Hazel McHaffie

The Daily Telegraph

Take it as read

It takes a while to catch up with news after a break away, but in this week’s trawl, two headlines in particular caught my attention.

The first was this one: Take it as read – good fiction teaches us how to be human beings, a thoughtful article by Graeme Archer in The Daily Telegraph, where he said:

‘… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.’

Very much the premise upon which I write my own novels.

Indeed, I was thinking about this a lot while I was on holiday in Italy. I took the trusty Kindle well-loaded and managed to read two and a half novels in airports and trains and planes and odd moments of inactivity: Untying the Knot Emotional GeologyEmotional Geology and Untying the Knot both by Linda Gillard, and A Sister’s Gift by Giselle Green. Through these tales I was taken into the lives and minds of characters grappling with mental illness, obsessive personalities, infertility, conflicted family relationships, surrogate pregnancy. Easy reads all (as befits a holiday break), but it’s fair to say they enriched my understanding of the challenges and thinking of other people in these situations. I shan’t ever experience most of these things personally, but I’d like to think I’d have empathy enough should I come into contact with those for whom these things are a lived reality.

The second headline was attached to an article my daughter cut out of the newspaper for me: ‘Why did my brother die in agony?’, subheaded: ‘Terminally ill patients are suffering slow and painful deaths because doctors dare not fall foul of the law against assisted suicide.’  Yep, it instantly grabbed me by the throat, as she knew it would.

Well-known cookery expert, Prue Leith, was describing her brother David’s terminal battle with excruciatingly painful cancer of the bones. When the morphine was doing its job, he was pain-free, joking, and sharing quality time with his wife and four children. But the dosage of morphine was sufficient for only three hours out of every four for which it was prescribed. For that fourth hour he was in agony. The solution seems obvious and simple, doesn’t it? Naturally enough, various relatives appealed, nay, ‘pleaded’, for help. The answer though was what shocked me: the nurses ‘couldn’t’ give any more pain relief. They sympathised, even told the family they would personally be willing to increase the dose, but they were powerless to do so; the law precluded it. They also said, no one admitted these situations existed. (By this time I was at fever pitch!)

Now, of course, no one with warm blood coursing through their veins could fail to be moved by the obvious distress the Leith family all suffered. But the story left me personally feeling frustrated and vexed. This man clearly needed more medication. And it can, it really can be given without breaking the law. Palliative medicine is an extremely well developed discipline; dedicated teams of experts in pain management are fully empowered to administer effective measures (drugs and others treatments) in these circumstances, to ensure ongoing comfort and dignity and a peaceful death. Which they are able to do in all except a limited number of situations. And by Prue’s own admission, David’s pain came into the category of controllable by morphine.

Both the subheading and Prue’s concluding message – ‘The present state of affairs is monstrous. With 80 percent of the population in favour of assisted dying, what are they waiting for?’ – missed the point. It wasn’t assisted death this man needed, it was legal and legitimate, adequate pain relief.

There are indeed exceptional cases where the laws relating to assisted dying need to be challenged (I’ve discussed them at length on this blog in the past), but this is not one of them. Instead of saying they couldn’t give adequate medication, those staff caring for David should have been calling for a man/woman who could. Let’s not confuse the two issues.

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Wishing you a thought-provoking and happy Christmas!

Christmas week! Looks like it’ll be a white one at that, too. (Funny how that prospect has rather lost its sparkle this year.)

But as I mess about with the usual preparations, thoughts keep turning to the reason for the season. So my blog ought to reflect that.

I guess it all dates back to October. Camels in MoroccoThen, visiting Morocco, I felt as if I was walking through a film-set during a Biblical epic. I even wrote notes at the time to accompany photos, so strongly evocative were they of familiar scenes from the New Testament.Moroccan woman in her home in the Atlas MountainsAnd recently, with Christmas very much in mind, I’ve been sharing reflections with friends about the sense I had that Moroccan cities, villages and landscapes, dress and customs, are so much closer to the kind of life Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have known, than anything we in the UK take as the norm today.

Well, it looks like someone else got the same feel. This week the BBC has been showing a four-part drama, The Nativity. And where has it been filmed? In Morocco! I’ve just finished watching the last in the series.

My interest was piqued originally by two articles in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. The first was a rather touching piece by Olly Grant in the Review pages. As he says, the fact that the BBC is showing a Bible story on prime time feels ‘like something of a miracle,’ given the decline in religious programmes over the year, and all the talk of political correctness and discrimination, etc etc etc. And the second was an interview with the screenwriter, Tony Jordan, who didn’t believe the gospel story three years ago when he began working on the play, but now does.

Well, The Nativity wasn’t ever your average religious programme. And what’s more, the author set out quite deliberately to make a film that would ‘reach beyond the “God Channel” fringe’. So he framed the story in a way that would bypass the usual scepticism about angel visitations and virgin births, and instead unravel a young couple’s relationship in a meaningful way – a ‘marriage in meltdown’. As he says, we may know that Joseph and Mary were caught up in an incredible event, but they didn’t. How did these happenings affect them?

He has researched his subject thoroughly, and been remarkably faithful to the gospel accounts. Having said that, only two of the gospels mention the nativity at all, and those that do (Matthew and Luke) devote a mere 120 verses to the subject. So there’s not a lot of material to go on; lots of room for the imagination to manoeuvre then. But Jordan has created a narrative that challenges the viewer to look again at the impact of these events … on a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at a time and in a place where adulteresses were stoned to death; on her devastated parents; on a man who feels betrayed by his promised wife; on his family; on a debt-ridden shepherd … I for one see no harm in a little speculative artistic licence if it provokes healthy challenge and helps us engage with the big questions, though others beg to differ.

Jordan’s aim was for those who have a faith, to have it reinforced; and for those who haven’t, to think: ‘Wow, I don’t know … maybe …’ I suspect that there are hundreds of clergy this week wanting exactly that. But they don’t all have Morocco as their backdrop, prime time TV as their conduit, or key figures being converted along the way.

For me personally, though, this approach has an extra allure. It’s trying to combine entertainment and authenticity with emotional and intellectual challenge. Much as I’m trying to do with medical ethics. Would that I had their publicity machine and audience ratings! Maybe a word in the ear of Tony Jordan …?

But in the meantime, Happy Christmas, everyone!

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