Hazel McHaffie

Edinburgh International Festival

Festival brilliance

Well, that’s the Festival over for another year. 50,000 Fringe events; 800 free events. 2.3 million tickets issued, bringing in £3.8 million. Huge and spectacular. But as the last explosion of fireworks lit up the night sky on Monday watched by 250,000 people, my own reflections were good. I’ve enjoyed more variety this year and seen parts of the city’s underbelly I haven’t explored before, as well as the old familiar haunts of the Book Festival and main Fringe venues. And I’ve marvelled at the amazing talent gathered here in one small city.

I’ve tried this month to capture a flavour of each week for you. So, in that spirit, I’ll give you a glimpse into two events this week that were especially commendable in my view.

Blackwells Bookshop EdinburghEvery Thursday evening in August, Blackwell’s Bookshop put on an event – Writers at the Fringe – with 4/5 writers introducing their work. Unfortunately I was only free for the last one, but what a feast it was. All five speakers were witty, entertaining and interesting; all stuck to their 15 minutes; all gave tempting tasters of their writing; all were friendly and available afterwards. We had the full gamut from two debut authors to a Booker nominee!  In order of appearance: Michael Cannon (reading a short story about being belted as a child), Malachy Tallack (introducing his travel book about places on the same latitude as the Shetland Islands), Carol Fox (reading from her Memoirs of a Feminist Mother – she’s a lawyer and deliberately single mother), John Mackay (talking about his writing as both journalist and novelist), Andrew O’Hagan (reading from his latest book about an elderly lady with dementia and secrets). Hats off to Blackwells for a great line-up.

Austentatious characters Then on Friday I went to a show called Austentatious where six young actors performed a Jane Austen-lookalike comedy billed as completely improvised. As we queued we were asked to write down a fictitious name for an Austen novel; then one was picked out of a top hat on stage. The cast were accomplished actors and so funny. I presume they cooked up a rough outine for a plot beforehand, but what skill and quick-wittedness to ad lib as they did. And it was obvious the actors themselves were hugely entertained by the play they were creating. Not surprisingly they were a sell-out.

So that’s it for another year. But how fortunate am I to live on the doorstep of this cultural Mecca. As they say in the world of entertainment: If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead!

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Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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Interview: Ann Lingard

Ann Lingard is a fellow novelist. She’s also a scientist after my own heart: she delights in sharing her knowledge and understanding and love of her subject in novel and accessible ways. The obscure, the complicated, the unnoticed … it’s her mission to bring them alive.

I caught up with her recently and asked about her ideas and plans.Ann Lingard

HMcH: Ann, your background originally was in science: you were an academic, teacher, and researcher, so you have a multiplicity of skills. Since then you’ve moved away from the traditional career structure and your trademark is blending science and art – an ambition very dear to me too! What prompted this sideways move for you?

AL: I made the actual decision to leave my academic and research life in Glasgow University when I was sitting alone on a hillside in Glen Orchy, watching my daughters playing some complicated game in a sheep-fank way below. At that moment I suddenly realised I’d had enough of the creeping bureaucracy and continual battle to get research funding for my group and – since the University was offering voluntary redundancy packages – that what I’d like to do was take the money and become self-employed and ‘be a writer and broadcaster’. Just like that! And of course, having made that decision, and with my husband’s backing, I had no option but to try to make a go of it.

But don’t get me wrong, I loved the challenge of research, of running a research group, and lecturing. I loved the busy-ness of the lab, students dropping in all the time, the chatter and laughter – but I also felt I wanted to grab the chance to do something very different. What finally prompted the ‘sideways move’ was that hillside. I can still see it: the minute flowers amongst the grasses – milkwort, tormentil, eyebright – a papery brown pupal case of a moth, the lichen patterns on the rocks (we called them ‘map-stones’). I so very strongly wanted to show this to other people, and to find out more myself. And when you think about it, that’s also what research and teaching come down to – so the underlying practicalities and ideas aren’t so different!

HMcH: I’m constantly working to ensure my novels are character-driven not issue-led. What are the features that you’ve had to be most vigilant about in your fiction?

AL: I’ve always known the sort of people I want to write about before I start a story – and if one is, for example, a geologist or a mathematician or a parasitologist, then the ‘issues’ of that person’s life and work will necessarily be part of the background to the story, to their conversation and behaviour, but it’s very important that the story is never ‘science-led’. If a character is an accountant, the story isn’t going to be about accountancy – the same is true if a character is a scientist, the story doesn’t have to be ‘about’ science.

The Embalmer's Book of RecipesIn the case of the mathematician Lisa (in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes) her story is a little more complicated because she has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and this of course means that certain medical, genetic and ethical matters are important to her (and anyone who knows her will be aware of this). But this doesn’t dominate her life, she deals with problems when she has to – mostly she’s busy working, living, loving … I’d like to think my vigilance, as you term it, has paid off, at least some of the time. I was thrilled when Tony Mann, a mathematician who organised the ‘Maths in Fiction’ conference in Oxford a few years ago, told me that ‘Lisa is [his] favourite fictional mathematician’.

 HMcH: I’m fascinated by the many ways you’ve found to weave the two cultures together. What has been the biggest challenge so far?

AL: I haven’t ever felt that this was a challenge! Perhaps because I’ve crossed the boundaries between science and the arts and crafts myself on quite a few occasions, and because I know other scientists who have done likewise. It’s possibly easier as a scientist to weave the ‘two cultures’ into your writing because you already know about the practicalities and emotions and jargon of a life in science, as well as knowing about life outside science. It’s a bigger hurdle to jump into science from a non-scientific background, but it’s perfectly easy with help from the right scientist – that was why I set up SciTalk, to help scientists and writers meet, back in 2003 (it’s now run on rather different lines by Newcastle University).

HMcH: And the greatest reward?

AL: I mentioned one great reward – that readers like many of the characters in my novels. Another is that readers discover and comment, often with amusement, on things they would never have known about otherwise – I bet not many knew that periwinkles on the seashore carry an attractive parasite, worthy of an artwork, that also infects fish and gulls!

HMcH: You’ve collaborated on many projects. Indeed, you and I met on one of them when we collaborated with the University of Edinburgh and the theatre company Sparkle and Dark during the Edinburgh International Festival 2013 to highlight the ways in which science and medicine could be brought alive through plays, novels, poetry. Is this a method of working that appeals to you?

AL: I always love collaborating! When I was a research scientist it was fun, a challenge, to find someone in an entirely different field who could help with a particular research problem, whether an organic chemist, a mycologist or a marine biologist. They bring different perspectives, different language, different ideas and skills – and that stimulation, of collaboration, is the same when writing fiction and non-fiction.

And in a sense, if I’m writing non-fiction about real people, that too is a collaboration with each individual, whether I’m talking to, listening to, and then writing about a ship’s-pilot or a stone-mason or a wildfowler, or participants in the Lothian Birth Cohort studies – I was privileged that in the latter case they were willing to collaborate with me and trust me enough to share their memories.

HMcH: Have there been any other projects that have held special resonance for you?

AL: A very different project was working with 12-14-year-olds from a school in the east of Cumbria, quite a long way from the sea. Thixotropy experienceThat age group very easily get turned off science, so the HoS and I decided we’d take them to the beach and show them all manner of things, such as dunes, shells, lugworms, barnacles, whatever we/they could find, in the hope that each student would find at least one thing to enthuse them. And then I would help them write about it, as a story, a poem, or a short article. It was enormous fun and very unusual, and they produced some fascinating and often very unexpected writing. (The mothers of the boys who tested ‘thixotropy’, while wearing trainers and jeans, probably weren’t so impressed!)

HMcH: My own interest lies in medicine and ethics and bringing them alive through fiction. What are your thoughts about blending the cultures in this field?

AL: Yes, this is tricky. My feeling is that, in creating someone like Lisa, or her friend Madeleine, I have to understand and empathise with both of them as much as I can, so that people who read about them will too. But this doesn’t mean that we should necessarily love them unreservedly; perhaps we need to be made a little bit uncomfortable, to confront and question our prejudices (see Are you sitting comfortably?)

So too, when I was writing the human stories of some of the exhibits in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. I felt it was very important to hint at the ethics of what had been done to them without being too overt: I wanted readers to become sufficiently involved in the life of the patient that they saw the treatments from the patient’s often uncomprehending or helpless point of view (as in Janet’s Story, and Andrew’s Story).

HMcH: Running a small holding, sheep rearing, weaving, leading shore-walks, writing articles and blogs, tweeting … You are clearly multitasking! I love the picture of you tramping the hills and coasts, observing the beauty all around in ordinary everyday things, and putting it into poetic language. What works best for you in capturing those special thoughts and experiences? And how do you fit writing into this busy life?

AL: It’s far too easy to get caught up in ‘being busy’! And there are certainly times of year – like now – when attention has to be focused on our small-holding. But it’s not just about trying to capture beauty, I don’t want to get drawn into the school of lush similes! The word ‘observing’ is a very important prerequisite for writing, and then questioning. Again, that’s a large part of being a scientist, too, so there are overlaps. I think, and plot, and puzzle how to write, most effectively when I’m walking – but I have to be walking in a place where I don’t need to concentrate too much on where to place my feet. Fell-walking is no good, but the shore is good, and working on the small-holding is good too. And then, provided I can even remember those ephemeral moments of brilliance, I can try to ‘capture’ them on paper or on-screen when I get home!

HMcH: I believe you’ve published five novels now. And what plans for the future?Seaside Pleasures

AL: I’ve just finished a major edit of a novel I wrote a few years ago, provisionally titled The Leech and the Pearl. It’s a story I love, so I hope it finds a publisher soon. If it doesn’t, I shall publish it as an ebook – why not?

And at the moment I’m getting to grips with Twitter, trying to post photos about the Solway Firth as frequently as possible as I want to show everyone that Cumbria isn’t just about the lakes and fells and Herdwick sheep. I’m discovering that social media gobble up your time!

HMcH: Thank you so much, Ann. Always a pleasure to exchange ideas with you.

Ann’s personal website is www.annlingard.com

Solway Firth articles are at www.solwayshorestories.co.uk; and the blog is at www.solwayshorewalker.wordpress.com

She also blogs as Ruth Kowslowski (the taxidermist in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes) at www.ruthkowslowski.wordpress.com

And tweets about the Solway at https://twitter.com/solwaywalker


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Time to smell the roses

If you’ve been ploughing through my daily blogging during the Festival you’ve more than earned a break. So … time for something calm. And short.

From the relatively safe place I’m in today, I can confess that this summer I’ve occasionally felt rather overwhelmed by the crush of demands. I made a resolve (yet another!): try to slow the pace of life; act my age. Suiting action to the the thought, I deliberately left oodles of time before several performances, giving me about an hour to do nothing but mooch and watch the festival city at play. And I do admit, I thoroughly appreciated meandering instead of rushing. Deckchair in Charlotte Square

So when I chanced on this quote by Irish writer John McGahern: ‘The best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything‘, I could identify with the sentiment.


I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow!



Festival fever

At this time of year I have a sort of love-hate relationship with the city. Edinburgh, I mean. Because the festivals – no, THE FESTIVALS – are in full swing.

The city itself is a crazy hugely over-populated maze splattered with lost motorists who don’t understand British road markings, suicidal tourists who find the only place for that perfect snapshot of the castle is the middle of the road, single minded art-loving enthusiasts charging from Gallery A to Theatre B to Exhibition C in defiance of time and all impedimenta, and hundreds of performers in costumes, masks, and sundry guises thrusting leaflets at every passer-by. It’s chaos mixed with bedlam liberally laced with artistic overload. And I confess I go out of my way to avoid the centre whenever possible during August.

But on the other hand it’s a paradise for artists/writers/ theatre-lovers/musicians. As I heard one famous comedian say on the first day of The Fringe Festival, ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.‘ Yes, there’s a glorious and diverse choice of events to attend. And a magnificent backdrop against which it all happens.

The Book Festival is, naturally enough, top of my personal list, and this year I’m sitting at the feet of luminaries such as AC Grayling, Audrey Niffenegger, AS Byatt, AL Kennedy, in awed wonder. (I’ve just noticed they all begin with ‘A’! Well, that’s merely the start.) Simply walking into the tented wonderland of Charlotte Square transports me into a world far away from all things humdrum. I wrote my first creative writing assignment about it, so it has fond associations going way back. And even after a long day on my feet working in a charity cafe (which our church is running this week for Send a Cow) I can still manage to stay wide awake and engaged in that darkened theatre listening to two folk chatting about writing.Cow-shaped biscuits for sale

It is so reassuring to see so many folk browsing in the bookshop, queuing to hear authors, asking such intelligent questions. Paying good money to do so, what’s more. Then once those lights go down … and the show begins … Yep, I love it. All those tourists and cars clogging up our fair city are forgiven and forgotten.

And this year, compared to the bloodshed and devastation of the riots in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, this is positively cultured disorder. We have much to be thankful for.

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Different kinds of busy

I’m feeling very fortunate. I’ve recently been talking – well, no, actually I’ve been listening – to people who’ve either given or received organs. It’s all part of research for my current novel, which has a working title at the moment of Over my Not-quite-dead Body.

The emotions are still powerful years after the actual transplant, and some of the donors as well as the recipients weep as they talk. I feel immensely privileged to be trusted with their stories. But I’m also awed by their generosity. Every single one of them so far has been a busy person, involved in all sorts of activities and campaigns, and yet they find space for someone like me.

But they (as in inventors of aphorisms) do say, if you want a job done, give it to a busy person, don’t they? And that’s certainly my experience. Every time I write a book I send it out to various experts to check its accuracy and authenticity; and ‘household-names’ provide endorsements. It’s rare for anyone I approach to refuse no matter how famous and busy they are. Best-selling authors, celebrities and peers of the realm, as well as full time policemen, journalists and medical consultants – they’ve all been incredibly generous with their time. I salute them all.

Speaking of busy … Edinburgh is absolutely heaving with folk at the moment. It’s Festival time. Buses take ages to creep along Princes Street, tourists crowd the pavements blocking routes, thespians and artists of every hue vie for one’s attention. Ordinary life is hampered at every turn.

But metamorphose into a festival-goer, and everything changes! It’s an exciting place to be. I’m slotting in events here and there in between doubling as a waiter/cook in a charity café run by our church this week. (Will my feet ever be the same again?) We’re collecting for Village Water Zambia this time. The very idea of relying on scoop holes in the ground for all your water, the disease, the infection … makes you shudder just thinking about it.

The monologue: An Evening with Dementia, I told you about was superb. Poignant as well as humorous. So much truth conveyed so artistically. It certainly rang true for me.
– Yes, people do use unspecific phrases and words to cover holes in their memory. (My mother can still dredge up an occasional bright smile and ‘Hello, dear’. Chance visitors tell us encouragingly, ‘Oh, she knew me instantly.’ But we, the family, know better than to confuse a reflex cover-all reaction with genuine understanding.)
– Yes, there is a fine dividing line between reality and imagination. (The actor peered at us and debated with himself whether we were actually a real audience, or he was inside the virtual theatre of his mind. And I see this doubt sometimes in the eyes of a friend I spend time with.)
– Yes, we all need to be more aware of how we react and speak; people with dementia can be aware at all sorts of levels. (He summed up humbug and obfuscation from relatives and staff perfectly.)
Well worth a visit if you’re in the capital.

And I’m just back from the Book Festival listening to Candia McWilliam. She’s a novelist (she describes herself as ‘intensely Scots’) with a colourful past who’s won several awards herself and judged the Man Booker Prize. The process of judging involves reading about 120 contenders for the title at a rate of about a book a day. No wonder, you might think, that after a while she had to force her eyelids to stay open with her fingers. But this was no normal fatigue. She had developed a condition called blepharospasm, where the brain instructs the eyes to close, though the eyes themselves are working perfectly normally. By the time of the Booker Prize evening she was ‘functionally blind’. After conservative treatments failed she had surgery to insert tendons from her leg to peg her eyelids to her eyebrows. Her book, What to Look for in Winter'What to Look for in Winter' cover is both a literal and metaphorical journey through not only physical blindness but also the experiences of alcoholism and betrayal of her second husband.

I didn’t dare ask a question, though I was wanting to. It was stressful enough watching others silenced by a quelling one-liner! Unusual in the Book Festival where authors tend to bend over backwards to make what they can out of any question that comes their way – even the ones about inspiration and technical process and why-did-you-write-this-book that they’ve answered a thousand times before. Not this lady!

But that aside, tonight it was a particular treat to just sit still with nothing more demanding to do than listen. My joints and legs have unilaterally decided that the sedentary life of a writer is a doddle compared to the life of a waiter. Well, it’s a different kind of busy. And I’m certainly not complaining. What’s a measly week on my feet all day compared with a lifetime of feeding your children contaminated water from a scoophole?

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Festivals, faith and poppies

The great Edinburgh International Festival is almost upon us again. Time to pour over those brochures and raid the piggy bank.

Being within hailing distance of everything, we natives can get a bit blasé about events that other folk travel half way round the world to attend, but this year I booked a few performances early on to make sure I didn’t backslide. As you might expect it’s the Book Festival that gets the bulk of my patronage and I’ve learned to be quick off the starting blocks for the ones I really really want. Only one disappointment: Hilary Mantel of 2010 Man-Booker fame has withdrawn. Hope she’s not ill again.

On the theatre front, no prizes for guessing why I’ve elected to go to a one-man play, An Evening with Dementia. Intriguing. It’ll be interesting to see how this ex-RSC actor combines humour with sensitivity in such a delicate area – an abiding concern of mine while writing Remember Remember.

And when it comes to lectures, I’ve plumped for a one-off: Why a scientist believes in God. I got advance warning of that one because the lecturer is actually someone I know. With that topic in my mind I just had to get stuck into The Language of GodThe Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which I read between trips to hospital (ferrying and visiting, I hasten to add, not being ill myself). The author is Dr Francis Collins, a prominent American geneticist, and head of the now famous Human Genome Project, so someone who commands huge respect from a scientific point of view. From a religious angle he appealed to me too – going from agnostic through atheist to ‘a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God’. Wow! How come?

It’s a very clearly laid out book – lots of headings and numbered options and arguments and counter arguments. All very orderly as befits an evidence-based scientist. Nor does he shirk the less hard-nosed tricky questions and thorny issues – the harm done in the name of religion; the dangers of a God-of-the-gaps theory; the relative merits of different possibilities – young earth creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution …

One straight read isn’t enough for my little grey cells; I’ll need to study it slowly to have any chance of assimilating his arguments properly and deciding how far I go with his reasoning. But it certainly underlined for me my own limited knowledge of science, and the truth of that proverb: ‘It is not good to have zeal without knowledge.’ [Proverbs 19:2]

After all that brain-bombardment and challenge I slunk into the garden for a little light relief. But the questions continued. How did we get such a huge range and diversity? ‘Creative genius’ rang in my head. Could it all be slow evolution? Is it the direct hands-on work of God? Or is it a combination? At least I know better than to talk loosely and superficially about ‘intelligent design’ now! And just wallowing in that glorious profusion of colour, and admiring the intricacy of each flower, lifted my spirits. I guess for me, none of it makes sense without God. We shall see what that lecturer says on 18 August.

Oh, before I forget, all you book bloggers out there, there’s to be another meet-up of like-minded souls on Saturday September 25th in Oxford. If you’re interested and want to be kept informed, contact simondavidthomas@yahoo.co.uk. Merely contacting him doesn’t commit you to anything.

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