Hazel McHaffie

Nadine Dorries

The front line: then and now

Health Minister and Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, was the first member of parliament to be diagnosed with Covid-19. This was back in early March … at a time when there were only 382 reported cases in UK, only 6 people had died. Halcyon days, huh? Less than two months later, we’ve already exceeded 26,000 deaths!

The news about Ms Dorries triggered a memory: I’d read somewhere that she was a trained nurse, and intrigued, I’d bought two of her ‘nursey’ novels in a coffee shop on my way to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town a couple of years ago, stuck them on my shelves, and promptly forgotten about them – The Angels of Lovely Lane and Christmas Angels. Time, methinks, to dig them out and read them … a kind of tribute to the nurses today working so hard to care for people with the virus in a very different world.

I must confess neither the genre, nor the style of writing, are ones I’d normally go for, but there were aspects of these books that gave me pause for thought and sober reflection. These nurses were practising not long before I trained; their experiences resonated with me. Rather like BBC1’s drama, Call the Midwife.

Reading about and recalling those days made me so grateful for all that modern medicine and social care can offer today. How far we have come from those days when
– the NHS was in its infancy
– antibiotics were wonder-drugs
– women had limited career options
– smoking was the norm
– lecture notes were written on typewriters using carbon paper
– rubber tubing was boiled before being inserted into various orifices
– patients were lifted manually
– doctors were revered and all powerful
– women died or were imprisoned following illegal abortions
– ten days bedrest was de rigeur after a simple D&C; three weeks after childbirth
– nurses wore starched collars and frilly caps, always kept their hair off their face tucked inside their caps, lived in hostels with rigid rules, and were all known by their surnames
– silver buckles on petersham belts denoted qualifications
– the Irish were openly discriminated against …

Compare all that with communication, technology, medical expertise, opportunities, science, in 2020. What would have happened if the dreaded coronavirus has struck then?

In her fiction centring on Liverpool in the 1950s, Nadine Dorries has captured a world I knew, and for a few days took me away from the uncertainties and restrictions and anxieties of our present situation, to a bygone era. Memories both happy and sad. But overwhelmingly reasons to be devoutly grateful for what’s available to us today, and the amazing work our front-line staff are doing – and are able to do – to beat Covid-19.

 

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Sneering reviews

Jamaica InnWe’ve been hearing a lot about Daphne du Maurier recently, in the build up to the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Jamaica Inn, which was shown on BBC1 this week. Did you watch it? I was one of the ones who persevered, but must confess to being disappointed. The poor sound of the first episode, the unintelligible dialects and the extremely dark settings, made both hearing and watching it hard work (it was a relief to me to hear hundreds of other viewers had struggled too; I thought my ears and eyes were suddenly succumbing to old age!). Grim and brooding though the early nineteenth century story undoubtedly is, this production team lost something of the vibrancy of the tale with their handling of these aspects.

But perhaps it’s appropriate that the film should attract criticism. Even though her Gothic romances sold millions, and what’s more, still sell well today over seven decades after publication, du Maurier herself was plagued all her writing life by dismissive reviews from the literary critics. As she once wrote, ‘You don’t know how hurtful it is to have rotten sneering reviews, time after time again throughout my life. The fact that I sold well never really made up for them.’

Frankly, I’d settle for being a bestseller every time. Her books are national treasures, and we all know her name; which is more than can be said of her critics.

Lots of authors, of course, give reviews a very wide berth, preferring not to know about the damning criticism of assorted mixed-ability reviewers with their own varied agendas. And there is a school of thought that says a bad review is better than no review, but I’m not so sure MP Nadine Dorries would echo that sentiment. Her debut novel, The Four Streets, got a real stinker of a review from  Christopher Howse in the Telegraph, two weeks ago. It was headed ‘Avoid this book’, and began with ‘If you enjoy advertisements for the NSPCC this is the novel for you.’ Hmm. Not an auspicious start. It included: ‘Perhaps, if the novel had begun at page 289, on which something happens, it might have stood a chance. As it is, the action repeatedly falls from the author’s grip, like a dummy from the lips of a fractious child in an old pram.’  Ouch. Howse’s overall verdict? ‘This is the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years.’ And to round it all off: ‘A sequel – may the Holy Mother protect us – is due in the autumn.’ Double ouch. My heart goes out to Dorries.

Actually getting a review in one of the major publications is no mean feat in itself; the jolly old Telegraph has never featured one of my books and I don’t pretend to be in that league. But having been thinking along these lines, critically appraising the BBC production, sympathising with the du Mauriers and Dorries of this world, I was doubly in the mood to be cheered by a critique of my own latest offering in a much less well-known publication, which only came to my attention last week. I share it with you in the spirit of keeping light as well as shade in this blog post.

Over my Dead BodyHazel McHaffie has earned a solid reputation as a writer whose novels grapple with the dilemmas at the heart of contemporary medical ethics. Her characters face decisions that change lives. In Over My Dead Body, the subject is organ donation, and the arguments for and against it play out through her convincing portrayals of the bereaved mother and the hospital team … McHaffie takes the general and makes it human. She takes the cerebral, ethical story and makes it personal by taking the reader into the hospital corridors and right up to the bedsides of those facing the dilemmas. It’s thought-provoking stuff, and very readable.

What a kindly critic. But more importantly, effectively summarising precisely what I’m all about. Thanks hugely, Northwords Now.

 

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