Hazel McHaffie

Christmas

Stocktaking

As one year ends and an unknown year opens up in front of us, it’s a good time to take stock, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to get things out of perspective.

SadNow, you (probably) and I (definitely) both know that self doubt and angst are a recognised occupational hazard for writers – well, accumulated humiliations and rejections of various kinds, and multiple petty blows to the ego, don’t exactly put one in the party spirit, do they? So it maybe won’t come as any surprise to you when I confess that I was feeling rather despondent recently about the constant struggle to achieve sales targets and get the latest book noticed.

Bucked upBut then I found Melissa Benn‘s article: Survival of the fittest, in Mslexia. What a tonic. She knows personally all about the agonies of tiny queues for signings, poor reviews, miniscule audiences, patronising jibes, totally negative feedback, being ignored by the marketing department, the demise of the mid-list author, diminishment … her list is pretty exhaustive. Merely seeing these negative experiences acknowledged as commonplace takes some of the sting out of them. And her encouraging tips on how to survive were balm to my soul. As she says: ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’ Persistence? Yep, that I can do.

ChastenedI was also chastened. I haven’t actually suffered any public abuse or vitriol such as some of the authors she quotes have endured (not yet at any rate!) so I’m instantly berating myself for allowing lesser things to bring my spirits low. I have no right or cause to wallow in self pity. Shoulders back, head high, woman!

And then there was an interview with crimewriter, Ian Rankin. He’s in his early 50s, lives in Edinburgh, and has sold over 20 million books. He’s a success. He’s a rich man. Readers queue twice around the block to hear him speak or get his signature. Our paths cross occasionally but he’s in a completely different league from me. He certainly wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street, I’m sure. However, it took him a good 14 years before ‘money became a happy factor‘ in his writing career. And behind his present fame and fortune lies private tragedy. He says he’d give all the money he has so that his second son, Kit, didn’t have the severe disability he has (Angelman Syndrome).

HopefulThis little story puts my anxieties about book-related issues into a much healthier context. Do sales figures really matter in the bigger scheme of things?  Does anyone suffer because I overlooked a typo? Who benefits if I lose sleep anticipating possible criticism or a vanishing audience? I recall Alison Baverstock saying, think in terms of gaining one reader at a time and appreciate each book sold, rather than feeling crushed by grandiose expectations. By now my mental shake is having an effect.

Sanguine againAnd then some lovely people booked me for various author appearances. Thank you, guys! Flagging morale significantly boosted. See, it doesn’t take much to reverse the trend.

Besides, it being a new year, I’ve resolved not to try not to get myself ridiculously overloaded with busyness, anyway. As Ruby Wax (who, don’t you know, holds an MA in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford and knows a thing or two about mental health) said in an end of December interview for the Telegraph on the secret to a happy new year: ‘happiness is not a shiny 2014 diary already clogged with meetings, phone catch-ups and must-do errands‘: we’re happier when we’re calmer and taking life steadier. That’s a pretty good idea to hang onto as we launch into a new year, I reckon. Me more than most.

So here’s to 2014 … and more peace and giving and understanding and loving in the world. I hope it’s a terrific year for you: healthy, happy, productive and contented.

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HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Christmas baublesAll blessings of the season to you all! Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing stay safe and well.

 

 

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Kurukulla: The Wise Guru

Christmas week! Time methinks for a holiday from all serious debate and difficult issues and deep and meaningful reading. Light relief is called for.

Apparently some of my readers were disappointed not to get some hints as to the Christmas story I was writing for my grandchildren. A deliberate decision on my part because family members (adult) object if I spoil the surprise by giving sneaky previews.

But, after the event, I can now reveal all, and share a glimpse into Christmas Day chez nous. (Apologies for the variable quality of the pictures – still tinkering with settings, but reluctant to spend all of Boxing Day pfaffing with something so tedious, and technical support limited during the holiday period.)

The story centred around four cousins who time-travelled from Scotland in the 21st century, walking backwards up a winding staircase …21st century quartetback in time to the home of a wise guru, Kurukulla, which in Tibetan means dances the rhythms of wisdom.meeting the guru The Wise One gradually transforms them into mini disciples and puts them through a series of initiation ceremonies …initiation ceremonytasting ceremony

learning to be a followerthe guru's suitcaseand as they acquire knowledge and wisdom she adds jewels to their faces … jewelled face 1jewelled face 2jewelled face 3jewelled face 4Magical creatures add surprise elements …magical creatureand a banquet wins the hearts of chocoholics…banquetThe end result: four beaming grandchildren.four happy actorsIt only remains for me to rid the soft furnishings of the smell of sandalwood and musk, and wish you all a peaceful and prosperous 2013 – contentment and gratitude in the good times; strength and wisdom if troubles come your way.

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Books, lists and preparations

Yesss! I had no less than three good excuses for sitting down for hours with a book In December, when I really should have been busy ticking things off the to-do list glaring at me from my desk. Three cast iron excuses to boot. 1. I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted, and was under instruction to take things easy for a couple of days. 2. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice making it inadvisable to venture out. 3. The author of the said book is Linda Gillard, and after the year she’s had, I was keen to review her book before Christmas. Which reminds me … 4. The book’s set at Christmas time so the mood was exactly right for reading it in December.

House of SilenceHouse of Silence is Linda’s fourth novel, and although it once again features mental illness and dysfunctional families, it’s otherwise very different from the three earlier ones I’ve read. Good start. As you know, I’m somewhat allergic to formulaic writing.

Gwen Rowland is a wardrobe assistant for film and television productions. She’s good at it too. But she’s alone in the world.

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs, and my Uncle Frank did men – boys if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ’90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectfully, cirrhosis of the liver, a drugs overdose and AIDS … My mother, fond as she was of cliches, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And Sasha did.

Since the death of her mother, Gwen has dreaded Christmas with its appalling memories, and essential loneliness. So she finds it hard to understand why actor-boyfriend Alfie Donovan is reluctant to take her to Norfolk for his family celebrations. He has no choice but to go; it’s his duty to visit his mother and sisters. But why isn’t he appreciative of the richness of his own privilege – not just relatives, but a stately Elizabethan-manor-house home, and celebrity? Why isn’t he keen to share it?

Eventually Gwen wangles an invitation, though Alfie predicts it’ll be her ‘second-worst Christmas‘ ever. She warms instantly to the practical but eccentric sister Viv, and the scatty but creative Hattie, who still live at Creake Hall, but she grows increasingly disturbed by the changes in Alfie. Where is the family affection? What has made Rachel Holbrook, renowned children’s author, and their mother, hide in her room, granting only occasional audiences to visitors? Who is the mysterious gardener, Marek Zbydniewski, who sees right into Gwen’s soul? And what exactly is Hattie trying to tell her?

The cold and cavernous house is full of photographs and portraits, but they aren’t what they purport to be either. The sisters offer explanations for some of the discrepancies, but Gwen is growing increasingly mistrustful of everything about this family. Things just don’t add up. Who are they? And what secrets are they concealing? As she works on one of Hattie’s unfinished patchwork quilts, Gwen unravels more confusion and mystery that take her into a labyrinth of such complexity that the reader has to keep readjusting his or her own compass.

We’ve come to expect richness and depth in her characters from this author, who combines a light touch with thorough attention to detail. This time the layers of authenticity come from psychology, quilting, gardening, writing, acting, music. And although the underlying tale takes us into dark places of the mind, there’s plenty of light and shade, with eccentricities and humour providing the contrast and lifting the spirits.

So, the verdict? I enjoyed the book greatly. No difficulty sitting tight for a day and a half. Although, to be ultra-pernickety, I confess I’d personally have preferred a less tidied-up ending, and far fewer exclamation marks …! Sorry, Linda, but your prose is strong enough not to need them.

OK, review posted, now I can get back to that to-do list.

Decorate the house …decorated fireplaceWrap parcels …parcelsBake cakes … mull wine … Relax! I’m not going to bore you with humdrum domesticity. No, only wish you all peace and happiness whatever the season means to you.

 

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Forgotten Voices

In the welter of Christmas Fayres and concerts, charity fundraisers, shopping, wrapping, writing, cooking, I’m very conscious of the many folk out there for whom this whole season is a nightmare – the bereaved, the lonely, the sick, the burdened. A frightening number of my own friends and relations fall into the special-card-category this year. No mention of ‘merry’, or ‘happy’, or ‘festive’. Perhaps a wish for peace. Or blank for my own message.

Thinking such sombre thoughts brings me to a book I read a while ago that gave me cause for some deep reflection.

In a former life I was Deputy Director of Research in the Institute of Medical Ethics, and for many years I studied the issues around the treatment of tiny and sick infants born at the very edges of viability. Mortality and morbidity statistics for this group of children are high, and sometimes difficult questions have to be asked about whether it’s wise and morally right to offer, or to continue, treatment. Crucial Decisions at the Beginning of LifeMy research involved listening to the firsthand experiences and opinions of 109 bereaved parents in these kind of circumstances.

What a privilege. Interviews lasted anything up to five and a quarter hours at a sitting – sometimes well into the night – and I subsequently went over and over the recorded interviews in order to analyse and report their stories faithfully.

Now, you can’t immerse yourself in profound human misery of this calibre for many years without being affected in some way, and the effect of this accumulated heartbreak has remained with me ever since. It has changed my tolerance levels, it has altered my perspective on life in many ways.

So I was predisposed to respect the writing of Lyn Smith who spent 25 years recording the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. Her burden is immeasurably heavier than mine. But like me she has chosen to share these stories so that others might know and understand better. She’s used interviews with over 100 contributors to assemble a powerful oral history of the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime in Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust.

The book is carefully structured, covering the changes before the war when persecution began, the creation of the ghettos, the inhumane treatment of the concentration and death camps, the resistance movement, death marches, liberation, and the trauma of the aftermath. It begins rather mildly and somehow the evil creeps up on you, devastating in the power of first person accounts, even though the essential stories are well known. And I was totally unprepared for the horrors that continued after repatriation.

As Laurence Rees says in his foreword, ‘This book will trouble you deeply.’ It will. I’m not going to attempt to give you a flavour of it. You need to hear the voices of Kitty, Joseph, Rena, Roman, Alicia, Maria, Charles, and their fellow-sufferers for yourself. And you need to build up to the unbelievable treatment they endured simply because they were Jews or gypsies or Poles, or Jehovah’s Witnesses or homosexuals or some other so-called ‘subhuman’ species deemed unworthy of life.

This is not a book for the faint-heated – no surprises there. Tales of persecution, torture, murder, rape, make discomforting reading, and these personal but stark, unembellished accounts describe a depth of depravity grotesque beyond words. And yet these people survived, against the odds. What’s more they found the courage to relive the horror, the words to capture the pictures and emotions, the spirit to go on. And sometimes even to forgive.

Nor is it unmitigated darkness and despair. Despite the brutality and degradation, the fear and nightmares, the stories are lightened by flashes of humour, by memories of astonishing and inexplicable acts of kindness, by glimpses of dignity and compassion, by a remarkable lack of vengeance, by amazing demonstrations of courage.

Lyn Smith expresses the hope that ‘Gathered together … this mosaic of voices gives access to the complexity and human reality behind the abstract statistics of extermination and allows readers to see beyond the stereotypes of what constitutes a “victim”.’ I believe it does.

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The Manchurian Candidate

Well, that’s the Ethics Film Festival over for another year. And I’ve survived! No rotten tomatoes or heckling or booing. Phew!

The format is the same for each session: the film is shown, and then a panel of professionals from different disciplines (bioethics, law, philosophy, politics, sociology) comment on it before engaging the audience in discussion about the issues. I had my moment on the high stool at the front on Sunday afternoon (talking about The Manchurian Candidate). The quality of the challenges that come from the floor always impresses me – sometimes I struggle to even understand the question, never mind answer it.  But maybe the label ‘ethics’ attracts an erudite and informed thinker in the first place.

Anyway this year I actually found it quite stimulating analysing one film in detail and thinking about its messages. When the film The Manchurian CandidateThe Manchurian Candidate was first shown in the early 1960s the world was a different place. It tells the story of an American army sergeant (played by Laurence Harvey) who is decorated for his bravery in the Korean war. But his superior officer Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) suspects there’s something phoney about the account of an ambush and bravery under attack, and sets about uncovering the bizarre truth. It features a power-crazed mother, a puppet presidential candidate, warring senators, hypnotic card games, a couple of delectable girls, and an escalating plot to gain a foothold in the White House.

That early version caught the mood of the time – doubts about America’s involvement in Korea and deep suspicion about communist infiltration. And yet the film is still challenging today fifty years later, making it such a good choice for the Neuroethics Film Festival. How brainwashed are we? How much do we exercise freewill, or is our future pre-determined by our biological brains? How much moral responsibility should we take for our own actions and opinions?

I must confess I was devoutly grateful that I wasn’t allocated the final flim, A Clockwork Orange. Horribly violent and disturbing. But, or course, an effective and powerful stimulant to vigorous debate on the issues of correction and deterrent, punishment and rehabilitation, competition for resources, moral responsibility, religious conviction and political agendas. Which was the whole point.

Appearing at our local library a couple of days later was tame and safe by comparison. I am after all an acknowledged expert on the subject of my own novels … I hope! I know why I wrote what I wrote. And I’m prepared to defend my choices to the death!

So, that’s the end of my professional away-dates for this year. Things start up again after New Year but for now I can settle back into working in the warmth and security of my study. And in between sneak in a little preparation for Christmas. Yes!!

Speaking of Christmas …poinsettiasThis was a small part of the thousands of plants on display during the annual poinsettia walk at the Pentland Garden Centre this week. Fabulous, eh? The prime specimen on our kitchen windowsill at this very moment is lifting my spirits already.

 

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A mental spring clean

This week I’ve ticked several things off the list that have been lingering far too long. Feels good. A kind of mental spring clean.

Most importantly for this blog, all my books in Kindle format have now been reduced to 88p – a target I’ve had in mind for some time. Question is: will they now tick boxes for a different kind of reader? Time will tell.

On the domestic front, the railings and gates at the front of our house have at last been installed. Just over a year after the accident (first reported in this post).New gatesIt’s rarely that we call in workmen chez nous, but this last couple of weeks we’ve had two sets of men working on our behalf; repairing the stonework of our 19th century establishment, as well as replacing the iron work. You hear endlessly of sloppy timing and poor workmanship, but I’ve been so impressed by these two teams.  What skill. What precision. What a transformation. What’s more they were all so friendly and quiet and courteous and focused. Meticulous perfectionists. Highly recommended. Thanks to their abilities and application we launch into 2012 with a new image.

And indoors there’s my own year-long project. Contrary to what my blog might suggest, reading and writing don’t absorb all of my time. But I am a self-confessed workaholic. I find it hard to give myself permission to ease off. I do know it’s an unhealthy way to go on, though, so last January I resolved to take time out to relax before bedtime as often as I could. By way of motivation I started a complicated piece of counted thread work (already a hobby of mine) and set myself a target of early December by which to get it finished.

My timetabling was thrown by a rush of visitors and various unexpected illnesses and crises however; embroiderythings that just had to take precedence over several months, and consequently it was actually January 2012 before I sewed on the last bead. Here’s the completed article ready to go for framing – to be converted into a Christmas firescreen, I hope. In reality it’s alive with sparkling gold thread and colourful beads which you can’t see to best effect in the photo.

All the credit for the finished product though should go to the minds that created the design, and worked out the careful combination of colours, and strategic placement of beads and gold thread. I simply followed their instructions.

Oh, and before I forget … I promised to let you know how that acer (maple tree to you and me) damaged in the crash, fared – the one that valiantly sprouted new growth against all odds (see post). Having been buried in rubble for a year, sprayed with various building materials and tramped on by heavy boots, the poor thing has finally given up the ghost entirely. Time to move on. Ticked off the list but not forgotten.

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Fantasy and fun

One of the things about being freelance is there’s nobody to give you official permission to take a holiday. But I’ve granted myself time out to celebrate this week.

Dominating the Christmas period for me was, of course, the grandchildren’s story. It duly went ahead on 27th and parts of our house became a magical emporium run by a delightfully benevolent professor …TThe Professor in his emporiumHis apprentices got into some amusing scrapes learning the trade …measuring customers in every directionbut eventually earned the opportunity to enter the sacred portals of the professor’s laboratory where they turned into serious scientists …Youngscientists observing the regulationsThe lab came complete with bottled voices and jars of virtues and abilities …bottled voices and virtues potions and lotionswhich they titrated into their own amazing prototypes …the prototypeBack in the emporium a shy but cuddly orangutan featured …

Ola the orangutanand a raucous toucan …Torquil the talking toucanA game of charades brought out imaginative traits and not even a spectral visitor could scare the professor out of his perpetual bonhomie …The spectre of deathInnocent fun.

It’s all over far too soon but there’s no time to pine. First, the prospect of a run of regular visitors is driving me to restore an orderly establishment. Then the provisional script of Professor Devine’s Emporium must be converted into a limited edition book (5 copies), which by tradition has to be finished by 12 January (the first family birthday of the year). Would that all publishers were as efficient and committed, eh?

 

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Wishing you a thought-provoking and happy Christmas!

Christmas week! Looks like it’ll be a white one at that, too. (Funny how that prospect has rather lost its sparkle this year.)

But as I mess about with the usual preparations, thoughts keep turning to the reason for the season. So my blog ought to reflect that.

I guess it all dates back to October. Camels in MoroccoThen, visiting Morocco, I felt as if I was walking through a film-set during a Biblical epic. I even wrote notes at the time to accompany photos, so strongly evocative were they of familiar scenes from the New Testament.Moroccan woman in her home in the Atlas MountainsAnd recently, with Christmas very much in mind, I’ve been sharing reflections with friends about the sense I had that Moroccan cities, villages and landscapes, dress and customs, are so much closer to the kind of life Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have known, than anything we in the UK take as the norm today.

Well, it looks like someone else got the same feel. This week the BBC has been showing a four-part drama, The Nativity. And where has it been filmed? In Morocco! I’ve just finished watching the last in the series.

My interest was piqued originally by two articles in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. The first was a rather touching piece by Olly Grant in the Review pages. As he says, the fact that the BBC is showing a Bible story on prime time feels ‘like something of a miracle,’ given the decline in religious programmes over the year, and all the talk of political correctness and discrimination, etc etc etc. And the second was an interview with the screenwriter, Tony Jordan, who didn’t believe the gospel story three years ago when he began working on the play, but now does.

Well, The Nativity wasn’t ever your average religious programme. And what’s more, the author set out quite deliberately to make a film that would ‘reach beyond the “God Channel” fringe’. So he framed the story in a way that would bypass the usual scepticism about angel visitations and virgin births, and instead unravel a young couple’s relationship in a meaningful way – a ‘marriage in meltdown’. As he says, we may know that Joseph and Mary were caught up in an incredible event, but they didn’t. How did these happenings affect them?

He has researched his subject thoroughly, and been remarkably faithful to the gospel accounts. Having said that, only two of the gospels mention the nativity at all, and those that do (Matthew and Luke) devote a mere 120 verses to the subject. So there’s not a lot of material to go on; lots of room for the imagination to manoeuvre then. But Jordan has created a narrative that challenges the viewer to look again at the impact of these events … on a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at a time and in a place where adulteresses were stoned to death; on her devastated parents; on a man who feels betrayed by his promised wife; on his family; on a debt-ridden shepherd … I for one see no harm in a little speculative artistic licence if it provokes healthy challenge and helps us engage with the big questions, though others beg to differ.

Jordan’s aim was for those who have a faith, to have it reinforced; and for those who haven’t, to think: ‘Wow, I don’t know … maybe …’ I suspect that there are hundreds of clergy this week wanting exactly that. But they don’t all have Morocco as their backdrop, prime time TV as their conduit, or key figures being converted along the way.

For me personally, though, this approach has an extra allure. It’s trying to combine entertainment and authenticity with emotional and intellectual challenge. Much as I’m trying to do with medical ethics. Would that I had their publicity machine and audience ratings! Maybe a word in the ear of Tony Jordan …?

But in the meantime, Happy Christmas, everyone!

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VelvetEthics

Have you noticed? My blog has a brand new name: VelvetEthics. I’m rather pleased with it, I must confess. Big thanks to my website designer for her skill and for patient tweaking.

So, it’s Christmas Eve. I’ve been immersed in the editing of Remember Remember this week – a brain-splitting session with my courageous editor on Monday drove me back into it. But today it’s time to down tools and take a few days’ break.

I’ve been having a ball creating a Magical Forest. Each year I write a story for my grandchildren and they act it out; DJ takes photographs throughout, and in January we present them each with an illustrated book of the story.The Chocolate TreeThis year preparation involves making magical trees – the chocolate tree is destined to become a favourite, I suspect. And there’s a stone which mysteriously lights up when the children (actually forest pixies – well, I come from Cornwall) touch it when they’re energised by magic from the chocolate tree. A sort of mini-Geiger-counter. The photos show the staircase in the process of being converted into a forest. If you thought you had problems with needles shed by one tree …!The Magical ForestOnce 27th is over I’ll be back to rooting out inelegant juxtapositions of metaphors, scanning for homophones, and pruning adverbs, but for now a very Happy Christmas to you all, and thanks for visiting my blog.

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