Hazel McHaffie

No experience wasted

It’s a well-known fact that there are two types of readers: those who insist on persevering to the bitter end once they start reading (that’s me), and those who abandon a book if it doesn’t grab their attention within a few pages or chapters. Apparently at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this month, crime writer Mark Billingham urged his audience to adopt the 20-pages rule – if you aren’t hooked in 20 pages, don’t bother continuing. Hmmm.

There’s also a well-known saying that no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And that’s why I persisted with Fire and Rain. Now, I’m a bit of a fan of Diane Chamberlain. She writes about issues close to my heart, and her medical social worker background takes her into my kind of territory. But I have to confess this one didn’t rivet me.

After a rather laboured first stab, I decided to change tack. Instead of looking for a gripping tale, I’d study her technique. You see? No experience needs to be wasted.

From that angle, the most valuable lesson came through the character of Carmen Perez, a journalist who’s had a serious breakdown and attempted to end her life. Not only has she learned that her longed-for baby son has serious disabilities – brain damage, blindness, deafness, inability to speak – from which he will never recover; but she now knows that her husband is to blame. She can’t forgive him. Her marriage is over. She refuses even to visit her son. What’s more, when she finally returns to work, she’s seen as fragile, unsuited to the rigours of hard reporting, and her career is in jeopardy. She sees potential in the appearance of a strange reclusive man, calling himself Jeff Cabrio, who occupies one of her rental properties, and claims to be able to manufacture rain for a valley devastated by drought and wild fires. Fired up by renewed hope of reclaiming her position in the world of work, she begins to search for the secrets she’s convinced will lead her to criminal behaviour of some kind. Her desperate need to succeed drives her to extreme lengths at the expense of his safety and security and privacy.

Occupying another two properties Carmen owns are her ex-husband Chris Garrett, acting mayor of Valle Rosa, and his secretary, Mia Tanner, who is also a talented clay sculptor. Everyone carries the scars of past traumas. Everyone is hiding something. When Mia forms a relationship with ‘the rainmaker ‘ things get even more complicated. When her own interest in Chris is reignited it becomes an even more tangled web

Gradually Carmen uncovers facts about Jeff Cabrio, aka Robert Blackwell, which lead her to vulnerable and unsuspecting sources of information. Each time she must weigh up the ethical questions behind who she approaches, how she presents herself, and what she does with the information they divulge. Initially her ambition drives her to step beyond the boundaries of common decency, alienating those involved, but earning the admiration of viewers and producers. At what point is eroding another person’s privacy too high a price to pay? Time will tell.

It’s a neat tactic. We, the readers, gradually learn more and more about the characters, their chequered histories, their secrets, their lies, as she unravels the past. We begin to piece together a story which links these characters in bizarre and tender ways. We are carried along by the desire to know and understand more. Taken from this perspective, in the end it was worth the effort of ploughing through a rather improbable tale that didn’t appeal as much as most of Chamberlain’s work has done hitherto. Certainly not a waste of time. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that I started reading it in the Emergency Department of a hospital had something to do with my reactions.

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Wigtown 2021 revisited

Continued from last week …

Yep, the rest of my Wigtown Book Festival experience this year lived up to expectation.

Fiona Sampson – poet cum biographer – was commendably animated and enthusiastic, and impressively fluent about her subject: the life and times of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a contemporary of Dickens. Indeed, she gave such detailed and comprehensive responses that the chairperson, Lee Randall, several times found her questions pre-empted, but Lee kept pace brilliantly, and maintained her usual sangfroid, steering the event beautifully. The title of the book under discussion, Two Way Mirror,  comes from the author’s belief that Barrett Browning’s work is both a mirror for her life and a mirror for us today. It’s 30 years since a biography last came out on this canonical figure, and Sampson has exploded a few myths about her, explaining why she has been devalued and misrepresented. She maintains that, in spite of EBB’s constant ill health, and the constraints on women of her era, she was actually strong and wilful, a driven perfectionist, clever and precocious, exhibiting a highly developed social conscience from the age of 6, even though her education was limited to listening in to lessons from her brother’s tutor, and despite her own family’s wealth being built on slave trading. Through her written work she changed what society thought about child labour, rape, poverty, women, slavery. A  laudable legacy indeed.

Journalist, author and broadcaster, Sarfraz Mazoor rounded off my time with writers in Wigtown this year and he didn’t disappoint. Weaving together history, reportage and memoir, in his book, They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong about Each Other, Manzoor journeyed around Britain in search of the roots of the feelings about Muslims in this country. He is himself a Pakistani Muslim married to a white British woman, with two daughters who straddle races and cultures, so it’s unsurprising that his personal story is woven through his account. He explores the doubts and fears that are sometimes peddled about violence and fanaticism and radicalisation; religion and ethnicity; education and religious illiteracy; socialising and separation; the price to be paid for a liberal attitude; the clash of tradition and modern thinking. He doesn’t shy away from difficult issues – sexual exploitation, misogyny, homosexuality, arranged marriages, anti-semitism. They is also Manzoor’s search for a more positive future, for hope and inspiration, for a more tolerant faith, more progressive attitudes, and that search took him to heart-warming stories of people doing good deeds, leading to a conclusion that we all have it within ourselves to make things better, to build bridges across the chasm of mutual mistrust. They is the story of modern, Muslim Britain, the migrant experience told from both sides, both deeply personal and a challenge to all who have attributed to religion things that shouldn’t be laid at its door.

Reviewing the sessions I attended, I’m struck by the common theme: how can we make society a better place?; how can we cultivate goodness and altruism and kindness? I didn’t consciously choose them for that reason, but it’s a reflection of my own biases. Huge thanks again to Wigtown Book Festival for a brilliant programme and some very thought-provoking events that will continue to challenge long after the tents have folded and the speakers returned to their everyday walking-around lives.

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Wigtown Book Festival 2021

Here I am again like a pig in muck! Another book festival; another opportunity to attend online; hours spent listening to writers talking about their writing. What’s not to love?

And because I’ve visited Wigtown (Scotland’s National Book Town), walked its streets, and met some of its characters, I feel to actually be there. Even the photos that precede each session take me to the independent bookshops and immerse me in the atmosphere of the place.

This year a particular bonus has been  topics very dear to my heart: death and dying, altruism, ethics, equality.

Salena Godden is one of the foremost performance poets in the UK, but on this occasion she was promoting her first novel, Mrs Death Misses Death, and wow! did she promote it! I’m not normally a huge fan of readings, but in this case the three short readings she did were a major selling point. The writing is lyrical in the best sense of the word, and only enhanced by Godden’s expressive voice and pacing. What’s more, she herself came across as deeply sensitive to the nuances of death and grief. Her own father took his life when she was only a young child, and she has recently lost someone dear to her to Covid 19. She was also unafraid to show her emotion in response to a question about closure from a widow in the audience who has had to leave her husband’s ashes on the other side of the world following his sudden unexpected death. The book is fiction, but explores grief and mourning, invisible missing women, and the relationship the living have with the dead. In the story, Mrs Death takes the form of a black, working class, shape-shifting woman, and she forms an alliance with Wolf, a young, bisexual, living writer well acquainted with death. Together they debate and document experiences and consequences and the meaning of death. The book gives breathing space for the reader to be part of the story too, and Godden has left six blank pages at the end for anyone to add photos or names or tributes to those they have personally loved and lost. She wants these books to be shared and inherited and passed on, to keep those names alive – much as she wants the names of those lost to Covid to be remembered and respected as individuals mourned by family and friends, not as stark numerical statistics. It’s inspired.

Larissa MacFarquhar was in New York but spoke to a live audience in Wigtown eloquently and with real feeling. Her book, Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help, is about people who live morally-driven lives from choice, people with an extraordinary sense of duty and decency, people MacFarquhar found ‘unquestionably admirable’, who would challenge readers to think about their own attitudes and responses. The people she studied might be loosely described as ‘do-gooders’ (although she conceded that term tends to have a certain kind of stigma attached to it). The stories she shared included altruistic organ donors, an Indian aristocratic lawyer who founded a leper colony on the basis of a fellowship of suffering; a woman who fostered twenty children with special needs; a young couple who struggled with the question of how right/wrong it would be to have a child and spend money on them at the expense of the lives of many many children in underprivileged families; a man who made it his mission to save chickens. In the book she confronts wider issues, such as the conflict beneath how far a person is prepared to go at the expense of their families; how much we may devalue the quiet smaller efforts of those who work with small numbers or build on the work of others as opposed to the titans and entrepreneurs who blaze new trails. It was a fantastic session. And yes, immensely challenging.

Jill Hopper‘s book, The Mahogany Pod, is a memoir about her experience of falling in love in her twenties with a dying man and deciding not to walk away. Now around 50 and herself the mother of a teenage son, she felt ready, after 25 years, to analyse and probe and make sense of what happened to her young self, and in so doing to lay certain things to rest, to stop worrying about forgetting the detail, and to make peace with Arif’s mother. It’s a tender account of what it means to live and love fully in exceptional circumstances, and the changing quality of the grief that follows great loss, and which put her at odds with her peers. It’s surely a tribute to her present husband that he encouraged and supported her in this endeavour. The title comes from the only tangible gift from Arif she was left with once his family had removed everything of his after his death. It’s the distinctive pod of a tree which he picked up in his travels in Zimbabwe, but which is actually native to South America, and the misperception about its origins is symbolic of a number of things which were misunderstood or reinvented in their relationship. Hopper has a lovely gentle manner of speaking and the hour zipped by. Another superb event.

I feel so fortunate to have been able to attend this marvellous festival this week. And a big shout out for the amazing interviewers who were thoroughly well prepared and asked all the right questions. With a couple more sessions booked and still to come I might well be sharing more with you next Thursday too!

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The Assisted Dying Bill … yet again

Patience is the name of the game when it comes to legalising assisted dying, it seems. But this week there’s been a significant breakthrough.

Back in the noughties, when I was writing my novel, Right to Die, about a young man who contracts Motor Neurone Disease and contemplates ending his own life, I lived in daily dread that something would happen to steal my thunder, and the bottom would fall out of the marketing strategy, before it hit the bookshelves. That was 13 years ago! At that time, Lord Joel Joffe was expending his energy trying to get a bill drafted to ease the lot of those facing intolerable suffering at the end of their lives. I had the privilege of meeting him in London, at the House of Lords, to talk about our shared interests, and he very kindly endorsed my book. Sadly his bill didn’t get through, and he died disappointed by this.

In Scotland, MSP Margot MacDonald fought valiantly for an easement of terminal pain and suffering, her case the more powerful because she herself was suffering with Parkinson’s Disease. I listened to her too on a number of occasions, and was moved by the passion behind her case. She too died without seeing progress on this front.

These are but two of the many notable figures who have kept the issue alive, nibbling away at the edges of the arguments about the horror for some people who face a slow undignified and painful death, and who would welcome the security of knowing that, if things became intolerable, they had a way out that wouldn’t incur penalties for those left behind. Experience in other countries (the USA and Netherlands especially) shows that a large proportion of those who have an advanced directive authorising assisted death, never actually avail themselves of the service. It’s enough to know it’s there if needed.

Over the years, we’ve all heard and seen patients and families sharing their plight with the media, publicly throwing their dwindling energies and resources into fighting for compassion and understanding. We’ve listened to politicians, clergymen, philosophers, religious people, those with disabilities, putting their perspectives into the melting pot. For and against. Passionate, angry, distressed, vengeful, dogged. And gradually, over time, we’ve seen a softening of attitudes taking place.

As far as the general public are concerned, opinion has swung in favour of a change in the law; for some kind of easement of intolerable suffering. Politicians have gradually – almost imperceptibly – become less scared of picking up this hot potato.

But one group of people who’ve remained reluctant to back assisted dying has been the doctors. Small wonder: they’re the ones who will be on the frontline, actually taking those active steps to supply the fatal drugs, or even administer them, to help eligible patients end their lives, should this become legally permissible in this country. And, as we all know, doctors are in the business of caring not killing.

However, this week, the British Medical Association has dropped its opposition to assisted dying and adopted a neutral stance. Not in favour, please note. Neutral. And indeed, the vote hinged on a hairsbreadth! 49% of the representative body voted in favour of a move to a position of neutrality; 48% were opposed to such a move. They, in turn, were acting on behalf of their members: 40% of whom were in support of a change in the law to allow assisted dying; 33 opposed to it; 21% thought the union should be neutral on the subject. A position of neutrality gives scope for all ranges of opinion. It’s a major step.

And a timely one it seems. Because next month a new version of the Assisted Dying Bill is due to be put to the House of Lords for a second reading, this time promoted by Baroness Meacher – whom I have NOT met! It would seem to have a stronger chance of success this time because of the BMA shift. Time will tell, but I’ll be watching this space closely and thinking of all those who have paved the way but died disappointed.

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The seeds of peace

I’ve lost track of the number of books I’ve read about the persecution of the Jews, and the Holocaust, but the horror never fails to move me deeply.

One which has haunted me is The Twins of Auschwitz, first published in 2009. I read it ages ago, but it has remained with me.

It’s a first person story told by Eva Mozes Kor, with the assistance of Lisa Rojani Buccieri. Eva was one of those twins who arrived at the gates of horror, clutching the hand of her identical twin … and survived. One pair of around 3000 children chosen for experimentation.

Every protective instinct in my being is stirred listening, through the perceptions of a six-year-old child, to how innocent Jewish families were taunted and victimised by the locals in Romania, how hatred was infused into their minds, even before the concentration camps began their unspeakable work. And I’m so many steps removed. What must it have been like to be parents, helpless in the face of such ugly harassment, hounded out of their home, forced into ghettos, powerless to resist or reassure their children, haunted by guilt about their failure to escape from their country while they could?

The utter terror that consumes the twins, Eva and Miriam, when they are deported, separated from their families, is heart-breaking. On the Auschwitz selection platform, Eva’s memory is of …
Crying, crying, crying. The crying of children for parents. The crying of parents for their babies. The crying of people confused and bewildered. The crying of people who saw with certainty that their nightmares had come true. All together, the cries resounded with the ultimate and most unimaginable pain of human loss. emotional grief, and suffering.

Their parents and older sisters are sent one way – the way leading to the gas chambers; they are directed in the other. It was the biological accident of being twins that gave the girls access to ‘privileged treatment’. Privilege? A relative term. They find themselves in a filthy stinking barn with a few hundred other twins aged 2 to 16. Auschwitz.

The old photos of Auschwitz in Kor’s book make the whole thing even more gut wrenching – the emaciated bodies, the shaved heads, the aloneness of small children, a smiling and handsome Dr Josef Mengele. Even the family shots hurt – they so much resemble the ones of my own family taken in the same era; same poses, same fashions, same required smiles. But a world apart.

Mengele is there on the selection platform, he’s there in the packed dormitories, he’s there in Birkenau, carrying out his dastardly experiments, obsessed with finding the secrets of genetics in order to create a master race of blond blue-eyed Aryans. The Jewish twins are his guinea pigs.

Though acutely aware that they’re alive because of an accident of nature, the twins have no option but to do as they are told. To sit completely naked for up to 8 hours amongst hundreds of twins – both boys and girls – leered at by SS guards, feeling dehumanised and excruciatingly embarrassed. To undergo hours of measurements and comparisons and blood taking and injections of pathological products and X-rays. Very little is known about exactly what Mengele did in these experiments, apart from damaging one twin in order to compare the effects between the two, sometimes even killing both in order to obtain autopsy results. Beyond evil and barbaric.

Back at Auschwitz, inhaling the putrid stench of a combination of Zyklon B with hydrogen cyanide and diatomite – the chemical mix for the mass murder in the gas chambers – mixed with burning flesh and bones:
It is not a smell a human can ever forget.
Scavenging any morsel of food and water they can. Forced to observe hangings, dead bodies being trundled by in carts, naked bodies left lying in the latrine.

At Auschwitz, dying was easy. Surviving was a full-time job.

After the Nazis have fled the camp, when Eva eventually sees someone on the outside, clean, smartly dressed, going to school, she’s consumed by anger and incomprehension.  How could the world know what was going on and do nothing? How indeed?

And then the Soviet troops arrive to release them. The girls are 11 years old. Their only ambition is to go home and be reunited with their parents and sisters, of whom they’ve heard nothing. But, not only is the family no more, the house wrecked and empty, but the neighbours want nothing to do with them. Even when they go to the protection of an aunt, life under the communists in this war-ravaged Romania is harsh. Once more food and possessions are confiscated, people disappear. Anti-Semitism is still rife.

They plan to leave for Palestine as their father had urged them to do, but it takes over two years to obtain exit visas. They are 16 when they finally set sail for their new home: the land of freedom; the new nation of Israel. Now at last, there will surely be no more anti-Semitism, only encouragement to celebrate their Jewish heritage. Surely.

But the harassment starts up again when Eva marries in haste and moves to the USA; it lasts a further 11 years.

She eventually finds her niche when she forms an organisation CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) and tracks down 122 survivors, helping them to deal with the issues they’ve carried from that time. When Miriam dies in 1993 from the effects of those horrific experiments, Eva opens the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Indiana, showing the world what was done, preserving the evidence for generations to come.

After years of bitterness and anger, she finally feels powerful when she finds it within her to personally forgive the Nazis for what they did, her parents for not protecting her, herself for hating them. After 50 years, a burden of pain is lifted from her shoulders. She is no longer a victim of her tragic past.

Anger and hate are seeds that germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace. It is the ultimate act of self-healing … self liberation, and self empowerment.

She spends the rest of her life teaching young people the life lessons learned through her pain, trying to bring transformative peace and kindness to the world. In her words:
I hope, in some small way, to send the world a message of forgiveness; a message of peace, a message of hope, a message of healing.
Let there be no more wars, no more experiments without informed consent, no more gas chambers, no more bombs, no more hatred, no more killing, no more Auschwitzes.

Eva Mozes Kor died unexpectedly and suddenly in 2019.

It’s a troubling book, a challenging message. Perhaps even more so given the horrors of the recent conflict in the Middle East – only a matter of four months ago.

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Historical fiction par excellence

The year is 1785. The place is the centre of Paris. Unusually heavy spring rain causes the bank of the cemetery of les Innocents, crammed full of bodies from the plague and the years since, to give way. The neighbours are overwhelmed by the stench and the effluent washing through their cellars. It’s poisoning the very air of the city.

A young engineer from Normandy, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is called in. The church and the burial ground must be destroyed, he is told; everything must be made sweet again, the poisonous influence of the past must be eradicated. So says no less a personage than the king! Baratte sets about amassing a rag-tag workforce and equipment to achieve this objective, and the macabre task begins. Before long the skeletons become visible … the depths of the many plots are plumbed … a steady procession of horse-drawn carts carries the disinterred bones, under velvet drapes, accompanied by chanting priests, to a newly sanctified quarry for their last resting place … the church and its precious organ are dismantled piece by piece. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the terrible smell lifts, beautiful flowers begin to grow in the new sanitised soil. But it comes at a price.

It’s a year of
bones, grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. … A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of desire. Of love …

The cemetery has been at the heart of life in the area for many people. Their very breath smells of it. Some indeed perceive themselves as its guardians. So what does this clearance mean for them?

There’s pretty Emilie Monnard aka Ziguette, daughter of a prosperous shop owner, whose window overlooks the cemetery. She’s watched burials there for years. Long after the mourners have left, she’s continued to keep watch over the dead like a sister or an angel. Now the man who is to destroy all she holds dear is lodging in her family home, and she will go to any lengths to save her precious heritage.

Then there’s the sweet auburn-haired emissary of death, Jeanne, teenage granddaughter of the aged sexton, who knows the cemetery intimately, and regards herself as custodian of its inmates, her vast extended family. Her affiliation to the dead moves her to be protective of what the project unearths. But her naivety, her dreams, end in smithereens when she’s rejected and then ruined.

Jean-Baptiste, however, from the moment he glimpses her, is unaccountably obsessed by the mysterious Austrian, Héloïs Godard – otherwise known as the town’s whore, nothing to do with the cemetery. No one is more disconcerted than he when she agrees to move in with him in his lodgings.

An unlikely setting for a novel you might think: a rank burial ground; it’s destruction. Especially in an age when justice, mercy, honour, sanitation and medicine are crude concepts. But somehow, the very unlikeliness of the backdrop gives additional heft to the story.

Pure, by Andrew Miller, is beautifully rendered with exquisite turns of phrase, and similies, and descriptions, which are pitch-perfect for the era they capture.

… riding out of the rags of last night’s mist

… the kitchen – that scrubbed and orderly world where even the light seems to lie like lengths of rinsed muslin …

Somewhere between very late and very early, some deep velvet-lined pocket of a winter’s night.

He has a candle in his head, all the light he needs, and he begins to play a Couperin trio from memory, his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women.

I was mesmerised – read it in a sitting!

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Life after Life

A bonus of lockdown was acquiring ‘new’ books from those donated to our outdoor bookshelf. One such was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, about which I’d seen and read excellent reports. (I’m horrified to discover it’s eight years since it came out, and I’m only now getting round to reading it! Too many books, not enough hours in the day.) But somehow, living in this parallel universe of pandemic for the last eighteen months has made Atkinson’s premise – What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? – even more pertinent; so perhaps after all it’s a good time to read it.

The hook on the back cover is tantalising:
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life?

An ingenious premise upon which to build a novel, huh? And it challenges us to think, What would I do differently, given the opportunity? Would I even want to change things?

Add to that the time period of the story – 1910-1967 – including two great wars, and the implications of a second chance assume even more momentous proportions.
What if a pretty English girl had shot Adolf Hitler in November 1930?
What if a pretty British girl was actually living in Germany when war was declared?
The historic detail relating to big events gives a solid skeleton to this story, but inevitably some factual accuracy is forfeited in the name of literature, as the author herself acknowledges: To find the truth as the heart of a book, a certain amount of reality falls by the way.

Ursula Todd, born in 1910, is a strange child with odd ‘powers’. Was it reincarnation, or clairvoyance, or deja vu, or living in a parallel universe, sixth sense, or what? Certainly her mother thinks she needs ‘fixing’. A Harley Street psychiatrist does his best when she’s 10, but as she grows up, and bad things happen to her, Ursula persists in wondering if death is the answer; she can then have another stab at life and hopefully a happier ending.

We follow her different lives through her rural upbringing with an indulgent father and a superior mother, adult life in London, during the Blitz, and in post-war Berlin. She goes from knowing child, to rape victim, abused wife, assassin, mistress, rescue warden. Back and forth. At times she doesn’t even recognise herself.

It was, I must admit somewhat discombobulating to live through a traumatic experience of the death of a child or young person, only to have them return later in the book very much alive because an alternative version of their lives is being narrated. Short of cataloguing each iteration, I couldn’t hold them all in my head, so went for simply enjoying the moment.

Something of the challenge underpinning this story is captured in these few lines of dialogue about half way through the book:
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’  Ursula said. ‘If one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
   ‘Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?’ Ralph asked mildly.
   ‘Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.’
   ‘But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood?’

For me this book came into its own in the section A Long Hard War, where Ursula is a warden dealing with the aftermath of the bombings in London. It poignantly captures the fragility of life, the human tragedy on both sides, the courage and stamina people can find within them, and the importance of small things.

When asked what the book is about, Atkinson says, It’s about being English. That’s not what I took from it. For me it’s about something much more complex; an unravelling of our multi-layered selves, who we are in our imaginations as well as in different circumstances. And how our destiny can be determined by an accident of birth, or a chance conversation, or a seemingly casual encounter or decision. I’m still mulling over all that … and isn’t that one measure of a successful story?

 

 

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Caring in a time of Covid

Yes, I know, I know … I went to sessions on this topic at the Hay Festival, and here I am again, attending more of the same at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Sad soul. But for me it was well worth the element of repetition to hear the important messages spelled out so clearly by those who really know. We do have to learn from the horrors, and now is the time to do so. Just this week our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced concrete plans to begin a judge-led inquiry into how things were managed in Scotland, by the end of this year. Sometimes, though, in the face of relentless coverage of the statistics and long term consequences, it can be hard to see beyond the negativity.

The line up of panellists included Dr Rachel Clarke (palliative care specialist and ex-journalist) and Kate Mosse (novelist and unofficial carer of three elderly relatives) again, but joining them was Dr Gavin Francis (Scottish surgeon and GP). The two doctors have both been working actively on the frontline throughout the last eighteen months, and deserved the spontaneous applause from the live audience. But they were quick to identify the reality: caring is a privilege.

Nevertheless, the deficiencies in the response to the impending crisis, and the slowness of the powers-that-be to mobilise appropriate measures to deal with it, did stir their anger. Indeed it was this pent up frustration that led to the books they wrote.

Much of what they said was known to me, but still shocked. And I was horrified to learn that, not only has the number of unpaid carers escalated colossally during the pandemic, largely because almost all official care stopped, but that they were left largely unsupported. As were young people with special needs, and those with dementia. What kind of a price have vulnerable people paid for this failure? The toll on mental health especially has been devastating, as we know.The full consequences will only emerge gradually.

On the other hand, it was heart-warming to hear that frontline workers had themselves been buoyed up by witnessing the best of human nature too. And as Kate Mosse said, it’s what we all want: a society that looks after each other, that cares, that pulls together. Dare we hope lessons will have been learned for next time? Those who work in the medical world seem sure of one fact: there will be a next time. Sobering thought, huh?

It’s been great to be part of this iconic Festival once again, albeit in a hybrid form this year. A big step up from the cancellation in 2020. And I personally salute all the teams working behind the scenes to make it work – almost without a hiccup this time for me! I guess the person who inadvertently broke a connection will be hiding their mortification in a dark corner somewhere. Come out, come out, whoever you are; all is forgiven.

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Edinburgh International Book Festival 2021

Well, who’d have thought it?… the Edinburgh International Book Festival is being transmitted in a hybrid form – virtual alongside real appearances – because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant restrictions, yet again this year.

This time for the first time it’s based in the Edinburgh College of Art as part of a liaison with the University of Edinburgh. So odd to hear the familiar sounds from a solid building instead of under canvas! But I welcomed the chance to watch it live from the comfort and safety of my own study.

My first session was on Day 1, and so so different from anything I’ve attended before. The speaker was Hoda Barakat, a Lebanese author, speaking from Paris where she now lives. Both she and the chair, David Codling, British Council Co-Director Literature communicated in Arabic, French and English! Leaves one feeling wholly inadequate, doesn’t it? But happily for us lesser mortals, a young Irish translator rendered Barakat’s answers in English too. It made for a cumbersome hour but some salutary messages emerged.

The book under review was Voices of the Lost, a novel which tells the hidden story of immigration and the Arab Spring. Barakat herself feels despairing about her country and feels it must die before new life can emerge. Millions of people have been, and still are, on the move, going to extraordinary lengths to escape from the country they love, and the book explores the complexity of human nature, and the mechanism of violence. She tries to zoom in on the violence and ask: Where does it come from?  Even the most monstrous of characters, the torturers and murderers, have their soft spots, she says.

Surely a most timely book in a week that has seen the Taliban take over control of Afghanistan and yet another wave of desperate people seek to flee from their homeland. Who can fail to be moved by the horror faced by those living under brutal regimes, and the perils they face attempting to find asylum in foreign lands?

Another challenging session on a similar theme had three writers – Leah Cowan, Julian Fuks and Abbas Nazari – talking about hostile environments and refugees and exile and immigration, exploring the themes of inter-connectednes and the senselessness of borders. Nazari was a 7 year old Afghan refugee twenty years ago, who has made a name and life for himself in New Zealand, and he too very much brought alive the impact of what’s happening in his country today.

Heart-wrenching topics explored through writers who are prepared to dig deep into trauma and tragedy.

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Dependence!

Wow! Who knew how utterly dependent I am on a supply of electricity to function?

A crisis this week, followed by renovations in our house, has meant four times being without electricity for several hours. There was even a scary episode – power-related – late at night, leaving me quivering in the dark, as something caused the hot water tank to threaten to explode, violent vibrations shaking the floor we stood on, echoing around the empty box-room and reverberating through the whole houses. Crossed my mind no electricity might be the least of my worries; it felt we were in imminent danger of being blown to smithereens!

Being without electricity meant all my carefully timetabled plans for productive days were wiped out completely. I had to resort to reading a book – not on the schedule for this week! Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself, of course; but it felt like it when there were deadlines for presentations on the priority list. What’s more, I was anxious not to lose the momentum of the thoughts and ideas I’d had overnight, and keep them mulling subconsciously, so I needed to find something that wouldn’t occupy too much brain space.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King wouldn’t have come to the top of my pile in years. And so far, really isn’t my bag either – sorry, Mr King! In essence the story’s about a woman, left stranded, handcuffed to a bed, in a remote lakeside cottage, and now contemplating her death. Her husband is lying on the floor, dead from a sudden heart attack. A hungry stray dog is marauding through the house. She is isolated, all alone … except for the voices in her head … arguing, scolding, reminding, sneering … And boy, is the predicament she’s in spun out!! The first 290 pages (of 394) see little progress of any kind in escaping from her dilemma. Her attempts simply to get a sip of water to quench her raging thirst occupy pages and pages. And yet we know more and more about her. Amazing what someone of King’s calibre can do with next to nothing. But as the strap line has it: words are his power.

It’s been a salutary experience. The shenanigans with the loss of electricity in our real lives, illustrate one important lesson: never leave preparation for talks till the eleventh hour! Mercifully I didn’t. There’s still time to rectify this. And happily we are now back to fully functioning, with a renewed appreciation for what we so often take for granted.

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