshelves

It’s notable that so many folk we’re seeing on our screens these days – politicians, scientists, celebrities, TV presenters – appear in front of bookshelves. But hey, when I’m at Zoom meetings, so do I! Probably because for many of us, our main computers are in the rooms where we work. But it didn’t occur to me to criticize the material on other people’s shelves until Michael Gove was harangued for having a book by a Holocaust denier alongside other rather extreme literature, on his. Hmmm. It made me wonder … what would people make of my choices? Well, the truth is, it depends on which way the camera is facing in the room. Different walls display different genres. And the books I’m especially devoted to, appear in front of me – ie. behind the camera. But in any case, I certainly don’t agree with the substance or premises of every book we own. What would be the point in only reading things that you agree with? Surely you need to understand other perspectives, other ideas, in order to hone your own thinking.

It made me wonder, though. How do people judge me? As you know, I’ve been putting books outside at the end of our drive for passers-by to help themselves to, by way of distraction for lockdown. For the first few days the books, DVDs and CDs were all mine, but a neighbour put a post on Facebook about the bookcase, and since then I’ve had a tremendous selection of books, jigsaws, games, DVDs, quietly popped on the shelves – beautiful coffee-table hardbacks, dense tomes on the -ologies, best-sellers, how-to manuals, fourth-hand paperbacks, much loved children’s tales. The turn-over has been amazing. And despite the number that are snapped up rapidly, we’ve reached three shelves-full this week! An unexpected bonus. But … am I personally being judged by the books on display? Who knows.

Lockdown is offering lots of unforeseen opportunities for random acts of kindness and helping others, and I’ve been the beneficiary of one myself this past weekend. I attended a virtual Book Festival!

No need to take out a mortgage to pay for tickets, travel, accommodation. No necessity to hang around aimlessly for hours between events. This one came free, a composite of events originally scheduled for different venues around the country, now beamed directly into my study – no one able to peer critically at my book titles either! And I could even knit while I listened – a bonus when you’re just starting an adult jersey – a Gansey from Guernsey in fact – on size 13 (2.25mm) needles.

I particularly enjoyed listening to Terry Waite and Michael Morpurgo, who have such interesting takes on life as well as being brilliant writers. But there was something for everyone, so perhaps it’s not surprising that over twenty thousand people tuned in! Fabulous.

Hats off to the enterprising people who are masterminding these fantastic opportunities. I’ve already booked in for the famous Hay Book Festival later this month – what a treat. As are the multitude of programmes available to watch/hear: fabulous ballets, operas, plays, concerts, masterclasses. The arts and artists themselves have risen to the occasion magnificently, giving their time and skills generously, and I for one am profoundly grateful for all the extra cultural offerings which help to maintain mental stability and well-being in these troubled times.

 

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Unprecedented times

We’re repeatedly reminded that we are living in unprecedented times, the normal rules of engagement don’t apply. And indeed nobody can be unaffected by the restrictions, embargoes and uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. They have the capacity for making us look more closely at what really is important in life.

Maybe it’s that sense, or maybe it’s because we’re being reminded every day of the frailty of human life, but I have this week broken the habit of a lifetime … swift intake of breath … yes, it’s true. And that is …? I have abandoned a book a mere one third of the way in. Me!! Someone who prides herself on always … ALWAYS … giving a book the benefit of the doubt until the very last page! As I say, normal rules of engagement don’t apply right now.

With all this extra time at home, and an unusually empty diary, it seemed like a good idea to delve into the terrible hardships endured by Jewish partisans trapped behind enemy lines in occupied Russia during the last years of WW2. The unimaginable hardships they endured before and during their time in the ‘republic of the marshes’ – gut-wrenching deprivation, torture, imprisonment, starvation – that would surely put our present situation into context. So I duly settled down with Primo Levi‘s modern classic, If Not Now, When?

OK. There are some lyrical passages … the story comes from the heart and Levi’s own lived experience (among other things he was a holocaust survivor) … but oh dear … I struggled to maintain concentration. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why.  Is it because there’s so much going on in real life right now that’s taking up brain space? Is it because dark novels aren’t what we need when today’s news is full of grim statistics and dire predictions? Is it because our present emphasis on people coming together feels so much more edifying that a tale of nations and people in conflict? Or is it the book itself? Would it have defied me in more normal times? I don’t know.

Suffice to say that I believe I’d have persevered at any other time – on principle, if nothing else! But not now. Life feels too short, and I have plenty of other books calling me.

But not as many as I had last week. Because, in a spirit of community support, I’ve set up a bookcase at the end of our driveway, and each day I put a selection of books, DVDs and CDs out, with a notice inviting anyone to help themselves by way of distraction for lockdown.

And passers by are availing themselves of the opportunity every day; some leaving a little message, or throwing an appreciative message across the road at the Thursday clapping for the NHS and key workers. We’ve even had someone expressing interest in having the bookcase when this is all over!! And last night someone asked if her friends could add books and jigsaws to the shelves. Brilliant. I’m delighted that people are finding the time to read, that books still appeal. And there’s an added bonus: I’m freeing up space on my own shelves at the same time. If not now, when? It’s an ill wind …

Stay safe, everyone.

 

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Justice, rights, entitlement

The latest casualty of the coronavirus lockdown in this country is fertility care. As of Wednesday of this week, no new patients will be accepted, and even those in mid-treatment, those for whom this is their last hope, those who will be too old to qualify or stand a chance of success by the end of lockdown, will not now receive the necessary procedures towards which they’ve been working for so long. Yet another tragedy. More heartbreak. More hopelessness.

Which brings my thoughts to the ethical issues around assisted conception …

It’s now fifteen years since I wrote Double Trouble, a book about surrogate pregnancy. Fifteen years! Yoiks. But as with so many ethical dilemmas in medicine, the issues are still relevant today.

I was fascinated then, to watch the serialised BBC1 drama, The Nest, which finished this week, about a very wealthy but childless couple, Glasgow property tycoon Dan and his beautiful pampered wife Emily, who decide to go down this route. Click on the picture for the official trailer.

All attempts at IVF have proved unsuccessful. Dan’s sister has already tried to carry a baby for them but miscarried. They have one precious embryo left. One. Only one more chance. Emily meets the troubled teenage Kaya when she accidentally knocks into her in her car. Kaya sees an opportunity to get out of her impoverished life, and offers to be a surrogate for them in return for £50K. But as the story unravels we find that Kaya has secrets in her past and a very dubious pedigree indeed …; the would-be father Dan is something of a rough diamond too, dealing with a lot of shady characters and skullduggery …; Emily is single-minded about motherhood and what she wants, but privately troubled by the morality of what they are doing – always setting herself up as ‘the principled one‘ according to her sister-in-law. No-one in the UK will implant the last embryo. However, the Dochertys can well afford to go abroad for the simple procedure, and they do so.

On the face of it everyone stands to win. Kaya will be set on her dreamed-of pathway to becoming a successful business woman, able to ‘go on a plane, have one of these pull-along cases‘. The wealthy couple get their hearts’ desire. Better yet, surrogate and intended parents establish a relationship, even friendship. Kaya moves in with the Dochertys and gets a taste of a life of privilege. The baby will not only be much wanted, but will have every advantage money can buy.

Naturally – this is, after all, fiction, drama, a series requiring cliff hangers – things go pear-shaped. Relationships get confused. Loyalties are divided. Dubious and unsavoury motives emerge. But the underlying questions and challenges remain pertinent.

Is parenthood a right?
Is ‘want’ the same as ‘need’ in childbirth terms?
Payment for this service in the UK is forbidden. Should it be?
How binding should a contract between intending parents and surrogate be?
Should private arrangements for surrogacy be permitted?
Does a woman have the right to do whatever she likes with her own body?
What constitutes ‘reasonable expenses’?
Should those with the wherewithal be allowed to circumvent ethical and medical guidelines?
Does using someone far less powerful in this way constitute exploitation?
In the event of a dispute about whose baby it is, whose rights should take precedence, and who should decide?
What if the child is damaged/imperfect/not what was expected? Should the contract still stand? Who should accept responsibility for him/her?
What of the baby’s rights?
How much of its origins should a child be told?

Back to the drama … enter Kaya’s long-estranged mother, who encourages her to renege on the contract, hang on to the baby, become a mother herself, a better mother than she has been. But Dan already loves this child. Even when he finds out she is not his genetically, she’s still his daughter in his heart. The Dochertys call in their lawyer; the case goes to court. It’s left to the judge in the Family Court to put things into perspective – severely castigating their self-serving recklessness, the complete imbalance of power, the undesirable qualities on both sides. But, she says, at the end of the day it’s not a question of how she would judge them; it’s about what is in the baby’s best interests.

Contrary to expectation, there is a happy ending to this story, and both sides demonstrate they’ve learned important lessons about what matters in life. But the drama perfectly illustrates the power of fiction to challenge us to think about what society today should endorse, and how far the law can go in dealing with the fine nuances of moral questions in assisted reproduction. Well done, screenwriter Nicole Taylor.

 

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Disclaimer

We’re deep in a situation of lockdown still and the stark reality of our world-wide war against Covid-19 has made most of our everyday preoccupations seem trivial. But it behoves us all to find strategies for keeping our mental as well as our physical heath as robust as we can. My first go-to respite activity is reading (no surprises there, huh?); getting lost in a whole other world, so I’m going to share my thoughts on a psychological thriller bought back in the (g)olden days when life was busy, and books accumulated waiting for time to read them. Those far off days when I was immersing myself in thrillers in order to learn the mechanics of writing in this genre. Before real life took over the role of sending shivers down our spines.

It’s Renée Knight‘s debut novel, Disclaimer.

How many people bother to read the small-print information at the beginning of a novel about publication, rights, cataloguing, typesetting and copyright? Very few, I’d guess. And those few, other writers and publishers probably. But in amongst all that boring detail you’ll find a disclaimer to the effect that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

What if, though, that disclaimer had a red line drawn through it? THAT would make you sit up and take notice, wouldn’t it? And so it is when award-winning documentary maker, Catherine Ravenscroft, finds a book on her bedside table with the disclaimer crossed out. With a chill of horror coursing through her veins, as she reads, she becomes increasingly aware that she herself is not only the foundation of the story, but the key player. The words ricochet around her brain, slam into her chest, one after another. The names may have been changed, but the details are unmistakable. And this story will reveal a secret she thought no one else knew; a secret she has carried unshared for two decades.

Who has written it? Who has delivered it? Who has sent a second copy to her only son, Nicholas? Who has spelled out her death – under the wheels of a train – the price she must pay for pretending that everything was absolutely fine. Her dread increases exponentially as the stalker closes in.

We, the readers, know the sender is an elderly English teacher, Stephen Brigstocke, who himself has something rather unsavoury in his history. After the death of his wife Nancy, he stumbles across a stash of erotic photographs, and a secret manuscript written by her – clues she left for him to find. Clues relating to the tragic death of their only son, Jonathan, who drowned in Spain trying to rescue a five year old boy, and to a terrible truth Nancy had concealed from her husband during her lifetime.

Desire for revenge consumes him. He publishes Nancy’s story, The Perfect Stranger, and hand delivers his grenade.

‘… the  book was like a terrier, my Jack Russell of a novel which would sniff her from her hiding place and chase her out into the open. Its sharp, pointed teeth would expose her, strip away the counterfeit selves she’d assembled.’

But the wait for revenge is slow and protracted. Alternating chapters give us the feel for the cat and mouse game being played out by these two. Extracts from The Perfect Stranger paint a picture of what happened in that Spanish holiday resort all those years ago. But gradually, chillingly, we are made aware that nothing is what it seems; a far more terrible reality underpins the tale told by those incriminating photographs.

As expected the story twists and turns and we’re exposed to the worst aspects of the characters’ inner selves, none of whom are very likeable. But it’s cleverly designed, and I was intrigued by the author’s ability to slowly but inexorably turn the entire story on its head. Tightening the screw one more time right at the very end.

An unpredictable but intriguing diversion in these weirdly nightmarish days when the real world is spinning into an uncertain and unknowable future.

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Decisions in a time of coronavirus

Week 2 of the lockdown because of Covid-19 and I am reflecting back on an extraordinary seven days. Unprecedented. Grave. Frightening. But one of the most unexpected developments has been a positive one, closely connected to my professional interests: people have been thinking and talking about the ethics around end of life care, and specifically about Advance Directives, teasing out the kind of interventions or treatments they would wish to avoid.

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I wrote my own living will years ago, and have revisited it periodically just to be certain it reflects my sustained wishes. It does. My husband and children have known about the documents and their contents ever since I drafted them, but suddenly these matters seem much more urgent and relevant. There’s a greatly increased possibility that I might become seriously ill soon; that I or they might be called upon to decide whether it’s appropriate or not to accept aggressive or invasive treatment. That it might be futile. So, this week I sent copies of my Advance Directive to refresh their memories as to the detail. If they’re called upon to represent my views, they will know precisely what to say.

However, more importantly, this crisis has prompted other people I know to think about their own mortality and how they feel about these issues, for the first time. Sobering stuff. But so right.

At the very least we all need to have the conversation with our nearest and dearest; better still record our decisions, have them officially witnessed, make the documents known and available.

And the questions even for hardened ethicists have been widened and thrown into stark relief by developments during this pandemic:
what if our hospitals are already full, and I can’t be admitted if I succumb to the virus?
what if being admitted to hospital means I risk dying alone?
what if I live alone and I contract the illness?
what if I fall outside the criteria for treatment?
what if the medics deem me to be highly unlikely to survive?
what if it’s a choice of me versus another patient?
what happens if no-one can attend a funeral?
… and so on …
This public health catastrophe and its horrific statistics has brought us face to face with undreamed-of dilemmas confronting our society in the spring of 2020. Now.

The time has never been more urgent for a weighing up of the risks and benefits, and an analysis of our beliefs and values. For having the conversation. It’s personal. It’s real. It’s not going away.

What will you choose?

 

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