Hazel McHaffie

Queen Elizabeth II

The Other Hand

How about this for the blurb on the back cover of a book?
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there …

Brave publisher, huh? Trusting author.

Well, I did buy The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, on the strength of this intriguing sales pitch. I was hoovering up books in Scotland’s National Book town, after all! And wow! it is indeed a special story. It was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA Novel Award and has attracted terrific reviews: ‘a feat of literary engineering’,  ‘a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency’, ‘profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop’. All richly deserved.

I can’t reveal the plot to you because the instruction from the publisher is specific:
Once you’ve read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

And ‘unfolds’ is the right world. The past and present are seamlessly woven together, each action having an influence which ripples out to create a reaction, which in turn has new consequences. Masterly plotting. And the writing is wonderful, the voices and dialogues pitch-perfect. Somehow the author manages to juxtapose gut-wrenching horror and laugh-out-loud humour without compromising either. I’ve no idea how he does it. From the first line: Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl‘ to the closing Nigerian proverb: If your face is swollen from the severe beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man, this book will hold you in a vice-like grip at once shocking and deeply affecting but also entertaining.

Star of the show is the character who pens the above first sentence: Little Bee, a 16-year-old orphaned Nigerian refugee with impeccable Queen’s English. Indeed she often likens herself to ‘Queen Elizabeth the Second of England’. She and her story will haunt you for days after you’ve read her final words. And we all need to wake up to stories like hers.

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Dignifying death

QuestioningTomorrow the Assisted Dying Bill is back before the House of Commons yet again. I wonder if your views have changed since it was last debated.

It’s an age old question, isn’t it? 500 years before the birth of Christ, Euripides wrote: ‘I hate the men who would prolong their lives / By foods and drinks and charms of magic art / Perverting nature’s course to keep off death / They ought, when they no longer serve the land / To quit this life, and clear the way for youth.’

And here we are, 2600 years later, with an aging population, limited resources and vastly improved medical capability. Globally, the number of over-65s is expected to triple by 2050, with all that that implies. Of course, no politician will ever advocate that those who ‘no longer serve the land’ should choose suicide. But many aged and infirm people would choose death for themselves rather than indignity or slow decline or suffering. I’ve known many such – one just this week. And yet the current law prohibits assisting them towards that end. Is this a safeguard or a shackle?

During the Festival last month I went to a show which dealt with the quandary elderly folk can find themselves in: specifically not wanting to be kept alive, not wanting to be taken into hospital/care, not being listened to. In the drama, by the Jealous Whale Theatre, terminally ill Wendy’s grandson, Edmund, pleads with the authorities to respect her wishes; but the powers that be insist that there are ‘safeguarding’ issues and their hands are tied. In the end Edmund takes matters into his own hands, smothers his gran with a pillow, and then sits quietly waiting for the consequences. Cleverly performed in the intimacy of a ‘Wendy House’, it forced the audience into close proximity with the protagonists and their moral dilemmas. The play resurrected a lot of the old questions for me.

I'll See Myself Out, Thank YouEarlier this year I also read (and reviewed on this blog) ‘I’ll See Myself Out, Thank You Afterwards I went to the internet and looked at videos about people who have made a choice one way or the other. I was staggered by the number available, and had a rather depressing day watching them all, especially the touching scenes of farewell with loved ones. I don’t recommend it!

But I thought I’d give you the links to a selection of them just in case you want to select any to help you think through the arguments for yourself. I apologise for the imbalance; I’d have liked to be even handed, but far more pro assisted death than against seem to commit their views to video.

The last days, hours, minutes of a person’s life before they took the lethal dose, explaining their position and support for assisted suicide.

Cocktail of drugsCraig Ewart

Brittany Maynard

Man with AIDS in Oregon

Michelle Causse

Peter Smedley with Terry Pratchett attending

John Elliott

Susan Griffiths

Dr Donald Lowe

Gloria Taylor

People who wished they’d had this opportunity but hadn’t

Debbie Purdy

Convicted killer in Russia

Relatives grateful that their loved ones did have this chance of escape

Brother of an American

Mothers who wished to or did take the lives of their children.

Mother wanting to end life of two disabled adult children

Mother who did kill daughter

Patients lingering for years and years in an appalling state while everyone felt powerless to release them

Indian nurse sodomised and almost strangled

Several illustrative cases put together

Elderly viewpoints

The lengths friends and family would go to to support the settled wish of a patient

Two friends dying only one of whom was ill

Disabled people opposed to assisted suicide

Man with ALS

Disabled man

Disabled Alison Davis

(PS. Many years ago I was on a special committee with Alison Davies debating whether or not extremely small sick babies should be treated or allowed to die with dignity. We all found it very difficult to argue against Alison because it felt like devaluing her life. She’s still an ardent campaigner and a powerful voice decades later. And I’m still writing about the subject!)

Speaking of age, I want to add my own wee tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who yesterday became our longest ever reigning monarch. Watching this little old lady still performing her role with dignity, grace and an exemplary sense of duty at the age of 89 is both humbling and inspirational. God bless her.

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