Hazel McHaffie

Alastair Campbell

Hay Book Festival

I’m like a pig in muck this week!! Hay Book Festival is online again. Wahey! They’ve already reached upwards of 2 million people, and I feel privileged to be one of those visiting and enjoying such thought-provoking and stimulating events. I’m immensely grateful to the team that ensures it happens. They’ve had more than their fair share of technical glitches unfortunately, but I think we’re all acclimatising to those kinds of issues in this era of Zoom. Puts our own mishaps into perspective.

In this first week, I’ve already listened to vaccine hesitancy, the effects of the pandemic, motherhood, grief, the first human cyborg (who has MND), deafness, adoption, racial discrimination … I won’t bore you with a rundown on them all, but three really stood out as exceptionally memorable for me. (Please excuse the quality of the photo – screenshot during the performances, so no time for finesse!)

The title, Life and Death with Covid, sums up one brilliant session. Dr Rachel Clarke, Palliative Care Specialist/author, who’s always good value, was in the chair and sensitively and confidently steered the conversation between herself, the legendary author/poet/presenter Michael Rosen, and a specialist in critical care and anaesthetics/author, Dr Jim Down.

The two doctors spoke eloquently about the impact of the pandemic on staff, and the imperative and willingness to care –  really care – for all their patients, be they serial killers or prime ministers, to the end of their lives. Their selfless dedication shone through. Michael Rosen spoke from the Covid patient’s angle. He survived 48 days in intensive care and 3 months in hospital, and compared the attention he was given to the love that drives a father to sit all night beside the bed of his sleeping son. The NHS, in his judgement, is the most ‘caring collective cooperative thing’ he could ever imagine – polar opposite of the Holocaust that killed so many of his relations. One of the most engrossing literary events ever. I simply HAD to buy all three books: Many Different Kinds of Love (Rosen), Breathtaking (Clarke), Life Support (Down). Reviews will doubtless follow on this blog! They arrived lovingly encased in red tissue paper too!

I’ve heard Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell on the topic of their depression before – both appeared again this year with new books to talk about, but new to me was travel writer and teacher of creative writing, Horatio Clare, talking about his mental health experience.

In Heavy Light: A journey through madness, mania and healing, he has eloquently captured the reality of being sectioned/detained when he developed bipolar disorder, an action he believes saved him. And he really underlined the importance of listening to the patient and tailoring care to individual need. What an articulate and sympathetic speaker. I was riveted.

Then there was Rev Richard Coles speaking to psychotherapist Julia Samuel (the ‘Queen of Grief’ as Richard described her). He spoke eloquently of the devastation, and the powerful emotions of anger, guilt, emptiness, he has experienced following the death of his beloved husband David, who was an alcoholic as well as fellow priest. No empty platitudes or trite sayings or pious hopes from him! And what sensitivity he must bring to bereaved parishioners. Julia Samuel concluded with poignant accuracy that, though he is still grieving acutely, he is taking David with him into a planned future of ministering to prisoners where the effects of addiction are seen as their harshest. A wonderfully honest and moving conversation, laced with humour, about a subject that needs more openness and candour. I’ve heard Coles speaking before; here I think he was at his best.

To be continued …

 

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Virtual Wigtown Book Festival

What a  week! What a treat! I’ve returned to Wigtown, over in the south west of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway, this time for their annual Book Festival – for the very first time a virtual event.

Before each session the camera has taken me through the town with its plethora of independent bookshops, and I’ve been reminded of the unique atmosphere and warm welcome Scotland’s National Book Town extends.

I was spoilt for choice. A few sessions were actually filmed in Wigtown in the familiar arrangement of author and interviewer actually speaking to one another, appropriately socially distanced; most were from homes or offices around the UK and abroad. And what a rich variety of topics were covered, light-hearted and deadly serious, entertaining as well as challenging. A taster will suffice for my purposes.

Wigtown’s own curmudgeonly bookshop owner, Shaun Bythell, now author of two bestsellers, ‘nibbling away at the hands of those who feed him’ in his confessions of a bookseller, appeared on his home turf. Except that he’s now undergone something of a transformation since I last saw him: neatly trimmed hair, smartly dressed, positively benign about his fellow man! Hello? Fatherhood seems to have smoothed some of his jagged edges!

Award-winning freelance Scottish journalist Peter Ross was new to me. He gave a fascinating insight into his work and writing about graveyards, weaving stories about the living as well as the dead, in a gentle almost reverential tone. And yes, the story of Wigtown’s martyrs featured. He came across as rather shy, but his writing style is assured and beautiful – a joy to hear some of his choice phrases and astute observations.

Writer, photographer, crofter, sheep-breeder, Tamsin Calidas, gave a mesmerising account of her life on a remote Hebridean island, battling the savage weather, local animosity, betrayal, and fearful loneliness. Her session ended with a film from within the waves around her island home, made by her, and overlaid with her voice paying tribute to the healing power of cold water swimming. Altogether moving and uplifting. And her own inner peace, achieved through a catalogue of vicissitudes, pervaded her responses.

More well-known personalities included Alastair Campbell, appearing, not to talk about the years as political aide and strategist to Tony Blair, but to share his levelling experience of depression and alcoholism, and to appeal for more understanding of mental illness. It seemed somehow appropriate that his image was poorly-focused and quite dark, capturing a much softer and more likeable person than in the political glory days.

It was against a backdrop of books and folders that Baroness Helena Kennedy shared something of her multitudinous and high profile activities as a barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties, as she was questioned by a reporter from Beirut. She’s been involved in a number of infamous international cases, and shared fascinating details of specific incidents, as well as her opinions on world leaders and regimes. Rivetting stuff.

One of my favourite event speakers, forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, gave her inimitable insights into her work and knowledge of bones, combining facts and stories to bring a potentially dry subject to life. What constitutes a ‘good hanging’? How you can determine so much about a person from fragments of their skeleton. How the bones of a newborn baby can survive from Roman times. How much she enjoys working with crime writers. And even though she frequents haunts like murder scenes or disaster sites, her joy of life, her sense of the ridiculous, bear out her philosophy: ‘You have to work by the light rather than let yourself be consumed by the darkness.’

These and others kept me enthralled – and all from the comfort of my own home. Hats off to organisations everywhere who have risen to the challenges of life under a pandemic with such energy and professionalism. The opportunity to escape to a book festival has to be a brilliant tonic for isolated writers everywhere.

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