Hazel McHaffie

Joan Bakewell

Book Festival

Like Joan Bakewell I say with some amazement that ‘Edinburgh’s jamboree will have to fizz without me‘ this year. Yep, for the first time for donkey’s years I have no tickets for the International Book Festival. Nary a one.

Why? Well, various other responsibilities and commitments have swallowed up these two weeks and I simply can’t spread myself any more thinly. I am, of course, a tiny tad disappointed to be missing the excitement of the tented domes of Charlotte Square, and listening to fellow-authors telling of their inner lives and exploits. Oh yes, and those interesting conversations that crop up every year as we wait in queues or compare notes over a coffee. But I confess I’m also aware of a smidgeon of relief that I’m not up writing reviews at all hours for this or anyone else’s blog.

However, I have been festivalling. Yes sir! I’ve taken to the Festival Fringe – the unregulated unofficial part of the programme – big time, in the delightful company of my appreciative guests. For those of you who aren’t aficionados, the Fringe sells over 2 million tickets and attracts over 3000 acts and events; it’s been described as the world’s largest arts festival … and it’s on my doorstep!

On the way between shows, we’ve been taking leisurely strolls through the Old Town, and the craft stalls of the West End … Craft Fair

… pausing to enjoy the street theatre, (even in the teeth of hurricane Bertha one decidedly damp afternoon!).

Levitating alien

Headless man

And wow! were we lucky with our choice of events. Every single one we went to was well worth seeing (it’s a hit and miss experience normally). Particularly impressive were the Saltmine Company‘s production of John Newton – Amazing Grace (relating the story of the slave-trader cum hymn writer through music and drama); and a dramatic telling of Michael Morpurgo‘s 16 year old Private Peaceful looking back at his life on the night before his execution by firing squad. We were all spell-bound.

Both these events were well attended, but some of the others had tiny audiences and yet were excellent performances. Imagine baring your soul about a suicide or depression or loss or hopelessness to an audience of one for a whole hour! But they grit their teeth and do it. I wish them all huge success. After all, that lone listener might just be a top agent or critic. Many a famous name has been discovered in the Fringe.

NB. You may be reading about Edinburgh at Festival time, but I’m actually currently soaking up the incredibly beautiful scenery and pure air of Switzerland … of which more on my return.

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Dramatis Personae

I spend time each month with people whose memories are not what they once were. And – dare I admit it? – I’m increasingly conscious that mine is more selective than it used to be. So my ears pricked when this week Baroness Joan Bakewell made a comment about her difficulty remembering characters in a book. Writing in The Telegraph she observed that it’s easier to turn back and check the plot and who’s who in a ‘real’ book than with a Kindle. I agree in part, although of course, in reality it’s perfectly easy to bookmark a page and search for keywords with the electronic version.

I’d also add that there are occasions when I can’t remember why I’m reading a particular book in the first place – a flick to the back cover of a paperback will tell me; it requires more effort on the Kindle.

Joan Bakewell’s comments generated a small flurry of responses, and one from Bedfordshire suggested that all books should list the characters with a brief note on each. I did once include a family tree in one of my own novels (Remember Remember – which incidentally is about dementia), although my editor didn’t think it was necessary. I’m devoutly wishing the novel I’m reading right now had just such a dramatis personae. I’m having to concentrate hard to make the connections in what is a subtle plot with lots of characters (too many beginning with ‘A’: Anselm, Augustine, Agnes, Arthur, Andrew, Aubret, Anton, Armstrong, Adolf), false trails, and a lot of zipping to and fro between theĀ  generations. And what’s more several people not who they say, or even think they are. I mean, is it any wonder I’m confused?

The Sixth Lamentation

Published by Abacus (Little Brown & Co)

It’s The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick which I bought on a strong recommendation from a friend who’s read it several times. Actually if I’m honest I don’t think my difficulty is as much to do with Brodick, as to do with my juggling too many balls at the moment, which means my attention is only partially on the story that I’m reading in odd snatched moments.

Domestic crises and extra responsibilities have been vying with professional demands lately. But this week I’ve made a concerted effort to methodically tick off deadlines. So what have I accomplished? I’ve sent off the usual synopsis and first three chapters for Over My Dead Body to a potential agent; Double Trouble has gone to a film production company who’ve expressed interest in making it into a feature film; I’ve had encouraging conversations with a possible funding body to enable this to happen; and all my various blogs are up to date. Phew. A week in the life of a lowly jobbing writer.

I’m realistic – nothing may come of any of these developments, but at least my report card will read ‘Hazel demonstrates dogged persistence and works hard‘.

Maybe in two weeks’ time when my current overload is a thing of the past (now there’s a triumph of hope over experience, if ever I heard one), I can return to The Sixth Lamentation with renewed enthusiasm and perhaps this time do it justice. See, that’s where that dramatis personae would be a real boon. I’d have a head start.

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Over My Dead Body

Amidst all the hurly burly of summer I’ve been trying this week to get back to the subject of organ donation and my current novel, provisionally called Over My Dead Body. Much of what I do – writing, reading, thinking, re-writing – is rather mundane and not worth reporting, but two events might interest you.

On Thursday morning Radio 4’s Inside the Ethics Committee discussed the case of an 82-year old woman who wanted to donate her kidney to a stranger: an altruistic donation. Wowwa! Steady on! Wait a minute! Would I want a rather ancient used organ myself? Worse, would I want my daughter, my granddaughter even, to get it? As a health care professional, would I say to this sparky little lady, ‘Yes, by all means; go ahead, that’s fine. Good on you.’? And should my squeamishness be allowed to trump her honourable and unselfish intentions?

It was fascinating stuff, made more challenging by my trying to answer all Joan Bakewell‘s questions to the panel of experts before they did.

This sprightly and indomitable octagenarian – Pamela, not Joan Bakewell! – had nursed her severely disabled husband for years until his death, and she’d found kidney failure a particularly distressing phase to contend with. Her husband wasn’t strong enough to have a transplant, but Pamela was determined to personally spare someone else the trauma of dialysis. At first the doctors were reluctant, but against opposition, she persisted. The medical team eventually agreed to test her fitness, and in the end she did indeed donate. And the recipient, still in his fifties, was hugely and tearfully grateful.

The panel explored issues such as: Should an 80-year old kidney go to an 18 year old patient? Should necessarily tight regulations and procedures sometimes be waived in exceptional circumstances? Should people be allowed to take big risks with their own lives? Should a doctor’s moral qualms be allowed to influence decisions? And I found the specific case really helped to concentrate the mind.

Then yesterday off I went to meet the manager of a team of staff who actually work in the business of organ transplantation in real life. And this time I got to ask the questions. As the novel I’m writing evolves, questions present and I keep a tally of the points I need to research. Sometimes the internet provides the answers, sometimes scientific papers. But there’s something really special about talking with folk at the coalface who actually do these things for real.

Boy, was I glad I’d contacted this particular expert. I learned so much, and came away with invaluable information, and additional documentation that will give me even more insights. Documents about transplantationSo, now it’s back to the draft of Over My Dead Body to correct the things that simply wouldn’t ring true in modern practice. Most of it involves minor tweaks, but one strong message I got as I listened is that there’s a deliberately wide gulf between those who deal with the donor’s side of the transplants, and those who focus on the recipients’ side. I knew, of course, that the transplant team were kept away from the donor family so as not to influence decision making, but I didn’t realise the separation is much much wider than that. I was impressed by all the rigour and safeguarding. And I now have to split my fictional medical team more decisively into two.

As always, I’m left greatly indebted to experts who authenticate my stories. And on this occasion, with an additional sense of gratitude that there are such compassionate and sensitive people out there to steer families through the greatest tragedy of their lives, and help to bring something positive out of it.

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