Hazel McHaffie

Christian Aid

Let’s hear it for the book!

It’s May … Christian Aid week again … which means the monarch of all secondhand book sales. Each year the St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in George Street in Edinburgh hosts this fantastic week long event to help address world poverty. Since it started in 1974 the sale has raised in excess of £2m for the charity.

Preparation goes on for weeks beforehand involving over 500 volunteers, local authors bring along signed copies of their work, some people bequeath whole libraries to them, countless anonymous people donate their discard-able tomes. And by the time the doors open to the public, over 100,000 books of every kind fill the sanctuary, balconies and both courtyards, rare and valuable items rubbing shoulders with the run-of-the-mill. 100,000 books! Bliss.

Unusually this year I went along on Saturday’s opening day just half an hour after the doors opened. There was already an excited buzz outside on the pavement …

as well as inside …

Plenty of ‘excuse me’s, jostling elbows/large bags, competitive reaching. Long arms and good vision a definite advantage.

This early on there was good evidence of order with books by the same author gathered into boxes, and I could only dimly conceive of the mammoth task that involved. And yet I still heard one customer asking if they were arranged in alphabetical order! The remarkably tolerant volunteer said apologetically, ‘Sorry. There just wasn’t time for that.’ Bless her. Of course, it was the beginning of the week long effort … and the rain was holding off … and the snell east wind had abated. She could still feel her fingers and toes and didn’t have rain dripping off the polythene covers onto her trousers. But even so.

So the customer must tour the tables, row after row after row of them, grouped under banner signposts to find the titles they’re after. Specialised non-fiction tomes and sets varying in price; most hard-cover novels £2 a pop; paperbacks £1. Amazing bargains. And I’m sure many people cheerfully stump up far more than the asking price.

Inside the stalls range from the obscure to the classical and there are phenomenal bargains to be had. Having just read about the illuminators of ancient Turkey, this intriguing book held my attention.

But despite the serious temptation, I limited my own purchases to one carriable-home-on-the-bus bag which included these novels …








But my biggest kick came from standing on the balcony watching all these earnest browsers digging into boxes on every topic you can think of. Wanting, buying, loving books! Yep, the real hold-in-your-hand hard copy book is certainly nowhere near in terminal decline. Half-way round I beat a retreat to the basement cafe to fortify myself for a second wave of literary rummaging and then discovering more lovely and unusual finds in the antiques and collectables department.

Huge congratulations to all who sustain this brilliant endeavour.

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‘All morning putting in a comma …’

Well, that’s the general election over for another time and what an event it was! I confess I was not one of the enthusiasts who stayed up all night watching, but I did pop in and out on Friday morning to listen to the sound of big names crashing, big egos admitting defeat, big promises being dissected, history being made.

Molly Malone

Dublin’s Molly Malone

In between I revised all the dialogue in my current novel spoken by a minor character, one Mrs Kaetlyn O’Leary who hails from Ireland. At the beginning of the week I immersed myself in a lot of stuff about just how to capture the lilt and idioms of that musical tongue; then I went through the prose meticulously introducing the telltale patterns every time she spoke: ‘he went away, so he did’, ‘sure, and you’ll be after doing it yerself’, ‘it’s meself that’ll be doing that’ and so on. Then in the middle of the week I read a whole lot more bumpf about how folk are put off by thick accents, how hard it is to get it right, and I went completely off the idea again. So out it all came on Friday. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde who famously said, ‘I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out again.’ Thing is, I’m not at all sure Kaetlyn O’Leary’s voice is her own even yet, but I’ve put it to one side for the time being.

I’m getting close to the end of the book now – only about 2 or 3 chapters to go – which means that any changes I make have wide ranging consequences. Very soon I’ll have to spend my working days reading … re-reading … re-re-reading … ad nauseam, checking the authenticity and consistency of each voice, weighing up the value of each sentence, losing favourite phrases and paragraphs. Kaetlyn will probably go through several more metamorphoses – she might not even remain Irish! Fortunately for me I really love the editing phase.

Christian Aid book sale - queue on first dayAlso this week I boosted my spirits by attending the first hour of the first day of the renowned annual book sale in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, featuring over 100,000 books – the biggest Christian Aid fundraising event in the UK; largest charity book sale event in the world in fact. It’s such an encouraging experience for an author. I joined this queue three-deep that, by 10am when the doors opened, stretched all the way to the end of the pavement in George Street.

Christian Aid booksale -  inside churchThe boxes of books are lined up on rows of tables inside the church on two levels, sorted into every conceivable subject areas – a labour of love in itself. (Thanks to my son who provided this photo – much better colour balance than mine.)  Standing up in the balcony I couldn’t help but marvel at the energy and commitment of the folk behind the scenes masterminding this extraordinary event year after year – it has taken place annually since 1974!

Christian Aid book sale - outside stallsOutside in the courtyard all around the building are thousands more books. A crush of keen bookworms jostle for space as they determinedly scan the spines for something new and exciting, some even on their knees under tables seeking specific treasures. Yes, indeed, the book as we know it is very far from dead. Long live the book!



I came away with warmth in my heart and My bargain booksfour books I’ve been wanting to read in my bag. I limited myself this year – well, my tbr pile is already toppling over, and my shelves are threatening to sag under the sheer weight of novels lined two deep all along them. The sale finishes tomorrow so that’s it over for me – but spare a thought for the army of book-lovers who will toil away on Saturday to remove everything left behind and prepare the church for morning worship. There’s dedication and commitment for you.

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Poverty and riches

It’s Christian Aid week again, with its focus on ‘helping those in poverty out of poverty‘. For more years than I care to count I’ve been involved in door-to-door collecting in my home town as well as events in the city, but this is one of the wettest and coldest CA weeks I can remember – we even had hail and snow to vary the precipitation! But the weather notwithstanding, beetling in and out of Edinburgh (with camera secreted somewhere about the person) has reminded me of what an amazing city it is.

Spectacularly  silhouetted … quaintly romantic … quietly regal … monumentally incongruous … gloriously artistic … and much, much more. But it’s to this church that my thoughts go specially this week – St Andrew’s and St George’s West in George Street. The site of the biggest fundraising event for Christian Aid in the UK. St Andrews and St Georges This king size book sale has raised over £100,000 each year over the past five years to help the poor and underprivileged; that’s well over a million since the sale started in 1974. And on the first day alone this year it took £46,700! What a lot of books that represents.The book saleAs part of this huge effort, the convenor, Lady Mary Davidson, writes to local authors inviting them to donate signed copies of their own works which are then sold in a special section. A lovely idea. She’s fiendishly hard working but still makes a point of chatting to us when we call in, and writing to us afterwards. Makes you feel special even when you’re not.

And, of course, I simply HAVE to buy a stack of books every year, even though my shelves are groaning already.  Well, it’s a worthy cause. The least I can do.

Long live the book!

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Below the Line

Well, that’s Christian Aid week over for another year. I can’t believe how quickly it comes round.

The highlight for me at a personal level is always, of course, the massive book sale in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s and St George’s Church.St Andrews and St Georges

I must confess I bought more books than I donated – not good news for my already groaning bookshelves! In fact the new collection is currently just lying about in piles awaiting a home. But each time I visited the sale I found myself just standing staring at this amazing spectacle – literally thousands of books and not a Kindle in sight! For any author it has to be a brilliant affirmation of the appeal of the written word. And what reassurance to know there’s a huge crowd of folk out there hungry for more.

Customers were repeatedly dodging others in order not to miss a single gem in the rows of boxes. As the novels were snapped up volunteers quickly filled the gaps, and I overheard some of them discussing the relative merits of certain authors, clearly avid readers themselves. On one occasion I even saw a couple of venerable white-haired gentlemen on their knees under tables trawling through some ancient tomes.

The buzz spurred me on through the annual door-to-door collecting – it can be daunting at times. Particularly in times of austerity. Did the dog really eat their envelope? Does ‘the wife’ (absent today) always decide where the money goes in their household and take the envelope away with her in case hubby sneakily fills it? Have the whole family actually gone out leaving the TV blaring and the windows wide open? No, no, no!  I hasten to add that most of the householders on my particular stamping ground are exemplary citizens, giving generously and with a smile.

Oh, by the way, did you hear about this year’s Live Below the Line project? An octogenarian friend of ours brought it to our attention, setting a shining example by doing it herself. It’s a challenge to the general public to live on just £1 a day for 5 days to help raise £500,000 for some of the world’s poorest people. Apparently they’ve calculated that about 1.4 billion live on less than that all the time, not just for 5 days. How could we not respond to that appeal?

Actually chez nous the challenge has proved much more enjoyable than anticipated – easy to say when we live in the luxury of UK wealth the rest of the year, I know. But to be positive – I’ve had fun experimenting with dishes that eke out the rations but still provide enough fuel to get us through busy days. And king-size pots of soup and stews mean less hours actually preparing and shopping, more hours for writing, reading, proof-checking, etc. Has to be good! In fact we’re extending this particular project beyond 5 days. I can’t imagine Christian Aid would turn down latecomers.

Because of course, poverty, oppression and hunger aren’t confined to one week in the year; even a crammed-full bright red collecting bag is a drop in a bottomless ocean. But ‘mony a mickle maks a muckle’. We can all do our little bit and I’m sure you do. I know our fellow church members come up with the most amazing initiatives to keep money coming in for worthy causes; I’m constantly impressed by their unflagging commitment. Although we haven’t tried walking on red hot coals yet as I see MND Scotland have!

OK, let’s see how far a bowl of porridge will take me today … The theory is that the brain is sharper when the body is fasting. And I could certainly do with sharper.

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When is a spade not a spade?

Phew. What a week! We might have seen history in the making but I for one will be devoutly thankful when the dust settles from this jolly old general election. And rest assured, I have absolutely no intention of extending the agony here.

But I do want to talk about one particular politician, Independent MSP Margo MacDonald. Last week, in the midst of all the election hype, I was invited to go and hear her in person talking about her proposed End of Life Choices (Scotland) Bill. Of course I leapt at the chance. It’s a subject dear to my heart, as you folks know.

On this occasion she stoutly maintained that having Parkinson’s Disease herself hasn’t influenced her in taking up this Bill, but I have to admit her personal circumstances give her a certain edge in my estimation. Anyone who campaigns so tirelessly when they’re battling personally commands my respect.

But here she was, asking for comment and questions about her proposed Bill from a largely medical audience, which included lots of psychiatrists and some palliative care specialists, both of whom have a lot riding on this. Of course, they challenged her. And why not? She wasn’t seeking any latitude because she has an illness herself. And more importantly, by her own admission, she’s asking an awful lot of doctors: viz to end the lives of human beings. Quite deliberately.

Now, if you’ve read my novel on this subject, Right to DieRight to Die, you’ll know that I fully understand the dilemmas for those people who suffer horrific degenerative neurological diseases. You might detect that I have a lot of sympathy for those who want to end their lives ahead of nature’s schedule. But what you won’t know from that book, is that I personally have very mixed feelings on the subject of assisted death. Depends where I’m standing what it looks like, I guess. But because I feel honour bound to try to present the picture fairly and honestly (well, I’m not a politician), Margo’s debate with the doctors compels me to spell out a few angles thrown up in the discussion that made me think, even though some at least appear in the novel in one guise or another. (Incidentally the book predated Margo’s Bill by a couple of years.)

Here’s roughly how it went (my paraphrasing).

MMacD: This is a Bill to help a small number of people with intolerable or terminal conditions have the kind of dignified death they wish for.
Audience: Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s euthanasia.

MMacD: Ending a life is too big a responsibility for families who, in any case aren’t knowledgeable enough about medical matters; they might guff it up and not know how to correct their mistakes. Ergo, doctors should do the deed.
Audience: Doctors aren’t trained in how to kill either. They wouldn’t know how to. And given the projected small numbers* eligible for this service it’s hard to see how they could be trained, or build up expertise.
*(Based on the Oregon experience, MMacD had projected 55 per annum in Scotland.)

MMacD: Doctors already end lives because of the double effect of the drugs they use: big doses of pain relief shorten lives.
Audience: This is a myth. Research shows that when medication is carefully titrated against pain by palliative care specialists it doesn’t shorten life. It’s only when non-experts panic this happens.

MMacD: The Bill requires psychiatrists to assess the patient’s definition of ‘an intolerable life’.
Audience: Assessments like this are notoriously difficult.

MMacD: The patient drives this. It’s what they personally find intolerable that counts.
Audience: So what are the doctors assessing?

MMacD: One of the rules for this Bill is that the patient isn’t being coerced or subjected to undue influence to die.
Audience: It’s incredibly hard to decide if they are. Pressure comes in many guises.

MMacD: Whilst she has no quibble with religious or moral objections to this Bill, MMacD gets annoyed by the people who make false claims about its risk to vulnerable people. But she also said she feels guilty she’s being too conservative about who would be eligible for this service.
Audience: No, they didn’t say a word!

It’s only fair to underline a couple of points.
– MMacD was inviting challenges. And she stated that she had every intention of having medical experts present at the discussion stage.
– the Bill is at a very early phase. It could change in lots of ways before it becomes law – if it ever does.
– the doctors who spoke are not necessarily representative of all medical opinion and she is not representative of all politicians.

Do add your comments either on the blog, or to me in confidence (see my contact page), I’d love to hear from you. Especially if you can help to clarify my own thinking on some of this. What a minefield!

In the midst of all this turmoil, it’s been a tonic to involve myself in Christian Aid week. The annual Book Sale at St Andrew’s and St George’s in Edinburgh’s George Street is a fantastic example of love in action. (It raised £101,000 last year!) And the people who go out of their way to be sure their donations get to me if I miss them in my door-to-door collecting – they restore my faith in human beings. As did the church I visited the previous week, who really reach out to their local community in practical ways as an integral part of their Christian service. These are the kind of folk who get my vote. Politicians please note!

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Long live the book!

Christian Aid week. I’ve worked for this worthy cause for more years than I care to remember but it’s only recently I’ve become aware of the letterbox-phenomenon. My stomping ground for house-to-house collections has remained the same for years but conditions have definitely changed as owners have come and gone, and new incumbents have sought to stamp the property with their individual mark.

And of course, the passing of the years has changed me too. Bending down to put envelopes into houses where the letterbox this year is a surprising inch or two from the ground, taxes the old back far more than it used to twenty years ago.

But since when did anyone ever rise up in indignation on behalf of postmen and women everywhere? They not only run the gamut of having their heels nipped by trained man-eating terriers, and their hands trapped by vice-like sprung flaps, and their hearts stopped by the feel of fur just inside the orifice, but they are in daily danger of dislocations and other unmentionable distortions of the joints and bony structures. Far more likely damage than the occasional hanging basket falling on the head of a sauntering tourist. Or a kiddie being knocked unconscious by a conker in the playground. Hats off to these uncomplaining post-people, I say!

Christian Aid week has also brought a surge of sympathy for another largely unsupported band of workers. Every year a church in Edinburgh’s George Street plays host to a massive BOOK SALE. Thousands of books, inside, outside, under tables, in hourly danger of cloudburst and gale. Mobbed for five days. Yes, you can be forgiven for assuming my sympathy is for the volunteers trying to tot up nine times fifty pence, eleven times fifty pence and do-you-need-a-bag in all the hurly-burly of a busy city street. But on this occasion my thoughts were more for the thousands of authors whose works were selling for a song. In our writing journals we’re often urged to protest, hold out for fair prices for honest labour. But watching that surging mass of bargain hunters I confess to a disloyal reaction. How fantastic that the written page is still so much in demand. While thousands continue to risk life and limb in sales like this, authors as well as those in dire need of our help abroad will continue to benefit in the longer term. Long live the book!

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