Hazel McHaffie

Remembrance Day

HIV/AIDS in fiction – but not mine!

I’m one of those irritating people who can’t function in a clutter, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in my writing life. I need to clear up any unresolved issues and outstanding tasks before I can psyche myself into the creative zone.

This week I’ve been flitting from an intriguing system for finding new readers (yawn, yawn), to consolidating material for the children’s Christmas story (great fun!), preparing for forthcoming author appearances (mmm, lovely communication with real live people), and delving into the ethical dimensions behind ongoing medical questions (round and round and round, we go). Oh, and a little bit of digging into the past in our family and communicating with archivists – related to Remembrance Day and my Uncle Harold who died on the Somme a hundred years ago this year. Thiepval memorialAll in all a very raggy kind of week. And definitely not conducive to serious stints of writing.

So, I’m busy tidying up loose ends to put me in a calmer place. Not exactly headline news, not remotely interesting to anyone else, indeed, so I’ll just share one activity with you that closed – nay, more like permanently deleted – one of the many open files in my brain.

In my stack of ideas for possible future novels I have a wallet labelled ‘HIV/AIDS’, so when I saw a review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home I just had to buy a copy. I read it over a year ago but somehow never got round to writing about it here. This seems like a good moment to rectify that omission.Tell the Wolves I'm Home

It’s a debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, an American writer now living in Devon, who was selected for the New Writing Partnership’s New Writing Ventures award, and funded by the Arts Council to write it. Lucky woman, huh?

Essentially, it’s a well written tale of love and compassion, secrets and prejudice, forbidden relationships and the legacies left by bittersweet memories.

The narrator is a fourteen year old girl, June Elbus, the younger sister of the slimmer and more beautiful Greta. June is a curious mixture as she hovers on the brink of adulthood: still fantasising about the Middle Ages and wolves, playing like a child in the woods, one minute; showing a maturity beyond her years as she faces death and loss, tortured by her own inappropriate longings, the next.

The girls’ Uncle Finn is a famous artist and he’s painting a picture of the sisters, hoping to complete it before he dies of AIDS. June is obsessed by Finn Weiss, who is also her godfather – in love with him in fact – and his death devastates her. But Finn has made provision for her grief in the shape of his hidden lover, Toby, who materialises unexpectedly at the funeral and becomes very much part of her secret world. Gradually June gets to see the impact Toby had on the uncle she thought she knew.

The Elbus family are riven with tensions arising from Finn’s fame, his illness, Mom’s reaction to it, Toby’s part in it, Greta’s insecurity, the parents’ ambitions, sibling rivalries. Jealousies, conflicts, and divided loyalties drive them to re-examine their lives, their strengths and weaknesses. Greta is not the confident, popular older sister June thought she was. Finn is not the man June thinks he is. The painting is not revered as a masterpiece should be.

In a former life I actually carried out empirical research in the early days of HIV/AIDS, and Brunt’s portrayal of the family’s reaction to the illness rings true for the time. It’s sensitively and sympathetically wrought. So too are the dynamics of the Elbus family. I liked the way the author gradually unravelled the characters and showed us their true selves – cleverly done through the eyes of an adolescent first person narrator. It’s a multi-layered book, successfully weaving and merging many threads until the tale is told. A worthy winner of a prestigious award.

But the time for writing a novel on the subject myself is passed; all my books on the subject can be consigned to a good cause. That potential novel can be crossed off my list. Result? Space on my shelves and in my brain! Wahey!!

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Remember, remember

Whatever you think about the morality and efficacy of war, this has been a week to pause and reflect. I wonder what memories and associations it brought for you. Maybe of loved ones killed, maimed, bereaved, traumatised by conflicts past or present. Maybe of long-gone ancestors whose heroism has been romanticised by time. Maybe of traumas or fears you’ve experienced yourself. It only takes a simple wooden cross, a name carved out of granite, the sound of a lone piper, to unleash powerful emotions.

Thiepval memorialFor me, every Armistice day makes me think of my uncle, blown to pieces at the age of 21, before even my mother was born. But this November I’ve been struck in a different way by the power of the senses to trigger memories. I spent a considerable proportion of the week with elderly people, in their 80s and 90s, who lived through the last great conflict, but whose horizons have now shrunk, as mobility, mental agility, memory have gradually failed them. Locked away in their minds and hearts are hundreds of years of vibrant memories – of youth, of careers, of loves, of losses, of successes and failures, of huge world crises and calamities.

It’s part of my role to find that smell, that taste, that association, that word, that will unlock the reservoir, to listen carefully to the first-hand account, encourage the activation of surrounding memories. And I never cease to be amazed at the sheer variety of seemingly ordinary things that release those unique memories and fascinating revelations … the aroma of caraway seed cake, a picture of the Queen repairing an army truck, the feel of a lace collar, a ringlet, the sound of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

It was Proust in Swann’s Way (part of his monumental A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time]) who captured this phenomenon best:

‘The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest.’

What a privilege to sit at the feet of these people who have actually seen and heard and tasted and touched the things the rest of us learned from history lessons. They have forgotten more than I ever knew.

 

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Remembrance Day

In this week during which we remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country, I wish I could say that I’d had the foresight to select appropriate books to read. But it wouldn’t be true. I’ve been rather bogged down in dense scientific papers actually, and committee meetings, and preparing for a debate and … all rather boring to anyone else, so I won’t go into details. So it’s a surprise to me to find that the one book I have read in a lull between storms, and that I’m burning to tell you about in today’s post, is as relevant as it is.

Last week I waxed lyrical about The Book Thief, set in the time of the holocaust. This week, we go back to the First World War. Hmmm. Maybe they were subliminal choices after all.

Biggest surprise of all though – today’s offering is a children’s book, by that popular author, Michael Morpurgo. It’s one of those books that’s been on my to-be-read list for years, ever since it hit the literary headlines in 2003. I spotted it in a boxed set in my grandson’s collection and next thing I know, it’s in my hand.

Now, I’m a reluctant borrower, I must confess. So I only opened the pages a crack, just enough to read it but not to crease the pristine spine. None of the usual propping it in a book deckchair while I simultaneously knit and read. Fortunately for me the story had me gripped throughout, so the totally unrelaxed position I adopted was soon forgotten. And it’s only 187 pages long.

It’s called Private Peaceful. Tommo Peaceful is only fifteen when he goes off to war with his older brother, Charlie. The story begins with a count down: Five past ten. Private Peaceful is facing the last night before a cataclysmic event at 6 o’clock the following morning. Less than eight hours to go. He’s determined to remain awake and re-live every precious moment of his life to date. We don’t discover until near the end what that shocking event is, but the tension hovers throughout.

Hunkered down close to the battlefields Tommo reflects on life before the war … the boys love for their friend, Molly … their fierce protection of their big brother, Joe, who isn’t like other boys … the scrapes they get in … Charlie’s audacity … Tommo’s struggle to keep up …

Alongside the reminiscences, Tommo recounts with stark honesty the humiliation of life in the army, the terror of ‘going over the top’. Powerful writing in its very simplicity. And the suspense grips you right through till you reach the final chapter: One minute to six. The fateful morning when you just want to weep at the unexpected ending.

War. So much senseless waste. So much pain and sorrow. I defy you to read this book and not be moved. Or to be challenged by the horrific deeds done in the name of patriotism and duty.

A fantastic book that fully deserves the prizes and plaudits it received. BUT … I have one big reservation. This is a children’s book: Morpurgo says it’s for 8 to 12 year olds. And many children I know happily soak up anything he writes; parents confidently leave them to do so. Maybe I’m seriously out of step with today’s acceptable standards, but my personal view is that this one needs to carry a PG sticker. The language, and in places the content, are not those I’d buy for my own grandchildren without some kind of discussion and explanation.

But if you adults want to be reminded of the futility and horror of war, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Just give yourself recovery time afterwards.

And on Remembrance Day, let’s end with a challenge for us all:
World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassionXIVth Dalai Lama

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