Hazel McHaffie

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The joy – and therapy – of reading

Sitting on the bus … walking along the street … in coffee shops … at the meal table … in hospital … during conversations … watching TV … wherever, eyes seem to be glued … no, not to a rivetting book, to a small screen. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, Snapchat, Messenger, whatever, seem to demand constant checking. It’s become a national obsession; a veritable addiction.

We’ve all heard about the risks to mental as well as physical health, but it’s also been officially acknowledged that online lives are interfering with reading for pleasure. Even amongst serious writers! How sad. Because reading is known to broaden the mind, add to knowledge, improve mental health, increase empathy, aid relaxation and sleep. There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a well-written story.

Which all led me to think about solutions to this kind of addiction … and thence to the discovery of various ventures started up to give people the right conditions to remedy this malady. I was familiar with retreats and opportunities for writers, but not those for readers. Try Googling the words reading retreat, and you’ll see there are a number, but a couple of illustrations will suffice today.

One is called Reading Retreat, a bespoke service that arranges short breaks for busy people who’d like to escape from all the distractions of modern living and read in peace. It was the brainchild of a literary consultant from Cambridgeshire, Cressida Downing by name, who recognised that ‘social media damages your attention span, 100 per cent‘ with its constant clamour for attention and pressure not to miss anything. With deluxe catering laid on (mmmh-mhmmmmm!) and assorted creature comforts (oh joy!), this service is described as a literary pampering delight. (Sounds good to me.)

Another venture offers the solemnity, grandeur and peace of the great monasteries of old. (Ahaaaaa.) It’s The Life House, a three bedroom property in a quiet Welsh valley, which comes complete with a library of books on self-knowledge, relationships and emotional intelligence. (Yesss!) A weekend visit there is the equivalent of visiting a religious sanctum to regain personal peace and ponder the meaning of life, but without the bleak cell or meagre rations. (Bring it on.)

Well, I haven’t personally sampled any of these facilities, but my recent lengthy recuperation after surgery has given me the same kind of benefits … without the expense, or the need to travel, or any worries about fitting in with other people! Safely ensconced on a sofa, embedded in cushions, feet elevated at the required angle, a personal chef at my beck and call, I’ve been consuming books at a hitherto unheard of rate. Thinking. Reflecting. Making notes. And loving it. Hour upon uninterrupted hour, fully immersed in books of my own choosing – a veritable library awaiting me in an adjoining room.

And peace. No more-pressing demands on my time. So, no need to retrace my steps to check up on forgotten names or plot lines. No skimming. No dipping in and out. Just settling down to read right through from beginning to end, and losing myself in the whole experience. Brilliant therapy. And I’ve learned so much for my own writing in the process.

What’s not to like?

 

 

I must confess I’m one of those annoying people who gets fidgety doing only one thing at a time, so since childhood I’ve always knitted and read simultaneously. Squirrelled away in a room on my own these past weeks there’s been no one to be irritated by the clicking needles, or hurt by my complete absorption in a fictional world. So I also have a stack of garments finished for various good causes.

Sheer indulgence. And firsthand evidence of the value of reading. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but there’s been a definite silver lining to my experience so far.

 

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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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