Hazel McHaffie

self harm

Countdown

What a week. The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox; Tim Peake‘s return to earth after six months in space; an historic referendum on the UK’s position in Europe; … I’ve counted down to my own author-event at Blackwell’s Bookshop this evening, not just in days-to-the-referendum, but in significant news flashes. And I want to pay my own small tribute to Jo Cox and her family who have epitomised dignity, humanity, unity and compassion. If only her legacy could continue to overrule the vitriol and power-struggling and falsehoods which have characterised this campaign.

So, tonight we launch my latest novel, Inside of Me, into the bigger world, courtesy of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh.

Stash of Inside of Me

I always knew it would be hard to do justice to this one without giving away a surprise but significant element which is only revealed at the end. So I had to explore various angles which might ‘sell’ the book to a live audience without containing spoilers. On this occasion I decided to concentrate on two points: body image and disappearance.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of people go through life perfectly content with their own body image; I’m certainly not among their number. All manner of hang-ups, me. All my life. And sobering statistics for suicide, mental health, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions and addictions, cosmetic procedures, gender changes, all bear testament to a wider societal dissatisfaction. Small wonder, fueled as we are by the messages, overt and subliminal, from magazines and the internet; from social media; peer pressures; completely unrealistic expectations and cultural ideals. My book fits into this context, exploring what it means to live with unhappiness and troubled thoughts and unachievable goals.

One example will suffice: 15-year-old India Grayson looks in the mirror and perceives a size 3 body as grossly overweight. She aspires to have the courage to binge eat and deliberately vomit. Her mother can only stand on the sidelines, powerless to prevent her beloved daughter, on the very cusp of adulthood, starving herself to the point of collapse, forced to wait for medical intervention until the teenager is at death’s door or at imminent risk of significant deterioration. But India’s not seeking death; she’s seeking control. So how far should she be allowed to go along the path to self-destruction? What right has her mother to intervene?

Disappearance is the second recurring theme I chose to speak about. Three teenage girls vanish one after another. So does India’s beloved dad, leaving a neatly folded pile of clothes on a windy beach. Are these events connected? India’s mother has her niggling suspicions, doubts and fears but she’s suppressed them and certainly hasn’t shared them with a single soul. But now, eight years after his supposed suicide, India is convinced she heard her father’s voice on a crowded London station. She has to find him. The truth when it emerges is not what anyone expected; it challenges their notions of family and relationships, of image and identity. It makes us wonder, to what extent is it right to pursue our own goals and ambitions, when they conflict with the interests of others?

A-Lot-Like-EveAs part of my thinking about body image, I’ve been reading A Lot like Eve by Joanna Jepson. A newly ordained curate, Jepson came to fame in the early 2000s when she challenged the courts over cases of abortion for nothing more disabling than a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember her well – and her arguments. She was uniquely qualified to adopt this cause having herself been the victim of bullying and humiliation because of a facial disfigurement, and having also witnessed reaction to her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. What I didn’t know is how she has struggled with her faith and calling. This book is a moving exploration of her own battle to find acceptance and peace in her personal as well as her religious life.  And who else would see their calling to be chaplain to the fashion industry?

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Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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A Casual Vacancy

Balance is a constant preoccupation of mine … in my writing, that is. Balance between serious and entertaining; light and dark; truth and fiction. Could this perhaps have influenced my assessment of The Casual Vacancy? Quite possibly.

Yep, I’ve finally got around to reading JK Rowling‘s first adult novel. And yes, I do know it’s old hat, a year old this month, in fact, but the truth is, I felt so ambivalent about reading a book that might cloud my view of an amazing writer. Conscience though, finally got the better of me: it simply wasn’t fair to ‘pigeonhole’ it without reading it.

As you probably know, The Casual Vacancy was an instant bestseller, much hyped by the publisher, purely on the basis of the author’s fame. But once out, it got a fairly hefty slating by the critics. Amazon readers too have been divided in their opinions. To date 482 people have given it either two or one star. But hey, 889 rated it worth 4 or 5 stars! Sigh. What must it be like to get 1600+ people posting reviews on Amazon? We lesser mortals can only dream. But I reckon it’s OK for me to be honest in my opinions about somebody with that size of following.

JK Rowling booksTo begin with it’s a door stopper of a book. (JKR goes in for hefty volumes, doesn’t she?) 503 pages in the hardback version. So free up a hefty chunk of time if you plan to read it. And you’ll need all your wits about you, because It tracks loads of characters, (81 somebody counted!) pretty much all of them dysfunctional, so the Samanthas and Shirleys and Aubreys and Andrews and Howards and Simons and Colins and Gavins and Julias take some sorting out. The author deserves some kind of accolade for juggling this number of balls all at once.

But more than that, she tackles an eye-watering number of difficult and dark topics: (in no particular order) paedophilia, bullying, mental illness, drug addiction, adultery, snobbery, suicide, child abuse, professional malpractice, prostitution, warring families, assorted criminal behaviours, sycophancy, class wars, computer hacking, self harm, rape, domestic violence, child death … That amount of misery and sheer wretchedness is pretty hard to take, especially when it’s all happening in one small fictional town, Pagford, in the Westcountry. So don’t come to this book for a feel-good factor! And certainly not if life is tough for you at the moment and you’re contemplating – be in never so remotely – self-harm. There are no Hogwartian wizards to magic everything right in this one. Tragedy’s the name of the game.

Because of my chosen profession, I’ve seen and heard a fair bit of the seamy side of life, but I must confess I found it hard to like or sympathise with any of these characters. Their language, their lifestyles, their malice, their selfish and cruel behaviours, make this a sordid tale, exasperating at times, infuriating at others. Even Barry Fairbrother who dies in the opening section leaving the casual vacancy on the town council, turns out not to be the saint he was thought to be. And he’s probably the best of the bunch – possibly because his early death spares him the scrutiny other characters get.

The focus is supposed to be on who will fill Barry’s seat, but I couldn’t care less who was on the council for the Pagfordites. A rotten lot through and through. No, for me, the more compelling saga is what will happen to Robbie Weedon, 3-year-old son of a drug-addicted prostitute, and kid brother of teenage rebel Krystal, who lives in a toy-less and chaotic house on a sink estate that’s a bone of contention for the said council. OK, there are those who’ve roundly condemned the author’s limited understanding of child protection, but leaving that aside, as the story unfolded I found myself warming to Krystal, a feisty youngster battling to hold her family together, and seeking a way out of the filth and squalor, in order to give wee Robbie a future. The self-centred, puffed-up, hypocritical adults competing for position and searching for lost youth and stabbing everybody else in the back left me cold, but in spite of her behaviour, I really did want Krystal to succeed against the odds and do Barry Fairweather’s memory proud. And I was rooting for Robbie the innocent pawn in a murky and deviant game. But happily I’m not someone who needs a happy ending and I actually thought the whole Weedon finale was handled well.

JKR has recently announced that she’s returning to children’s books, and I for one am glad to hear it. She’s at her best when she’s dealing with the children/teenagers in this book – their secret fears and aspirations, their insecurities and rebellion. Perhaps that’s why she has captured the hearts of millions. She understands their angst, how they tick. I can only hope they don’t get hold of a copy of The Casual Vacancy and have their image of a favourite author despoiled.

 

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