Hazel McHaffie


Father to thirty?!

Wow! The garden has gone from nought to sixty in one fell swoop. Everything is burgeoning and sprouting and bursting into colour, the birdsong has racheted up to symphony standard, the sunshine exceeding the benefits of any pharmacological tonic.

I’ve been alternating writing indoors with reading outside (when I’ve not been weeding and pruning and artistically directing, or course!) and loving the exhilaration of both. So it’s probably not surprising that, surrounded by all this new life and activity, my mind instantly latched onto a report about a different form of creation: babies.

This week it’s been revealed that a diminishing number of sperm donors are fathering eye-watering numbers of children. Now, as long ago as sixteen years (can it really be?!) I wrote a novel about the risks of this phenomenon: Paternity, so it’s a subject I’ve thought about long and hard. But even for me the statistics were like a cold water douche.

Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that, in a period of 24 years (1991-2015):
17 British men have fathered at least 30 babies each,
a further 104 have fathered between 20 and 29,
1,557 between 10 and 19,
and more than 6,000 have created up to 9 babies.

Though these men are offering hope to many many childless women/couples, huge risks are inherent in such practices. Obvious ones are passing on undetected hereditary diseases and risks, and half-brothers and -sisters forming sexual relationships and procreating together. Donated sperm are currently tested for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, CJD, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but not for genes indicating increased risk of cancers or Altzheimer’s. In the face of the latest statistics, campaigners are calling for more stringent enhanced screening to try to reduce the incidence of faulty genes being passed on, but representatives from the world of assisted conception caution that further screening could reduce the number of donors coming forward or being deemed eligible to donate, already worryingly low.

Research in this area is complicated, not only by the powerful emotions and opinions and ethics around infertility, but also by the fact that sometimes the full consequences of what is permitted in this area are not fully apparent until a generation or more has gone by – which is why I felt compelled to write a sequel to Paternity: Double Trouble. And once you start tinkering with genes it can be impossible to repair any damage done.

So, what d’you think? Just how much control or interference should there be? What are the rights and interests of the babies as well as the parents, donors and recipients? What makes a man a father? Which diseases are worse than non-existence? Who decides?

Now there’s a little package of ethical conundrums to conjure with while you watch birds and animals multiplying prolifically all around you! Welcome to my world!

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A readable Booker? Whatever next!

I’m knee-deep in books about organ donation at the moment (including some of questionable literary merit), so a masterclass in good writing seemed an attractive diversion.

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

‘I remember in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’

Intrigued? Yes, indeedy, so was I. Each of these memories gives a glimpse of an event we want to know about.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Anthony Webster, a rather nondescript and timid divorced man in his 60s reflecting back on his life leading up to a shocking revelation. This is triggered by a bequest from the mother of an old college friend whom he met only once 40 years before. So why would she be leaving him money? His memory tracks back over schooldays, student days, affairs, marriage and divorce, retirement. Mistakes. Realisation gradually dawns.

But the book is also about memory – its subjectivity, its selectivity, its malleability. And the ending stops you in your tracks, making you want to go back and read it all again for the cues you missed first time around.

It’s a compact little book – a novella it’s been called – a mere 150 pages with wide spacing. Easily read in one sitting. And that’s been one of the ongoing criticisms of those who object to its selection as the Man Booker winner for 2011.

The judges, led by Dame Stella Rimmington, have also been castigated for putting ‘readibility’ onto their list of criteria. Hello? I’m one of those who are very glad they did. So many Booker winners are impenetrable to us ordinary mortals. Besides, as the judges themselves were at pains to emphasise, it wasn’t readability at the expense of quality writing, but in addition to.

And the quality is certainly there. In spades. Julian Barnes is a formidable writer in such command of language that he manages to convey profound truths through deceptively simple lives and actions. I won’t spoil the experience for those of you who’ve yet to read this book, but here are a couple of examples of Barnes’ mastery of his art.

Old Joe Hunt, the wryly affable history teacher, is challenging a class of pretentious boys as to the origins of the First World War. A new lad gives him a lengthy philosophical exposition ranging over culpability, anarchy, subjectivity and truth. A silence follows this, the other boys wondering if this is an attempt at ridiculing Old Joe; realising it isn’t. Then …

‘Old Joe Hunt looked at his watch and smiled. ‘Finn, I retire in five years. And I shall be happy to give you a reference if you care to take over.’

And he isn’t ridiculing anyone either.

Then there’s a wonderful sentence describing the narrator’s feelings when he hears about a lad who ‘auditions‘ girls by sleeping with them in order to decide which one ‘to go out‘ with. He himself has not slept with any girl to date (I should perhaps explain, the context was the prevailing morality of the 60s).

‘This made me feel like a survivor from some antique bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.’

Well worth reading as an example of concise and powerful writing. The unravelling of a mystery is secondary. All grist to my mill.

But in the midst of this reading orgy, I’m trying to make time to enjoy the glories of spring and this unseasonable heatwave.

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