Hazel McHaffie

pandemic

Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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The jigsaw begins to take shape

You could be forgiven for thinking I’d buried my writing pen for good. Even I was beginning to be suspicious!! Well, news on that front at last.

We’ve all had to make adjustments during this past six months, but exercise has consistently been held up as a ‘good’ for everyone, even designated a legitimate reason to go out of the house during the initial country-wide lockdown. It’s certainly been an important part of my well-being. Over the weeks, my early morning solitary constitutional along mostly deserted routes has become a valuable time for quiet reflection and uninterrupted processing of ideas.

On the steeper uphill sections, when my muscles protest and my cardio-vascular system is under pressure, the activity in my brain is a welcome distraction. On the easy downhill paths the ideas rush along at an exhilarating pace.

Where the ground levels out I occasionally stop to soak up the tranquillity around me and reflect on where my brain is taking me.

There’s been so much to sort and sift and mull over arising out of this weirdly different experience of a worldwide crisis and its effects on us all, and I’ve made a conscious decision to ring-fence this time when I can leave my mind pretty much to its own devices.

I’ve become very aware that I’ve been unusually reluctant to start a new book. Normally I’m raring to go; not this year. I just haven’t been in the right place psychologically. And strangely enough, I’ve accepted that without protest. Time to concentrate of different priorities.

However, of late, the ideas and possibilities for novel number 12 have been increasingly jostling for pre-eminence in my head and begun demanding action. A structure has been gradually emerging that has stood the test of time, with the pieces fitting together rather like a jigsaw puzzle, and this very week a milestone has been reached: that outline has actually been committed to the computer. Wahey! A fairly robust skeleton methinks on which to hang more new details as they emerge. So, it’s been a long time coming but I think perhaps we might now be on a roll … ? Maybe …? Possibly …? Clovid-19 permitting …?

 

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Virtual bonanzas and bonuses

Wow! What a treat for these strange restricted times. The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020 in virtual form. No queuing in the squelching mud and drizzle around Charlotte Square, no impatient hanging about between events, no debating the wisdom of a working day taken up travelling to attend a disappointing session. The rain is certainly hammering down as I write, but I’m snug and dry in my study, watching interviews with the great and the good, sipping excellent coffee as I take notes.

And when I say ‘the great and the good’ that includes famous faces and distinguished wordsmiths who have generously entered into the spirit of this year’s answer to lockdown and given so much of their energy and expertise. I’ll just give you a flavour of the ones that appealed most to me.

A regular contributor to the EIBF is Val McDermid. This year she appeared with real-life partner, Jo Sharp, sharing excerpts from their edited book Imagine a Country: Ideas for a Better Future, in which a cohort of Scottish writers imagine what would/could improve our nation. And aren’t we all looking at our lives and our country this year, wondering whether we could bottle the valuable things that the pandemic is teaching us about what it truly valuable, and carry them forward beyond Covid?

A highlight of their session was playwright Jo Clifford giving a dramatic reading from her contribution about respect for everyone, regardless of their orientation or origin or differences – an extra powerful message coming from a trans-woman who has endured more than her fair share of disrespect.

I was hugely impressed too by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who believes all politicians should read fiction, and demonstrated her own love of reading by her well-informed and fluent hosting of an interview with the first black woman writer to win the Booker Prize: Berndardine Evaristo discussing her book: Girl, Woman, Other. A stimulating hour with both.

And then there was veteran Festival speaker, Richard Holloway, formerly Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, who has, through the years, shared his doubts and loss of faith with festival goers. This year he was talking about Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe. He has now returned to the church – without it he felt homeless – and is trying to live by the story that makes us disconcerted and uncomfortable and self-questioning, that in turn makes us seek to be kinder and forgiving and more compassionate in our lives. Well, that’s a laudable aim at least. But he laments the way some people take literally the great religious myths and stories that tell eternal truths: instead they should be read seriously and intelligently, and interpreted in their own context, so that they enrich and liberate the reader. Holloway is now 87, and journalist  Ruth Wishart – one of my favourite interviewers – couldn’t resist asking him if he believed in an afterlife. He promised to do his best to come back and tell her if such a thing existed. Please do, she countered, it’d be an ‘awfy good scoop!’

All three of these events offered much to ponder about the big questions in life, and the things that really matter, which is why they ticked my boxes.

Better still, in the midst of this feast of literary brilliance, I could whip up to Clackmannanshire on a lovely sunny day and savour the tranquillity of the fabulous Cowden Japanese Garden without missing out on the literary bonanza. What a bonus!

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Three months and counting

Milestones are useful hinges for reflection: three months ago this week the first Covid-19 death was reported in the UK. Since then, as per the official statistics yesterday, in this country there have been a further 39,727 deaths recorded where the deceased had a positive test for the virus. Say that again slowly – THIRTY-NINE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN DEATHS. Not to mention the legion of unconfirmed cases. These are indeed unprecedented and calamitous times, so it seems fitting to consider something quite different here. Not a book; not a scientific paper; not even a film. But a newspaper article.

A beautifully written article in the Review section of the Guardian on Saturday, and one of the most sobering and moving pieces I’ve read in the proliferation of writings about this devastating disease. I wasn’t surprised to find that, before going to medical school, the author, Dr Rachel Clarke, was a current affairs journalist and documentary maker.

Her usual habitat is palliative care medicine in a hospice, but during this crisis she’s been working with patients dying of coronavirus. Politicians and journalists speak ‘loftily, from afar, an Olympian perspective’, she writes, and listening to them can feel like ‘a mathematical abstraction, an intellectual exercise played out in curves and peaks and troughs and modelling‘. But where she is, in a hospital, dealing with real people caught up in this horror, ‘the pandemic is a matter of flesh and blood.‘ And she is utterly appalled by the gloss the politicians have been putting on the devastation and loss.

Used as she is to comforting, hugging, being up close and personal, the very execution of her job now cuts her to the quick.
‘In PPE, everything is sticky and stifling. Voices are muffled and smiles obscured. Sweat starts to trickle into your underwear. Even breathing takes more effort. Behind our masks, we strain to hear each other speak and are forced to second guess our colleagues’ expressions. Being protected entails being dehumanised.’
Approaching relatives of the dying is immensely painful and counter-intuitive.
‘I am a doctor with neither name nor a face. My hospital badge is hidden from view and my eyes – the only part of my face still visible – are obscured by a layer of Perspex. So much for the healing presence of the bedside physician. I scarcely look human … Everything about this is wrong.’

She illustrates her experiences poignantly with reference to a single encounter with an 89-year-old man slowing drowning in his own secretions. His sons, bewildered and afraid, enter the other-worldly scene only for the last farewell. Her own emotions plummet as she watches helplessly, unable to offer the human warmth that is her instinctive response. Neither she nor they, want this elderly gentleman to be a mere statistic – a number reported in the next day’s death toll. He is so much more than that.

Dr Clarke and her colleagues at the frontline know for sure that the soundbites trotted out at the central podium in Downing Street each day have not been borne out by the reality in the Covid wards or the care homes. Social isolation, PPE, testing, lockdown – the deficiencies and delays and shortfalls have appalled them; the article captures the discordance perfectly.  Once lockdown was established, and the quarantined population were trying to manage its fears using ‘the unconventional strategies of baking bread and stockpiling toilet rolls’, the medical staff were reeling. Fearlessly, urgently, frenetically, they threw themselves into delivering high-quality pandemic medicine. They could only look on in disbelief as staff were obliged to fashion PPE out of plastic bags, patients were sent into care homes without tests to establish their Covid status, and restrictions were being lifted in the absence of the necessary infrastructure for proper testing and tracing.

The country may be letting its collective breath out cautiously as the numbers decrease, but they are still battling this deadly enemy. They feel sick as the politicians declare the success of their strategies; they know at first hand the stupendous costs of delay and deficiency, the real tragedy of thousands upon thousands of deaths and bereavements. They were, they still are, there, ‘up close with this dreadful disease‘,  seeing ‘the way it suffocates the life from you‘. For them political judgements ‘were grotesque‘. They themselves are ‘exhausted, stunned – shellshocked, even‘. Clarke’s verdict? The loss of so many vulnerable citizens is ‘entirely and inexcusably wrong … no one is expendable‘.

I certainly don’t envy any of the people who must make these decisions, but putting a spin on the devastation, peddling untruths and half statistics, making false promises, doesn’t engender trust or confidence. And as Dr Clarke says, ‘The point of our response to corona virus is not to flatten curves, ramp up headlines, protect the NHS or invent mathematically nonsensical equations: it is to prevent unnecessary dying’. And there you have it. The heart of the matter. Summed up by someone at the very kernel of this global catastrophe.

She’s the author of Dear Life, paperback version due out in September this year. It’s top of my wish list.

NB. To be fair, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her daily updates for Scotland, always stresses the tragedy of every single death.

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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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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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