Hazel McHaffie

London

Call the Midwife

Looks like I missed a trick! In 1998 a nurse/midwife/midwifery lecturer, Terri Coates, pointed out that midwives are virtually non-existent in literature. Doctors and nurses yes, – in abundance – but not midwives. Given that they’re at the centre of one of the most spectacular experiences common to all human beings, why is this so?

‘The responsibility they carry is immeasurable. their skill and knowledge are matchless, yet they are completely taken for granted, and usually overlooked … Why aren’t midwives the heroines of society that they should be?’

Jennifer Worth, reading about this in the Midwives Journal, picked up the gauntlet and in 2002 the book, Call the Midwife, was born. It reads rather like a novel in places, but it’s actually based on the true story of life in the East End of London in the 1950s. And of course it rose to fame when Heidi Thomas serialised Worth’s books on BBC TV, series 1 beginning in 2012, and series 7 recently ending on a tragic note which suggests it’ll be back to heal the wounds. And yes, Thomas has indeed signed up for another two series.

The experiences Worth relates rang very true to me. I trained as a midwife myself in the 60s (third from the right in the photo below, taken outside the world’s most famous maternity hospital) and remember vividly that era. Abortion was illegal, premarital sex and illegitimate children were stigmatised, the Pill wasn’t available, racial prejudice was rife, soap and water enemas and pubic shaving were common practice. I too worked in homes where the kiddies ran around in vests and nothing else, free to urinate anywhere without making washing. I learned to take newspapers with me to provide a sanitary base for my bag and coat. Young women did die of eclampsia, infections, undiagnosed complications, back-street abortions. Naive and relatively inexperienced, we accepted the responsibility of being alone in houses with no telephones, few mod cons, but the legendary lashings of boiling water on standby! We too worked long unsocial hours and attended lectures on Saturdays. We too sallied forth anywhere at all hours confidently, wearing our uniforms with pride, and turned our cloaks inside out to parade through the wards in festive red, singing carols at Christmas time.

But Jennifer Worth worked in post-war London; I in Edinburgh and Paisley. She saw a level of poverty and degradation below that I encountered. Prostitution, meths drinkers, homeless immigrants, drug addicts, huge families living in condemned buildings. Mothers desperately trying to keep their families together with no regular income, no benefits, selling hair and teeth as a last resort before being taken in by the workhouse. This was her world.

My own mother regaled me with plenty of stories of those same years and i could only admire the strength and courage of these families who took adversity in their stride and showed such fine examples of parental love and integrity.

It’s a fascinating read, and the success of the BBC show indicates that the topic has widespread appeal. The book includes a potted history of the professionalisation of midwives for those unfamiliar with developments, but the real meat is in the characters and experiences Worth grew to love and appreciate. And the enormous privilege it is to share this most miraculous experience of new birth.

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The spice of life

Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …

… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …

… a  draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …

… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …

… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …

… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …

Cover of "Listen"

Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.

And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.

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The macabre and the make-believe

Buckingham PalaceLast week we took our youngest grandchildren to London.

Tower BridgeAs you do, we soaked up the usual history and took lots of photos of the famous sites and spun a few yarns to bring the past alive, but a couple of the attractions on our list turned out to be far too scary for them to even try. Fair enough; no pressure. I was a ridiculously fearful child myself with far too vivid an imagination that got me into a lot of trouble, so I sympathise.

But their reaction made me think about tolerance levels and the power of the imagination. Which led me to the extraordinary talent some writers have for sucking you in to a horrifying or disturbing world. It’s just words on a page, isn’t it? A mere 26 letters strung together in various combinations. Make-believe. But put together in just this way those words can blot out reality, take over your emotions, keep you on the edge of your seat dreading what’s coming but compelled to read on. That’s clever. That’s power.

So in this frame of mind my eye was caught by reviews such as ‘the go-to queen of contemporary brain-twisting crime‘; ‘the twistiest plots known to woman’, ‘everyday tales of warped psychology’. Intriguing. And who is this queen of twists?  Sophie Hannah, that’s who. OK. Heard of her, not read any of her work. But I appreciate good plotting; I’m fascinated by psychology; I’ll give her a go. Broaden my horizons.

I chose a recent one: A Game for all the Family – billed as her ‘first standalone psychological thriller‘ on her website.

Justine Merrison has escaped from the rat-race of life in London (I’ve just been there so have an up to date sense of the pace and pressure of the metropolis) to an idyllic home in Devon (my neck of the woods so I know all about the very different pace of life and the picture postcard scenery).

Cottage in Devon

Appropriate choice so far.

Justine plans to spend her days ‘doing Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing’, so she cuts off all connection to her old life as a stressed TV executive. But before long her teenage daughter, Ella, becomes withdrawn and miserable. She eventually confides that her ‘best friend in the whole world‘, George, has been expelled from school for stealing her coat, a coat which she gave him as a gift. Incensed by the injustice, Justine puts pressure on the headmistress to reconsider her decision, only to be told that there is not, and never was, a George in their school. So far so good. I’m hooked.

Then Justine sees a creative writing essay Ella has written and she knows at once this is no innocent teenage make-believe. Here is a darkly disturbed mind spinning a macabre tale of a dysfunctional family spiralling out of control. Where has this information come from? And how does it link to the mysterious George for whom she’s pining? Before long, anonymous calls start … then threats … then sinister events. Graves are dug. Justine is caught up in a whirl of frightening happenings, which are wilder than any drama she ever worked on in her former life. Just where do the boundaries of truth lie? And how can she protect her family from the forces gathering against them?

I was sufficiently curious to keep turning the pages, but I have to confess the ending disappointed. Why? Because I was looking for something less obvious given the build up. Because the ‘bad guy’ was always ‘the bad guy’. Because the psychology seemed suspect to me. Because it left me disappointed.

So no more Hannah novels for me then … Ahhh, now there’s the moral of the tale. How unfair of me. She’s an internationally famous, best-selling writer with a string of awards under her belt; she must be doing something right. Even this book has been well reviewed by some critics. And yet I’ve judged her on a first taste. I’d hate it if someone did that to me, so it’s only fair that, at some point, I give her a second chance.

I am resolved.

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Pause for reflection

There’s nothing quite like a spot of immobility to challenge one’s priorities. So much of who we are is wrapped up in what we do. If we can’t do, what then?

A rather nasty early morning fall on black ice (who ever suggested pre-breakfast power walking was good for people of my age in winter time?!) and the equivalent of whiplash injury in my lower spine, have curtailed my movements rather too effectively. Please don’t misunderstand me – this is no cry for sympathy; I’ve no one but myself to blame. No one forced me. But the effect is that I’ve been doing rather too much thinking for my own mental well being. (Well, truth be told, I was always pretty borderline.)

Regardless of the accident, March was always going to be a weird time, a kind of cold turkey, waiting for the latest novel to come off the production line. No more tweaking. No more proof reading. What is, is. And most ‘next-jobs’ can’t begin until the book is actually available – next week!

It’s surprisingly hard to concentrate when you’re in constant pain – or maybe I’m just a terrible wimp. And everything feels cack-handed. Imagine said author draped over an ironing board to write, read, eat, and you have a glimmering of the scenario chez moi. Just not being able to sit down becomes remarkably wearisome. Life gets reduced to essentials.

Unfortunately ‘essentials’ includes a lot of travel right now – Ireland, Cornwall, Midlands, London, all within the space of three weeks. ‘Keep getting out of the vehicle and walking around‘, advises my expert osteopath. ‘Try reclining the seat and lying on your side.‘ Hmm. I guess it depends on the vehicle, and who’s driving, and how soon you want to get there.

Right to DieSo, reflections it is then.

The trip to Galway in Ireland was for an event about dying – both natural and assisted. I was invited on the strength of my novel, Right to Die, and my background in ethics. Eire is working on a parliamentary bill on this subject right now so it’s a hot topic over there; it was an honour to be included. And I felt heartened. After eight years in print my little book is still borrowed from libraries large and small, and the topic is still relevant and controversial,. All very encouraging.

Question is, encouraging enough to keep doing what I do? Hmm. Let’s see.

Things about my work I love and want to retain in my life:
Reading
Writing
Blogging
Editing and revising
Talking about my books/pet subjects
Entering into the debate
Exploring new topics
Good reviews
Hearing from satisfied readers

Things I’m less keen on:
Promotion
Marketing
Tax returns!

Inside of Me coverAhh. The tally says it all. I might revisit this once Inside of Me is on the shelves and my back restored. Who knows, I might even  reinvent myself and go for those four inch crimson stilettos!

 

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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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7/7 remembered

Commemorative roseYou’d need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the commemorative events on Tuesday, ten years on from the 7/7 bombings in London. The ‘ocean of pain’, the quiet grace and dignity of those who lost loved ones, the abiding friendships forged in the face of tragedy, the powerful silences – all eloquent in different ways. The nearest I personally came to the horror back in 2005 was fear for medical colleagues attending a conference nearby in Tavistock Square – all of whom survived, many rushing out to help the injured. The effect of this devastation on those at the heart of it we can only begin to imagine.

But for me one of the most amazing tributes came in the form of a drama. A Song for Jenny, based on the memoir with the same name, was shown on Sunday, two days ahead of the tenth anniversary, and dedicated to the 52 people who lost their lives in the explosions. It didn’t attempt to capture the full scale of the atrocity, focusing instead on one family and the unravelling horror that took place in their lives. Emily Watson is brilliant as mum Julie Nicholson, a Bristol Church of England priest whose 24 year old daughter was killed in the Edgeware Road tube station blast, her own faith shredded in the process. Frank McGuiness‘ screenplay is incredibly powerful and the supporting cast excellent.

Sharing the dawning realisation that Jenny is unaccounted for; listening to the police telling Julie it’s inadvisable to see her daughter’s mutilated body; standing with her beside the coffin as she strokes the familiar hand and struggles to find the words for the anointing of the dead; hearing the cabbie declining payment for running her from London to Reading because he wants her to know ‘there are still good people left in the world’; looking over her shoulder as she dares to view the horrific photos of her daughter’s ‘stations of the cross’ … I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed. The utter futility and bewilderment are embedded in the detail: the fault on the Picadilly line which meant Jenny was on a train taking her in the wrong direction for work; the underground official describing the scene as ‘hell on earth’; Lizzie scribbling all over the photo of her sister’s murderer; the policeman sharing his thoughts about his sleeping sons. The isolation and numbness that both protects and excludes are also sensitively portrayed – my heart bled for Jenny’s father sidelined so often by his strong managing wife (the couple parted after the funeral).

It’s harrowing but it’s also a story of love triumphing over evil, with those left behind determined not to let the bombers ‘win’. And as good art can, it creeps behind the instinctive protective barriers and touches the rest of us deeply, forcing us to reflect on issues which affect us all. Which is why I chose to devote today’s blog to this topic.

 

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Maternal love

In March of this year, Tania Clarence was 42. She lived in a smart five-bedroom house in an affluent area in south-west London. Her husband was an investment banker. She employed a nanny. The trappings of wealth and privilege, you might think.

But on 22nd April, while her husband was abroad, Mrs Clarence ended the lives of three of her children: 3-year-old twin sons, Ben and Max, and daughter Olivia, aged 4, all of whom suffered from type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative wasting disease. She suffocated them and then tried to kill herself with an overdose. She was adamant that she didn’t want to be saved; she couldn’t live with the horror of what she’d done. How often must she have regretted that her suicide attempt failed.

Six months later, this week in fact, her defending QC said, ‘caring for three children with this condition was exhausting, distressing, debilitating and turned out to be overwhelming.’ Indeed. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Medical reports described how she was suffering from major depressive illness. The courts have decreed she will not be charged with murder, but she will in all probability be treated in a psychiatric hospital.

Unless we’re drowning in her problems, it’s impossible for any of us to really empathise with the depths which drove her to this point, but I’m sure we can all understand her despair and depression. There was never going to be an escape from this intolerable burden, not just the relentless workload, but watching all three beloved children getting steadily more disabled.

I feel huge sympathy for her. And I say this with some feeling, because when my own firstborn collapsed aged 3 weeks and his doctors predicted a lifetime of disability, pain and suffering for him, I distinctly remember feeling that death would be preferable for him: better that I should be the one bearing the pain of losing him, than that he should suffer. So I for one am devoutly glad that the courts have decided Tania Clarence should not have to face murder charges. She is already serving a life sentence, poor woman.

FolderAmongst the files on my desk for future novels is this one, labelled ‘Mothers Convicted of Child Death or Damage’. I’m not sure I will ever have the courage to write it, but Mrs Clarence’s story goes into it for now.

PS. For those who don’t know, my firstborn defied medical prognoses, and is a totally healthy young man today; he has always been hugely loved. So please don’t waste any sympathy on me. Or castigate me for my callous approach to motherhood! Not for a second did I ever contemplate actually killing him, but then I was never driven beyond endurance.

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On a roll

I’m buzzing!

Nine hours stuck on a train to London and back on Monday … could have been tedious. In fact it reaped rich rewards. On the way down it was four hours’ reading time. On the way back though, my mind went into overdrive and I got totally stuck into mapping out my next novel. Yep, the whole thing! The catering team plied me with drinks and food and smiles, my fellow passengers respected the rules of the Quiet Coach, and by 11.30pm my notebook was full.

Since then the old brain has been in sixth gear (or whatever it is that facilitates speed and efficiency), and a great big bit of me wants to escape to a remote island and just write. Life though, in all its humdrum-ness, can’t be shelved that easily, so I’m contenting myself with thinking and jotting whenever and wherever I can, empowered by that clear framework.

Rather than leave you high and dry though, I’m simply going to share some pearls gleaned from the latest Mslexia which appealed to the pedant in me. We all quote famous phrases at times, don’t we, but how often do we misquote, I wonder?

Which of these sayings do you think is accurate?

1. ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (Sherlock Holmes speaking)

2. ‘Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble’ (the 3 witches)

3. ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’ (Hamlet’s mother)

4. ‘Theirs but to do or die’ (The Light Brigade)

5. ‘A rose by any other name smells just as sweet’ (Juliet)

6. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ (Congreve)

7. ‘Please, sir, can I have some more?’ (Oliver)

How many did you rate as accurate? Below this picture of a beautiful tree currently blooming in our Japanese garden, are the results, so don’t look yet if you haven’t finished the exercise.

Spring blossomIn reality, every one of these is a misquote. Yes, really!  The correct versions are:

1. It doesn’t appear in any of Conan Doyle’s writings!

2. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’

3. ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’

4. ‘Theirs but to do and die’

5. ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’

6. ‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’

7. ‘Please, sir, I want some more’

How did you fare?

 

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