Hazel McHaffie

Emma Thompson

The Children Act

Mrs Justice Maye, Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, aka My Lady, is 59, childless, a much respected High Court judge and concert-level pianist. Her days are dominated by a relentless workload and the endless responsibility of forming judgements in the Family courts. Humdrum divorces and decisions relating to child protection run cheek by jowl alongside seriously challenging high-profile cases fraught with moral challenges.

A strict Chareidi marriage is broken when the wife seeks to educate herself and base family life on reality not religious tradition. Thirteen years together, the arranged marriage, cultures, identities, aspirations, family relationships, loyalties, all are called into question. Fiona’s heart goes out to the two little Jewish girls caught in the crossfire.

Conjoined twins, infant sons of Jamaican and Scottish parents, one potentially viable, abnormally thin from the effort of sustaining two bodies, the other a fattening shell leeching off his brother, become the focus of a battle that has the world on tiptoes watching. On one side, the hospital, masked surgeons at the ready poised to save the life of one of the boys. On the other, religious conviction refusing to sanction murder, preferring to let both boys die rather than risk reinterpreting their rigid code. Fiona’s decision will become the purview of newspaper columnists, taxi drivers, the nation at large, all clamouring for justice and right, vociferous, all certain of their own angle on what that right is. But what is the solution?

A seventeen-year-old boy, with leukaemia, urgently needs a blood transfusion, without which he will die within days or, worse, survive with grossly disabling impairments. But the patient himself, Adam, and his parents, are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses; they will not compromise their beliefs even if it means he will lose his life. Fiona knows the world is watching and will judge her decision. She takes the unorthodox step of going to visit the lad in hospital, a meeting that will have a profound effect on both of them. I won’t spoil the book for you by spelling out the consequences.

As if this wasn’t all a burden big enough for anyone to carry, Fiona is dealing with a major domestic crisis at home. How can she keep the professional and the personal from encroaching on each other? Which takes precedence?

This story, The Children Act, nudges against my own field of interest, the philosophical and moral points interweaving with the legal decisions. Exactly the kind of issues I’ve debated long and hard. Replicas of the kind of cases I’ve followed closely in real life. But Fiona herself is steeped in precedent and the finer points of legal argument, well trained, very experienced. She’s quick to make the distinction: This court is a court of law, not of morals, and our task has been to find, and our duty is then to apply, the relevant principles of law for the situation before us – a situation which is unique.

This is author Ian McEwan at his best. Giving us a fascinating insight into a legal mind toying with the niceties of various options, arguments and counter-arguments, balancing emotional responses against professional duty. A mind that must cut through the various moral claims and determine the one course of action that will remain defensible under minute scrutiny, robust enough to become, at least in part, legal precedent in the future. And sometimes, where every choice has a downside, be bold enough to choose the least undesirable outcome, the lesser evil. Even, in extremis, be courageous enough to find argument in ‘the doctrine of necessity’ – an idea established in common law that in certain limited circumstances, which no parliament would ever care to define, it was permissible to break the criminal law to prevent a greater evil.

Small wonder that some of these cases haunt Fiona, leave her agonising internally, shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. She’s famed for her elegant summations, her cool detachment, her wise decisions, but even so, on occasion, she agonises retrospectively about her exact phrasing, her final judgement. And never more so than when she becomes involved with young Adam, only weeks from his eighteenth birthday, who is determined to hold fast to his religious heritage – even unto death. These cases leave scar tissue in the memory. They also attract opprobrium in the shape of a postbag of critical mail … there began to arrive in small pastel-coloured envelopes the venomous thoughts of the devout … some deployed abusive language, some said they longed to do her physical harm. A few of those claimed to know where she lived.

Sobering, too, to realise that there are other cases which fall outside the jurisdiction of judges like Fiona Maye, which would perhaps be even harder to bear. Cases reserved for the criminal rather than the family courts: children tortured, starved or beaten to death, evil spirits thrashed out of them in animist rites, gruesome young stepfathers breaking toddlers’ bones while dim compliant mothers looked on, and drugs, drink, extreme household squalor, indifferent neighbours selectively deaf to the screaming, and careless or hard-pressed social workers failing to intervene.

A slim volume, The Children Act, which came out in 2014, deals with a massive issue, and I highly recommend it. Last week supermarket Tesco was giving it away free of charge – presumably publicity for the film, starring Emma Thompson as My Lady, which comes out tomorrow. I plan to be there!

We duly went to the very first showing this morning and had the unnerving but rather special experience of being the only people in the whole cinema! The film’s superb and well worth seeing.


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How many Camels are there in Holland?

Today, come with me into the big tent, the Main Theatre, to listen to two well known people – both octogenarians. There are 570 seats and it’s packed to the gunnels. Every year I’m astonished and heartened that thousands of people pay so much money to listen to writers. But then, this is the world’s leading literary festival.Audience in Main TheatreFirst, at 10.30, it’s Phyllida Law, mother of Emma and Sophie Thompson, and a well known actress in her own right, talking about life with her mother, Mego, who developed dementia.

Phyllida is known to her Rwandan grandson as ‘ancient lady‘; I could only dream of looking as sparky and being as entertaining as she is at 81. Even walking in she stops to quip! When an emergency vehicle momentarily drowns her out, when something goes bang at the back of the tent, she has a witty aside ready. Journalist Jackie McGlone has her work cut out keeping the actress on track, but does so beautifully when she can stifle her own mirth.

I didn’t know until I researched the family that Phyllida is a Scot: born in Glasgow; moved to the village of Ardentinny to look after her mother Mego when she needed care; still keeping a remote cottage in Argyll as a retreat. She confides that she loves the warm embrace of the Scottish people who formed a team of carers to help her shoulder the responsibility when her mother needed watching at night as well as by day.

How many Camels are there in Holland: Dementia, Ma and Me is her account of life with her mother as her mental acuity diminishes; using the scribbled notes she kept during that time. It’s her second memoir – she also wrote things down when her mother-in-law ‘Granny Annie’ was living with them for 18 years (by her own account, not the 40 years Wikipaedia reports). Annie was very deaf and Phyllida resorted to handwritten notes to communicate with her. As she admits: ‘I can’t do any of that laptop rubbish.’ On neither occasion were the scribbles intended for public consumption, but when Phyllida wanted unusual and special gifts for her two daughters on their 50th birthdays, she hit upon the idea of a compilation of these family anecdotes. What a uniquely precious gift! Now shared with the public.

The title comes from the ridiculous questions asked to test the deterioration in Mego’s mental ability. ‘How heavy is an average hammer?’ ‘How long is a necktie?’ Phyllida berates them as such ‘male questions‘. Far better to ask, ‘What’s your bra size?’ I confess I’ve never heard such questions asked in any mental state assessment, but then Phyllida’s take on dementia differs from my understanding in a number of ways. She’s a consumer speaking from a single personal perspective, instinctively resorting to hyperbole and the witty one-liner.

In reality reviews have been very mixed and one sneakily wonders if it would have been hyped as much had it been written by your average Mrs Joe Bloggs. But in person the author comes across as delightfully scatty, witty, frank and fun. She says her mother was always slightly dotty so the transition into dementia was barely perceptible initially; there’s a strong suggestion that her zaniness has passed to her daughter.

Caring for someone with dementia can be gruelling and disturbing, but Phyllida says life on stage, and being married to the writer and narrator of The Magic Roundabout, equipped her with a lively sense of humour, and in her book she demonstrates a delightful capacity to laugh at the absurd. Indeed she’s been accused of not taking the subject of dementia seriously enough. I love the example of Mego preparing to go out. ‘Ma, you’re not wearing your distance specs.’ ‘Oh, that’s all right, dear, I’m not going far.’ And the occasion where her husband exclaims: ‘The pudding’s moving!’ Phyllida adds: ‘The polite term is weevils!’ And their brief experiment with marijuana in scones (as a possible treatment for Mego) where they managed to overdose themselves, had the audience roaring with laughter.

But as she says, it’s not the craziness that is sobering and heartbreaking, it’s the moments of clarity. She instances many in the book. Awaking from sleep one day and not recognising anything or anyone Mego says: ‘I think I must have been a little bit nearly dead.’ Asked on another occasion if she needs anything from the shops she says, ‘A new brain … I’ve lost mine.‘ Imagine knowing.

A questioner asked if her relationship with her mother changed once the dementia really took its toll. Phyllida replied with disarming candour that there was always a distance between them because she had been sent away to boarding school from the age of 7, so her mother was a sort of ‘half-term treat‘. This space between them meant caring for her later was easier than it might have been. Nevertheless Phyllida admits to a ‘thread of fear for the future‘ running through her life, lest she has inherited the condition herself.

Jackie McGlone described HMCATIH as written with ‘a clear head and a loving heart‘, allowing the reader ‘to smile with not at‘. What a lovely tribute.New seats for book lovers

Just time for ten minutes in one of these new seats and I’m back queuing for the 1.30 event in the same tent: Roy Hattersley talking about the Dukes of Devonshire. He’s been attending the EIBF annually (talking about his 19 books) for all its 30 years – maybe that’s why he was allowed to chair his own session.

Having recently visited Chatsworth, the seat of the Devonshire’s, I was looking forward to some illumination of the family history. Hattersley spoke with erudition, fluency and great knowledge, but it was a whirlwind history lesson covering a 500 year history. I fear I can’t possibly do justice to it or make it interesting for this blog, so I won’t even try to. Rather I’ll select a couple of gems: The 8th Duke was the only man who’s ever yawned during his own maiden speech! In Hattersley’s view, MPs today should learn a lesson from the Whiggs of the past: go by their own personal judgement and conviction not by the voice of their constituents.The audience spill out of the big tent

I leave the crowded square with my head whirling.




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