Hazel McHaffie

The Iron Lady

Festival time again

It’s that time of year again: the Edinburgh International Book Festival is in full swing. My happy place!

On Saturday I had the pure delight of listening to three excellent speakers all dealing with topics very dear to my heart, all having just published or just written new books.

Retired neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, talked about the lessons he learned from admitting his mistakes as a surgeon, and how vulnerable he’s been facing up to his own diagnosis of advanced cancer and his impending death. The transition from one side of the consultation table to the other has proved surprisingly difficult, he admits.  Given his stature and experience, his honesty and humility are compelling, and somehow give us all permission to feel vulnerable and afraid. I’ve read his earlier books and listened to him several times, but with his latest one called And Finally, I fear he might just have laid down his pen.

Abi Morgan, is an award winning screenwriter, with brilliant TV series like The Split, and films like The Iron Lady, to her credit. She’s also dealing with treatment for cancer, but the main message she was sharing at the Festival was the experience of her husband, Jacob, developing a condition known as brain on fire, a form of encephalitis, which caused him to believe she was some kind of imposter. It has taken eighteen months and a long stay in hospital for him to recognise her. She too talked with such frankness and insight. The film rights to this most unusual love story have been sold, with Morgan herself writing the screenplay, and already thinking of POVs and actors – I’m already eagerly anticipating it.

Nihal Arthanayake, an Asian BBC radio presenter, used his wealth of experience interviewing celebrities and interesting people to talk about the art of making conversation. In this digital age where social media is cultivating an increasing sense of narcissism, he feels, we need to learn to take a real interest in people, engage in meaningful empathetic dialogue, and ‘listen to understand’ rather than ‘listening to talk’, as he put it. I totally agree. He’d be just the kind of person you’d want beside you at a long dinner party!

Then, on Monday, this was followed by Amy Bloom talking about her husband Brian’s Alzheimer’s and taking him from the USA to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. She’s an author, screenwriter, teacher, therapist, social worker, and spoke so eloquently of the slow realisation of what was going wrong with him, and his passionate wish for autonomy and agency in death as in life, which she respected. In her State of California there is no right-to-die provision, and she vividly captured the hoops they needed to go through to establish his capacity to make this choice even when dementia was taking away so much of his true potential. I loved her robust no-nonsense approach.

Medical ethics is alive and very well in the world of books! What a fabulous opportunity to listen, without interruption or distraction, to these fascinating super-articulate people, for whom writing has been therapeutic and cathartic, to travel with them into some most intimate and troubling places, and to do so from my own home, at an affordable price, choosing just those topics that really float my boat. A brilliant facility which has come out of the pandemic – thank you EIBF.

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Inhabiting characters

Fragile: approach with care!

I remember going to an event years ago, where the audience walked past several actors in various poses. We were advised not to speak to them as they were already ‘in character’. And we were subsequently treated to a masterclass in how they achieved this level of identification and immersion in order to project the final images which had us mesmerised. Fascinating insights.

And I’m sure we can all appreciate how thoroughly good actors can inhabit their characters when we see the same person in completely different roles. Just think Meryl Streep – literally Oscar winning!: Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady,  Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She is these women for us! How does she do it? ‘Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there,’ she says. But the end result is utterly convincing on our end of the process.

Even in films where a well-known person of our time is being represented – King George VI, the Queen, Winston Churchill, Ghandi – a good actor can make us suspend disbelief by somehow capturing the essence of the character; a style of speech or dress, a gait, a look, an idiosyncratic habit. And to do that, they delve into archives, study mannerisms, learn speech patterns and dialects, anything that will increase empathy and understanding of who exactly such persons were/are. Just watch something like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and you can see the little foibles and eccentricities that help the identification process in a huge cast of well known faces.

To an extent an author too, needs to get inside the skin of their characters, in order to make them believable and relatable. Unless we care, we don’t want to read on. In my case, I want to make them real enough for the reader also to feel their pain, empathise with their situation, identify with their challenges and choices. To ask themselves: What would I have done? With my current book, this has meant immersing myself in the psychological depths of a new mother struggling to cope; an ambitious businessman torn by divided loyalties; health care professionals grapplling with the threat of making a wrong call; a clever manipulative mind … no wonder it’s exhausting and depressing and stressful at times! Even now, when I’m reading and re-reading and reading again to make sure every dot and nuance is as good as I can make it before Killing me Gently is published. Perhaps authors too should have mentors and support networks built in to their job descriptions. And a label: Fragile: approach with care.

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The Iron Lady

Commiserations to all of you who’ve pre-ordered Saving Sebastian from Amazon but still not received it. I’ve done my best to find out what the delay is but action hasn’t followed promises, I’m afraid. It’s available from The Book Depository and Luath Press but somehow has only this morning been processed at Amazon. Believe me, I’ve been grinding my teeth on your behalf.

Frustrating to say the least, so I’ve been immersing myself in other things – writing, reviewing, interviewing, reading, partying, preparing workshops …

And in between vaguely debating within myself : Shall/should I go to see the film about Margaret Thatcher or shall/should I not?

Pros: My long-standing interest in and involvement with dementia. I spend time most weeks with people whose lives are affected by it. My own mother developed it. I’ve written a book about it, Remember Remember. I’ve read piles of other books about it – fiction and factual. I care very much about the way people with dementia are treated.

Cons: an instinctive concern about the ethics of the film being made while Baroness Thatcher is still alive. Is it morally right? Would she agree if she were able to give properly informed consent? Plenty of people have been quick to criticise.

But this week I overcame my reservations and went to see it. My thinking and rationale: I should make up my own mind about the wisdom and rightness of it all, based on the reality, not judge it without a hearing.

I came away surprised by my own conclusion.

Meryl Streep is superb as The Iron Lady herself. Brilliant acting, brilliant makeup, brilliant screenwriting. How someone can inhabit a character to that extent, and be as much Mrs T in her eighties as in her forties, is a mystery to me. She richly deserves all the plaudits and honours coming her way.

Some of the supporting cast are less credibly the big political and family names of the time, but that was a minor distraction. One can readjust without losing too much most of the time.

The depiction of dementia is gentle and sensitive. The reality can be a hundred times worse. The ageing MT/The Boss Lady/Mrs T may be muddled about what’s real, and talk to Dennis (whom she can still see), and struggle to keep up with conversations, but she remains dignified and decently clothed and largely independent. It’s probably sanitised; I don’t know how badly affected the real Lady Thatcher is, but it is altogether appropriate and respectful. And yet a believable portrayal of dementia. The repetition, the confusion, the delusion, the focus on the past, the haunting fear.

Curious and unexpected, though, was the effect on my feelings about the woman herself. Yes, as the Prime Minister she was shown at her most strident and dictatorial, convinced of her rightness both at home and on the world stage. But because we were seeing her power years through the soft focus lens of her dementia, they were somehow muted. Perceiving her as vulnerable, doubting, fearful, unsure of her role in the past as well as the present – well, I felt a huge warmth and concern for her.  How good to extend that sympathy now while she is still alive.

I wanted to reassure her when she quaveringly wonders if Dennis had been happy, when she faces the fact that her adored son is not coming to see her, when she packs the last pair of her husband’s shoes in a black bag and says yet another last farewell. You did what you thought was right at the time. You had the courage to stand up for your principles. You made your mark when the opportunity presented. Now let it rest, concentrate on today. Savour each lucid moment, every happy thought. While you still can.

Another realisation came to me as I watched. Somehow the hallucinations and fluctuating memories make a perfect vehicle for conveying an extraordinary life in 105 minutes. I couldn’t have borne an hour and a half of political posturing and unflinching dogmatism. I had no difficulty staying with the meanderings of an old lady clinging to the past; the riots, the war scenes, the speeches, the lectures, brief glimpses through the fog of a clouded mind.

Would I feel the same if I were Carol Thatcher? I don’t know. But that’s more to do with what the film says about family relationships within the Thatcher household than about portraying her mother’s dementia.

So, contrary to all expectations, I personally think the film has the potential to do positive things for those affected by this illness, as well as for the lady herself. Not my favourite film of all time but I’m glad I went to see it.

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