Hazel McHaffie

50th anniversary

The Christian Aid Book Sale in Edinburgh’s George Street has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Fifty years! And it has shown all the enthusiasm and vigour of former years pre-pandemic; no hint of jaded spirits that I could see.

Both altruism and the printed book are still very much alive and well. Wahey!

 

 

The setting in St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church’s magnificent building is stunning,

… with the space inside on two levels filled with books, all carefully categorised,

… spilling out in abundance into the surrounding courtyard.

The message and cause are abundantly evident within and without …

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the volunteers efficiently and cheerfully emptying boxes of books from our cars beforehand (and we had the contents of two people’s libraries as well as several cartons of our own books to contribute this year), to those manning the stalls on the very last day, we met only smiles and helpfulness.

And the sheer volume of books shows no sign of diminishing. Table after table of boxes of novels and non-fiction,

… and an impressive display of more expensive rarer tomes, not to mention all the cards and ephemera and music and toys and jigsaws.

There were pearls to be had everywhere, too. I loved this little volume of The Book of Nonsense with hand-painted pictures!

And this delightful 1990 edition of the much loved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, written by TS Eliot for his godchildren and friends in the 1930s.

As if this whole enterprise were not enough to oversee, the convenor, Lady Mary Davidson, somehow manages to hand-write personal letters to us authors who donate copies of our books. Not after the event, or at some comfortable time in the future; oh no! but immediately, during all the hullabaloo of preparation. Impressive, or what?

I salute every volunteer giving of themselves to this brilliantly worthwhile charitable event, a cause very dear to my heart. You have pulled off another major triumph.

(Apologies for the amateurish  photos taken in my phone as I browsed.)

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Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer. The name brings a warm glow to my day. In my teens and twenties I was a huge fan of her Regency novels and snapped them up whenever I saw them second-hand.

Some for one shilling each, as you can see. Others the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence! I owned and read all except one of them, I think, and marvelled that a girl of 15 could write something as good as The Black Moth, initially to amuse her convalescent brother, but later published in 1921.

By the time she died in her seventies, she was the acclaimed author of over fifty books, but in spite of being a huge fan of hers, I confess that till this week, I’d never read one of her twelve murder mysteries. Time to remedy that and relax my mind at the same time, then. I’m in sore need of undemanding recreation right now. Think shades of Upstairs Downstairs meets Agatha Christie. The book is Why Shoot a Butler?

And indeed it’s a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder Dawson, the trusted old butler of Norton Manor – a stately old fossil. Frightfully keen on the done thing, found with a bullet through his body on a remote road. Three murders and two burglaries keep the bumbling police totally confused while a scornful, enigmatic and imperious barrister, Frank Amberley, unravels a complicated and involved plot of much more significance then the murders themselves.

So why does Amberley keep quiet information about a female person found at the scene of the butler’s death? What is so important about a book borrowed from a dusty under-used library? What is the strange young woman at Ivy Cottage concealing, and why won’t she confide her secrets? Who is the sinister new butler who appears out of nowhere bearing unverified references? Who exactly is to be trusted?

This time around I’m much more aware of literary issues with Heyer’s writing, much as I thoroughly enjoyed the witty dialogue and element of suspense. But after all, this one was written in 1933 – language, publishing, social mores, well, pretty much everything really, was very different back then.

Nowadays most editors would pounce on a lot of nitpicky points, from frequently changing points of view within chapters, through to numerous typographical errors. Modern authors are taught to keep the choice of words pared down to avoid distraction: he ‘said’ – not he ‘expostulated’, ‘ejaculated’, ‘retorted’, ‘interposed’, ‘asseverated’. The prose should show emotion not spell it out – bin the adverbs – ‘tetchily’,  ‘grumpily’, ‘maliciously’, ‘tranquilly’. It would take a brave or foolhardy man to call a fiancee ‘dear old soul’, ‘old thing’, today, I rather think. So, a product of its day, then, but a diverting read for all that, despite all the anomalies and anachronisms. And in the character of Frank Amberley I was forcibly reminded of all the rude, supercilious, entitled cads in Heyer’s romances who rode roughshod over other people’s finer feelings but nevertheless won the heart and hand of the fair lady.

Thank you again, Georgette Heyer, you lifted my spirits and took me away from twenty-first century problems. Exactly what I needed. And now, of course, I’m wanting to read the other eleven mysteries.

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Broadmoor

Broadmoor. The very word carried a deeply chilling resonance. The most infamous high security hospital in the world. Makes me think of spine-chilling names like Peter Sutcliffe, Ronnie Kray, Charles Bronson … serial killing, cannibalism, paedophilia, arson, and the like heinous crimes. Or the horrific occasion in 1977, when two inmates trapped a third in a locked area in Broadmoor, and tortured him to death, skinning him alive, ramming a spoon into his brain, before garotting him. What kind of a mind could conceive of, and calculatedly carry out, such barbaric acts? I still remember the shivery sense of profound relief when these men were locked away in this maximum security psychiatric hospital facility for the criminally insane. Little public sympathy for them; widespread fear should they ever be released; a general ‘throw away the key’ mentality! ‘Monsters’, ‘evil incarnate’, ‘irredeemable’. ‘The more whole-life sentences running sequentially the better.’

But TV journalist Jonathan Levi, and cultural historian Emma French, have uncovered a much more nuanced picture of this notorious place. In their book: Inside Broadmoor, (published in 2019 but written before the new hospital was opened in the December of that year) they bring together their observations based on nearly ten years observing and interviewing staff, experts and the patients themselves, and they find that the staff really believe in redemption and rehabilitation – at least in most cases. No matter what they’ve done these men deserve to be treated humanely, and they aim to give them the best chance of a future.

This generosity of spirit from the staff comes in spite of the fact that the threat of violence is ever present. There are on average five physical assaults on staff members each week, but violence is seen as intrinsic to some of the medical conditions these patients suffer from, so it’s viewed more compassionately here than by the public at large.

The authors asked why did the men commit such dastardly deeds? Might they do it again? Can clinicians unravel the mysteries of their brain chemistry and render them safe? Are any conditions untreatable? Is there such a thing as pure evil? What can we do with those who are beyond help? What draws people to this work: 8-900 staff at any given time, all sworn not to reveal any information outside the hospital?  If the inmates are themselves the victims of appalling histories, does society owe them anything in compensation?

It’s hard to believe that 200 of Britain’s most dangerous men can be housed here together, maximum unrelenting security measures notwithstanding, some of them day in day out with no reprieve of any kind for decades. Each one suffering from a serious mental disorder rendering every man a grave and immediate risk to the public, not to mention their combined threat.

There is a popular misconception that, when someone goes to Broadmoor, they are there for life; in reality only a very few high-profile criminally insane individuals remain there for decades. Over the years a lot of work has gone into de-stigmatising and altering perception of severe mental illness, with great emphasis on intensive programmes of drug and psychological therapies. The old prison mentality and ethos has largely gone. As a result, nowadays, the average stay for a Broadmoor patient is less than 6 years, and there is a notably lower reoffending rate than in the UK prison population overall. This is not to say the men all go free into the community – depending on their diagnosis and progress they may be sent to a variety of other less high security institutions.

The demographics of today’s patients have changed radically over the last 150 years. Religious and ethnic factors play a significant part in this, and the authors concluded that, It is tragically clear that work needs to be done urgently to address these inequalities.

What really emerges is the vulnerability of these men alongside their criminal insanity.

It is nothing short of chilling  that … the fate of many Broadmoor patients was fixed from early childhood. Critically, theirs was a childhood not just of deprivation and economic hardship, but of abuse too … Childhood experiences, often shocking and sickening beyond belief, seal the fate of many patients very early on.

One illustrative case is Dillon, born into a ‘satanic’ family. Father broke his bones, sexually abused him, and raped and beat his mother. From birth, mother rejected Dillon, convinced he was evil. She sexually abused him and tried to kill him repeatedly. He was kept locked up in the attic, not allowed to talk to his brothers, or tethered naked to a post and made to eat food off the floor like a dog. By the age of 5 he was an arsonist. From the age of 7 he went into care but became arsonist, kidnapper, violent offender, out of control alcoholic. What chance did this boy have in life? And yet most of us don’t see beyond the violent, criminally insane adult. The staff in Broadmoor do.

One consequence of receiving effective medication, therapy and healing, is that patients can arrive at a deeply vulnerable moment; they begin to have consciousness of the crime that brought them to the hospital in the first place. This is a point of profound fragility. In some cases it’s more than they can handle and proves lethal; they take their own lives. Suicide is rendered possible in the lower risk areas, especially in Victorian buildings where ligature points, such as bars at the windows, have remained because of a shortage of funding to make the necessary alterations.

Hmm, a shortage of funding … Maintaining these dangerous men in secure units under constant surveillance is horrendously expensive. It costs upwards of £300,000 per annum to keep each patient in Broadmoor – five times the cost of a prison stay. Peter Sutcliffe’s 32 year stay in Broadmoor cost the taxpayer in the region of £10 million. In just one of a number of rooftop protests, Charles Bronson did £250,000 of damage.

I found this book profoundly challenging – challenging my preconceptions, my prejudices, my lack of real understanding: the barbed wire around my own reactions. I commend it to you.

 

 

 

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Behind bars

There is something unutterably sad about people for whom prison is a refuge.
‘Being inside is my happy place.’
Life outside is so chaotic and traumatic that the safety and discipline inside gives them a sense of security. If you’ve never been exposed to such situations it can be difficult to empathise, which is where The Prison Doctor: Women Inside, by Dr Amanda Brown, comes in. It takes us inside, not just a large women’s prison, but the lives of some of society’s most damaged citizens.

The statistics are sobering indeed.

Female offenders are some of the most vulnerable people within our society. Women make up just five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, and the vast majority are imprisoned for non-violent offences, and are often sentenced for a matter of just weeks at a time. Many of them are caught in  a vicious cycle of domestic violence, drug abuse and homelessness. Written off by society, they disappear into a world that most of us are oblivious to, of lost invisible souls who have no voice.

… the more previous custodial sentences a woman has had, the higher her reoffending rate; the reoffending rate for women with eleven of more previous convictions is eighty-three per cent.

… a prison for women means it is full of mothers and the female chains that form our society. Around two-thirds of women in prison have dependent children under the age of 18 at home.There are mothers whose kids have been taken away from them; mothers whose kids are temporarily being looked after by others; new mothers looking after their babies on the MBU; and, sometimes, mothers who have harmed their children.

… the average age of death for a woman who is homeless is 43.

Dr Brown works in Bronzefield, the largest female prison in Europe, one of only two in the UK to house Category A prisoners, the most dangerous women who pose a serious threat to public or national security. She has a wealth of experience behind her: as a community GP; in a young offenders institution; and seven years in Wormwood Scrubs; but she still finds the encounters she has in this setting challenging. And she’s wise and humble enough to realise there is still much to be learned from conversations with the inmates who come into her orbit.

In the words of one prisoner: ‘I used to judge people. Now I don’t. You never know what someone else is living through.’ Probably the most powerful lesson this compassionate medic has learned from her own experience.

The stories she recounts so often show that the ‘criminals’ are in fact the victims – victims of cruelty and abuse and neglect and oppression. Victims whose self-loathing has taken them through self-harming to the brink of suicide. Victims who have resorted to drink or drugs or prostitution or crime merely to survive in their own private hells. It’s both sobering and traumatic to read again and again of how these girls are failed time after time, and are failed again when they are released into homelessness. Dr Brown herself uses words like tragic, heartbreaking, shocking. Her insights and empathy can help to enlighten us all. And how we need that enlightenment! Because these failures are a challenge to our whole society.

 

 

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Political correctness

Political correctness can be a troubling cause to espouse and defend.

I’ve been involved in the world of moral issues for a long time now, as you know, so I’m used to the ‘on-the-one-hand … but-on-the-other-hand’ arguments. Even so, every now and then, I have to swallow hard to avoid saying something that might offend or hurt a person’s extra-delicate sensibilities, or bring the woke police hammering at my virtual door, but I’m left feeling guilty that I haven’t upheld the cause or rights or interests of another individual or group. Comedians these days struggle with similar discrepancies; comments and gags everyone previously took to be light-hearted fun are now analysed from the viewpoint of the person potentially being mocked or hurt. I kind of know how they feel. But I’m also alive to the pain of being humiliated in public.

So, what’s prompted me to talk about political correctness today? Well, [deep breath] of all things, the sports pages – yep, I know, not where you’ll usually see me! But let’s go back a step. Over the years I’ve actually met and got to know a number of people who’ve changed gender, and I really do care about their vulnerability and their mental health. I can’t pretend to understand their struggle, but I’ve done my best to be supportive and respectful and not to add to their burden. And indeed in one of my novels – Inside of Me – I tried to portray the issues in a favourable light. That’s my starting point. However, when it comes to sport, I have a real problem.

I’ve written about this before, but it has recently reared its head again, and I confess I feel incensed on behalf of all those girls who’ve slogged and suffered and sacrificed in order to achieve elite status in their chosen fields of sport, and all those parents and coaches who’ve shown such commitment to get them there. So when they’re faced with an uneven playing field, I want to leap to their defence. Males who have been through puberty undoubtedly have inherent advantages in terms of strength and stamina. So, how can it be fair for trans-women to compete in women’s events?

Take the American swimmer, now called Lia Thomas, who became the first openly transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 national championship in any sport after winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle race at the US NCAA Championships in Atlanta in March this year. There was none of the usual celebration when those long fingers touched the edge of the pool, however, because Lia Thomas, before beginning the process of transitioning in 2019, (incidentally still not complete) was a man called Will, ranked 554th in the world, but now, winning against female competitors. The photos look like cartoons: a tall strapping muscular winner at one end of the medals podium; towering over the three female competitors who came in 2nd, 3rd and 4th, a visible demonstration of the inequality of it all: someone with a powerful genetic and biological advantage taking trophies and titles away from women. Rather like a drugs cheat winning over clean athletes. Surely this isn’t bigotry on my part … is it? – it’s common sense!

And then there was Emily Bridges, a cyclist, who began hormone therapy in 2021, and wanted to compete as a woman in a Championship race, even though up till then she’d been competing at the highest levels as a man. Other female competitors threatened to boycott the race, and the international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), ruled that the controversial cyclist is ineligible to take part – this time at least. Their rule book states that it must ‘guarantee fair and meaningful competition that displays and rewards the fundamental values and meaning of sport.’ Exactly so.

Sporting authorities clearly have much to grapple with, but elsewhere the reality is that competitors and clubs and colleges and organisations and celebrities all too often feel effectively gagged. They must not say or do anything that differentiates between those born with XX chromosomes and those who carry a Y one but choose to identify as female, for fear of being branded trans-phobic, politically incorrect, prejudiced. And the transitioning person does appear to hold all the trump cards – not just in terms of superior size and strength and stamina, but in terms of access. They even seem to have free run of hitherto private female spaces, even when they still have the physical anatomy of a male. Not all establishments cater for all shades of identification.

I’m very conscious that I too might be pilloried for these views, but sometimes common sense and biological fact must prevail. However, please don’t let that stop you making a comment below if you have a view on this topic. I’m all for open debate.

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The swirl of insanity that is grief and loss

I’ve returned to my roots for this one … pregnancy, birth, babies, grief, loss. … even NICU! … and my own experience as a mum of a seriously sick baby; hearing words that no mother ever wants to hear.

Still is the poignant story, a memoir, of one woman’s experience of tragedy and the search for meaning. The woman is Emma Hansen, model, writer, full-spectrum doula, whose blog about the stillbirth of her first son went viral.

On a spring morning, Friday 3 April 2015, Good Friday, the day before Reid is due to be born, Emma wakes up, acutely aware that something is wrong … there is no movement from the baby.

Hoping against hope, she waits as staff listen, search …
‘I’m so sorry, but your baby is dead.’
The worst words Emma will ever hear, and each time they are confirmed, breaking her heart into a million pieces.
One day before his scheduled date of birth. Why didn’t he hang on just one more day?

And now she must go through labour knowing that her longed-for baby will never take a breath, never open his eyes to see her, never suckle from her breast, never reach a milestone, never grow up. Somehow it must be done.

‘It is an inexplicable feeling to carry death inside you when the very concept of pregnancy is so explicitly connected to life.’

‘I want it to be finished, but I also don’t want it to start.’

As a midwife in a former life, I could totally empathise with this. I’ve never forgotten the atmosphere in labour ward when this particular tragedy unfolded. All the usual processes going on, but an eerie hush pervading the room. Footsteps, voices, movements, all softened respectfully. No fussing, no panic, no rush. No small talk. Just a sombre quiet. A sense of awed suspension; no one wanting the moment to arrive when the devastating truth will be irrevocably pronounced, confirmed, beyond doubt. What is there to say? How can you comfort in the face of such a nightmarish outcome?

Emma bravely addresses the unique heartbreak of mourning for a child born in such circumstances, the endless questions, the lurking sense of guilt.

there is no presence to link to the absence

loss becomes part of the story

fears can be debilitating and paralysing – they can own you

I am a mother, but what kind of a mother am I?

I don’t think people realise how relentless grief can be.

And then the fluctuating emotions for both her and husband, Aaron, around contemplating, living through, a subsequent pregnancy. Even I – someone who has walked alongside countless mothers in similar circumstances; someone who should have known better – even I felt a slight gathering of impatience with this mother’s paranoia with baby number 2. I was lulled into a false sense of security when another boy, Everett, is born safely. But tension soon escalated when things started to go seriously wrong again. And if bad things could happen the first time with a perfectly normal pregnancy, why not this time when there had been so many complications in conceiving and carrying this child? I was feeling the acute anxiety too, but nevertheless on the side of the rational voices calming her down. Fortunately for Everett, Emma’s maternal instinct overrides them all: her obsessive vigilance saves his life.

So, by the time the author reaches her conclusion, I am much more receptive to listening to her; to her analysis of the way in which events and their outcomes changed her, how she eventually found peace and a way of understanding how good could come from tragedy. For her, there will never be a reason good enough to warrant the death of Reid, and she certainly doesn’t believe that God ordained it.  But she finds comfort in numerous inexplicable moments and revelations and connections that say to her: though terrible things happen, we are not left alone in them. And good things can come out of loss and through suffering. She no longer prays for changed outcomes, but for the grace and strength and comfort to let these outcomes change her.

The healing journey has no end, it is always evolving. The scars of the past will still open back up and weep sometimes. But the grief grows and softens with everything that life after loss presents. I am writing this blog post on the day a mum I know is to attend the funeral of her only son: it resonates powerfully in the face of yet another tragedy.

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Hamnet

Having just been to Stratford upon Avon, this seemed like the perfect time to read Maggie O’Farrell‘s award-winning novel, Hamnet, based on the lives and tragedies of the Shakespeare family. Though I’ve heard the author talk about it at various events, and read reviews, the book was not at all what I was expecting.

Knowing the names of the real-life family members, I was discombobulated by the  pseudonyms they’re given in this story. Hamnet is synonymous with Hamlet – OK, I can cope with that. But Anne Hathaway, renamed Agnes? Though I understand the logic behind it, I’m still not entirely convinced by this strategy. And given that the chapters dot between time-frames, it took a while to be confident of which generation we were dealing with.

Will Shakespeare himself is never named; he’s variously the Latin tutor, son, husband, father. He’s an educated grammar school/oratory boy, well used to brutality, subject to dark moods, who only finds his real inner self and fulfilment in play-writing and acting in London.

The central figure is his wife – unschooled but with a wisdom beyond formal education. She’s portrayed as an other-wordly soul with special powers, strange inexplicable insights and foreknowledge, an affinity with nature, a frail veil between her and the world of the dead. A sorceress, a forest sprite, of another world, not quite belonging in this one.

When Shakespeare first catches sight of her with a falcon on her arm, he mistakes her for a boy, and instantly we see shadows of the famous strategies the real playwright wove into his plots. Seen again in their twins, Judith and Hamnet, who have a unique bond – changing places and clothes, hoodwinking people into thinking each is the other, even in death.

The depiction of the plague is shiveringly realistic. The terror striking into the hearts of families with the gruesome beak-masked physicians, the telltale buboes, the death toll, the unknown elements echoing in our own pandemic five centuries later. But back then with recourse to nothing better than herbal remedies or dried toads!

However, for me, the greatest strength is in O’Farrell’s poignant depiction of a mother’s grief. The unfathomable despair and guilt. The impossibility of folding the sheet over Hamnet’s lifeless body, closing him off for ever from her sight. The isolation that separates parents, alienates relatives, preys on the lives of siblings, changes irrevocably what is important in life. Brilliantly written.

Indeed the whole book is a delight to read, but hauntingly sad, bringing to life a hitherto-unknown young lad whose early death was the inspiration for one of the most well known plays in English Literature.

PS. Just so I don’t leave you on a downbeat, how about this fun description:
… the headless pheasant on the table, scaled legs fastidiously drawn up, as if the bird is worried about getting its feet muddy, even though it happens to be decapitated and very much dead.

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Better still …!

Last week I shared the tribute to Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh. I wonder how many of you instantly thought of Stratford upon Avon – a whole town devoted to the memory of William Shakespeare. I’ve recently had the delight of visiting it and wandering around in the March sunshine savouring the memorials to his life and work. Fascinating!

There are the buildings where he was born (sadly closed to visitors that day because of an imminent week-long event) …

the cottage where his-wife-to-be,  Anne Hathaway, lived (they married when he was 18, she 26) …

the family home …

the church where he’s buried …

the theatre where his plays are still put on all these years later.

His fictional characters are depicted in enduring form.

Indeed, he is remembered here, there, and everywhere …

even in games etched into the pathways!

It’s a special feeling just wandering in his footsteps.

And seeing his work still enduring. Imagine seeing one of his classics performed here! Perchance to dream …

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A tribute to writers everywhere

Much of what we writers do is unseen and unsung. However, some people do manage to eke out a living from their scribbling. Occasionally a particular book or name becomes a sensation. Very occasionally an author gets applause or awards. Very very occasionally one becomes a household name.

But if you‘re a writer and feeling overlooked and unappreciated, just think for a moment of Sir Walter Scott – 19th century Scottish historical novelist, poet, playwright and historian. How cool is it for an auithor to have a massive Victorian Gothic monument built to commemorate him? It’s a landmark in Edinburgh, slap bang in the capital’s most famous street, Princes Street; the second biggest monument to an author anywhere in the world.

I stood and stared at it this week, and thought of all those people whose words I’ve loved, whose productivity I’ve admired, who I would pop into that arched edifice alongside Scott. It already has sixteen Scottish poets and writers appearing at the top of the lower pilasters, alongside many many other famous figures. But today I want to pay tribute to countless others who have influenced and affected and charmed and impressed me, and even changed the world because of their skill with words.  I salute them all … and the gifted photographers who allowed me to share their superb images.

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No reading wasted

After the heavy duty reading of the past few weeks, not to mention the economic crisis in this country, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, I sorely needed something light and undemanding to restore my functional equilibrium right now.

Some time ago I picked up The Edinburgh Bride by Anne Douglas, on a charity bookcase up north, simply because its strapline said: A heartwarming Scottish saga. ‘Heart-warming’ is exactly what I needed.

Hmm. Well. They do say, no experience is wasted on a writer, and I certainly found this little story illustrated some useful pointers as to what I don’t want to include in my own writing – no disrespect to Anne Douglas. Different objectives. Different style. Different genre. Different readers.

So as well as offering a diversion, it was instructive. Therapeutic.

 

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