Hazel McHaffie

Richard Holloway

Serendipidy

It’s odd how often, when you’ve got something on your mind, lots of things feed into it, isn’t it?

My own current novel centres around the loving but dysfunctional Grayson family. Dad, Victor, has vanished and his neatly folded clothes are found on a beach where he used to take his young daughter, India, to play. The police are confident he took his own life. Case closed. So how can it be that India is convinced she heard his voice on Kings Cross station seven years later? And if he is still alive, what possible reason can he have to remain away from the daughter he loved so devotedly?

I guess that makes me super-sensitive to stories where people vanish without trace at the moment. But it was only when I was trying to devour all my Diane Chamberlain novels before Christmas that this one came to my attention: The Silent Sister.

The Silent SisterTeenager Lisa MacPherson is a prodigiously gifted violinist whose talent is fostered by the best mentors money can buy. She has the world at her feet. So why did she suddenly disappear? Who was the mysterious teacher who wrecked her ability? What made her shoot her first teacher dead? Did she really choose to commit suicide in a frozen lake rather than go to prison? And if not, where is she now?

Her sister Riley, who was two at the time of Lisa’s disappearance, has grown up believing Lisa was so depressed she couldn’t go on; that’s what she was always told. It’s not till she’s grown up and sorting out the family house after her father’s death, that she stumbles on newspaper cuttings that tell a very different tale, and she begins to unravel a series of clues darker and more tortured than she ever bargained for. Her whole life seems to have been built upon lies.

The plot is well structured and certainly keeps the pages turning. Plenty of twists in the tale; plenty of intriguing characters; plenty of secrets and deceptions. And true to her background as a psychotherapist, Chamberlain delves into troubled minds and convoluted thinking with consummate ease. The needles flashed and the Christmas charity knitting grew apace as I flew through this book.

And now the season of concerts and school productions and dance shows is upon us. There’s something rather glorious about the spirit that drives teachers/church leaders to produce these events year after year in spite of the dire happenings in the world as well as on our doorstep – this time terrorist attacks in sundry places; floods of unheard of ferocity; Britain sending planes to bomb Syria, the Forth Road Bridge closed for weeks causing chaos on the roads in this area … the list goes on and on. And yet these innocent voices carol ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to all men.’ Bless them.

Dancing on the EdgeI know some people will scoff, despairing of a God in all this chaos. It’s the age old conundrum: if he exists, why does he allow such suffering? Which brings me to another book I’ve just finished reading: Richard Holloway‘s Dancing on the Edge. It’s not looking at this question per se, but it is addressed to the doubting, the wounded, the excluded, the escapees who feel marginalised and disenchanted. I don’t always agree with Holloway’s thinking – goodness, the ex-bishop doesn’t always agree with himself! – but in this book he talks a lot of sense: compassion is a more important response to human behaviour than contempt. Faith should be a way of living with questions without being afraid. If only there was more compassion in the world and people could learn to tolerate difference, the world would be a safer, happier place. Keep singing, children!

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A moral quagmire

I hope you’ve been rejoicing in the several days of silence. Things have ratcheted up several gears chez moi, though – final proofs for the book have been checked, a new website created, this website updated … I won’t bore you with the rest or the detail.

And now, here I am back at the Book Festival again, in the Spiegeltent this evening. The subject of the session is … don’t groan … The Ethics of Dying. Look, I didn’t put this Book Festival programme together!

The Spiegeltent

But the organisers reckon it’s expedient to consider whether it’s ‘time to reevaluate our thinking‘ on this subject now we have so much power over life and death, and advances in medicine are allowing us to keep people alive so much longer than nature ever intended. So who am I to argue? It’s a question I’ve often asked in conferences and seminars: just because we can, does it mean we should?

And on the flip side, what do we think about assisted suicide for those people who’ve had enough of life? Is it right to stop them? OK, we did that last week too, but hey ho.

Inside the Spiegeltent

It’s a strange feeling sitting here. Exactly five years ago I was wheeled into this very tent as the author of Right to Die, debating this very issue alongside Baroness Mary Warnock, with Richard Holloway in the chair. Tonight the author is Gavin Extence and the academic, Professor of Divinity, David Fergusson, with Richard Holloway in the chair.

Extence has recently published his debut novel, The Universe versus Alex Woods, which is curiously similar to Sparkle and Dark’s, Killing Roger, which I told you about last week: young man meets old man, old man wants to die, young man has to decide where he stands. But he’s not talking about it; he’s presenting the case for assisted dying based on the research he did for the book. Curious choice, and I hear mutterings from various ‘older’ folk about his not having lived yet, all theory, second hand.

Richard Holloway maintains his customary firm grip on proceedings, dismissing irrelevancies and keeping the debate focused. He sets the tone for a much more moderate discussion by saying it’s not a good/bad divide, but a matter of opposing goods, and both speakers echo that. And he points out that it’s right and proper that we should be discussing this matter and feeling a sense of anguish about it. We shouldn’t be dismayed that we find it difficult.

Extence’s main points are that technology and advances in medicine are the main reasons why we have a problem with aging or ill people living beyond the point they would choose to. Dwindling resources and poor care mean we are heading to a situation where only those who can afford it will be able to die well, so for him the pressing issue is freedom of choice. His solutions: learn from the experience of other countries who allow assisted dying; clarify the law for relatives; educate society in relation to end of life; fund quality research into these horrible diseases.

Fergusson makes the point that doctors no longer have the latitude to quietly help people to die, and in consequence the old fear the dying process. Repeated parliamentary bills have polarised opinion unhelpfully, with both sides tending to caricature the other and present them in an unfavourable light. As a theologian he declares himself in support of the notion that life is God-given and to be used responsibly, but he fully accepts that some lives should not be prolonged unnecessarily, and that people should be able to exercise some choice in the manner of their dying. He further concedes that even though he might not choose to end his own life, he feels uncomfortable with the idea of imposing his view on others. Hurrah! say I.

The problems for him relate to public safety, not prohibition. The difficulties of specifying safeguards, knowing when death is less than 6 months away, being sure the wish to end a life is sustained and for the right reasons. He fears a shift in the law might make certain people more vulnerable and divert attention away from good palliative care. Doctors do not want to take on this task, and Fergusson feels it shouldn’t be forced on them. But he doesn’t like the idea of specialists in ‘killing’ either. He concludes that the law must be tailored to all, not just to hard cases. Therein lies a real problem, say I.

There are seven disabled people in wheelchairs at the front of the tent and predictably they leap in with questions. Most of the comments lament attitudes and provisions which make life intolerable; things which could be improved with more money and better education.

An advocate of assisted dying calls for accuracy in quoting statistics: the incidence of assisted suicide abroad is very small and most people who subscribe to it never actually avail themselves of the drugs; it’s more an insurance against a lingering or intolerably undignified or painful death which in fact allows them to live longer.

As always, the particular difficulties of those who are no longer mentally competent to make the choice for themselves comes up. And the importance of compassion and excellent care. Assisted suicide is not a genuine choice if it’s in response to substandard provision.

David Fergusson picks up on the repeated invoking of human rights and autonomy, reminding the audience that all of us operate in relation to other people; what we choose for ourselves affects them too. Wise words.

Richard Holloway sums up the discussion as temperate, elegant, modest and humane, and he takes two votes at the end. There’s a clear majority in favour of having some provision for people in certain circumstances to be assisted to  commit suicide. And no one has changed their mind as a result of what they heard tonight. C’est la vie!

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Festival gems

I’ve done far less than usual in the Festival this year because I’ve been committed to raising money for Africa and had visitors to look after. But I thought I’d share a few gems from the Book Festival – just so you know I DID go when I could!

Audrey Niffenegger (Author and graphic artist who found fame with The Time Traveler’s Wife.)

She was asked how she knew when a book was finished. She replied that she interrogates her characters. Who are they? What did they do? Why did they do it? How did they feel? When she has no more questions for them, she’s ready to close the story.

A cool answer, I thought. I might borrow it some time.

Stuart Kelly (Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday)

He was chairing in the main theatre marquee, and raised the subject of libraries struggling for survival. A bit later in the evening there was a blast from some fireworks clearly audible in the tent. ‘Ah, they’re bombing the local branch library,’ he quipped. Later an aeroplane roared over the tent. ‘That one’s for the National library!’ he laughed. The audience loved it. In other circumstances such comments would have been enough to get him arrested; in this context it just felt perfectly pitched. How I envied him that kind of speed of thought and presence of mind. A good chair can really lift an event.

Anthony Grayling (Philosopher)

A Secular BibleHe began by talking about the source of moral authority in a most eloquent introduction to his new publication: The Good Book: A Secular Bible, which he’s been compiling for decades. He described it as ‘a resource for people who are making up their minds about how to live.’ Chairman, Richard Holloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh, said he’d particularly liked the section called Lamentations, and wondered if it sprang from Grayling’s own experience of sorrow and suffering. The response was measured and gentle. We all need to be well informed, passionate about what we believe in, and sensitive to others. Letting someone know you understand their suffering is the greatest gift you can give, Grayling responded. How true. And ’to be a good guest at the feast of life is to be a good listener as well as a good speaker.’ Exactly!

Listening to him speaking without a single note, or hesitation, or infelicitous choice of words, it’s quite hard to think of him as a victim. But Richard Holloway questioned him about the ‘horrible monstering’ he’d received from his friends recently, because of his promotion of a private university. Grayling of course defended himself robustly. His new university will embrace three key desirables, he said: the liberal arts tradition of America; one-to-one indepth tutorials; a collegiate atmosphere where individuals are really known. It’s designed to produce really good thinkers who ask profound questions. Hmm. A bit like clones of Grayling then?

I took three pages of notes during his hour and came away buzzing. Imagine having this mighty thinker beside you at a dinner party. I’d be thrilled and terrified in equal measure.

AL Kennedy (author and stand-up comedian)

I’ve heard Alison Kennedy speak several times before, but this year I was seriously underwhelmed. She says she’s been ill. Sadly it showed in her performance. In a convoluted way I took heart from this. After listening to brilliance I can feel very inferior. Seeing an accomplished speaker having a bad day gives me renewed hope.

Only one event with AS Byatt and one literary party left to go. But thoughts from this week’s sessions are still buzzing in my head. What a gift. And I always learn something about presentation – even if it’s what not to do.

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