Hazel McHaffie


The power of storytelling

Last year, during lockdown, I did a short online course in oral storytelling. Stories do indeed have a power and appeal of their own, and I’ve personally gained confidence and courage as I’ve used the techniques I learned in various contexts since.

So I was delighted to find a collection of stories told in a fascinating way and used to make important points. It was while listening to an online talk given by philosopher/sociologist/theologian Elaine Storkey, that I heard her reference one of her own books: Women in a Patriarchal World, and I was intrigued enough to order a copy. I expected it to be deeply erudite and scholarly and a one-chapter-at-a-time kind of volume. Not a bit of it! It’s based on her erudition certainly, but presented in a light and eminently accessible form.

Her initial statement, instantly got me – a fellow storyteller – on side:
Storytelling is a powerful form of communication.
Wahey. Tick.
At the very least, it presents us with characters, a location and a plot and invites us to listen in.
I’m listening …
Good storytelling goes much further.
Go on …
It opens up the shared humanity of others so that we get inside their life situation, travel with them and learn from their experiences.

And that’s exactly what her ‘good storytelling’ does. In twenty five chapters she tells the stories of women in the patriarchal world of Bible times – the midwives in the time of Moses, the five daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab the prostitute, Deborah the prophetess, the wise woman of Abel Beth Maakah, Huldah the prophetess, Lydia, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, to name but a few. From these stories she draws out compelling lessons for us today; lessons that challenge us to see the issues of our own time, and think about what we could do to alleviate suffering, right wrongs, make the world a safer and kinder place. Every chapter, every story, has a section bringing important issues right up to date – Facing our challenges today, followed by a couple of Questions to ponder.

And those twenty-first century challenges include a wide range of big issues like leadership, oppression, injustice, commitment, resisting wrong, prostitution, nationalism, life and death decision making, morality, risk-taking, infertility, conflict resolution, safeguarding of children, whistle-blowing, climate change, empowerment of women. Impressive, huh?

But also disturbing stuff. What exactly am I doing to address the problems that beset our nation, our world, our time? And where I do ‘dabble’, how can I be more effective?

This writer is indeed a powerful storyteller. She’s also a strong example of someone who lives what she teaches. Multi-talented, esteemed and productive, but with a humility borne of her own deep faith.

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The Badly Behaved Bible

The Badly Behaved Bible. Well, the title grabs you immediately, doesn’t it? We’ve been raised on the idea that the Bible is about teaching us what’s good and right and how to behave in a godly way. So how can it itself be badly behaved?

I saw this book on a friend’s bookshelves during a Zoom meeting, and was intrigued enough to order a copy immediately. And wow! What a lot of things Nick Page challenges; and what a lot of common sense he talks. I confess I don’t go along with everything he says – which he would certainly approve of! – but I loved his robust down-to-earth head-on approach to a traditionally wrapped-in-serious-holy-language topic. Enough in itself to make you think again. He certainly made me sit up and think … and think again.

So many Christians have been brought up with the idea that the Bible is a sacred inerrant book, one coherent whole, and everything does, nay MUST, fit together. If it doesn’t, you’re somehow lacking in spiritual wisdom or knowledge or understanding or whatever other commodity might be crucial. Page has met them all in the course of his work as a writer, speaker, podcaster, unlicensed historian, applied ranter… Orthodox Anglo-Baptecostal.

I meet them when I give talks or lead retreats. Some are cheerful, but confused; some are subdued and quietly thoughtful; some wear the pained expression of people who have suddenly realised that the underwear they have on has shrunk two sizes in the wash. Others look genuinely shocked and distressed, as if they have discovered that their sweet, little, eighty-year-old grandmother has secretly been selling crystal meth down at the day centre.
All of them say the same thing to me: ‘I have this question about the Bible …’
It might be to do with the brutality and the bloodshed, the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Or a ridiculously obscure passage that they simply can’t understand. Maybe it’s a law or command which seems unfair, discriminatory, misogynistic or otherwise at odds with just, you know, ordinary decent behaviour. Quite often they simply can’t believe a word of what they’re reading – that a fish can swallow a man, that a boat can contain all known species, that God placed responsibility for the entire fate of humankind on two people and their behaviour around a fruit tree.

And with verve and humour and straightforward logic, not to mention a hint of borderline irreverent glee in places, he sets out to explain how the real problem is that people are starting from the wrong place. They’ve been misinformed or misled, he says. The Bible isn’t one cohesive and infallible whole; and furthermore it never claims to be. It’s a collection of books all with their own cultural background, history, development, genre and perspective. Every single one has been translated and is subject to translator bias and educated guesswork, with inconsistencies and mismatches and contradictions. Don’t even try to force the pieces of the jigsaw into one box, he recommends.

… we have to stop trying to control it, to tame it, domesticate it, make it support what we want it to say … To open the Bible is to risk our theology, our presuppositions, our deepest-held beliefs.
The fact is, you see, the Bible is a very badly behaved book.

According to Page, we don’t have to struggle with theological contortions any longer. Forget those blanket statements and tablets of stone and fears of perdition you were fed from your cradle up, and instead take each book for what it is, a product of its time, flaws and all. Accept them.

… if we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges; one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple anchors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.

Only then will we be liberated from the mindset that shackles us to an indefensible position, that gives rise to such doubt and angst, and be free to see and hear the message for us personally in our own place, in our own time, and our own culture. Because make no mistake, he’s a genuine fan of this fallible collection of books, the Bible – he believes it to be a place to encounter God.

Oh, and The Badly Behaved Bible is a book for all shades of religious persuasion. The author isn’t about forcing everyone into a mould of his design; rather he wants us all to admit our doubts and questions and frank disbelief. If you don’t doubt, you won’t grow. You won’t change.

Doubt is not a sin. Doubt is a necessity.
Doubt takes you places. Certainty stops you dead in your tracks.

… it is not disrespectful to question the Bible, it is absolutely vital. Because it’s only by questioning that we move to a new understanding.

By now you’re thinking, why am I raising this on my blog about literature and ethics? Because Page draws attention to important aspects of literature.

When we read we subconsciously enter the world of that book. He bases his comments here on scientific research which has demonstrated this fact. We don’t just listen or read when we pick up a book; because of how our brains are wired we live the stories. We feel the things the characters feel. We face their challenges. At least with good stories we do!

Stories are transformational. Stories make us feel and think. Stories empower us …

There are different kinds of truth. A story might not be true in the sense that it’s borne out by historical or scientific or archaeological evidence, but it can still be true. It’s truth lies in its validity for us today. It’s a metaphor, a parable, teaching us something valuable about how we should behave or be, in our time and culture, with our modern understanding of all the -ologies.

This is an absolutely crucial point about the Bible. The truth of a metaphor – whether it is carried as a saying, a poem or a story – is not dependent upon the fact that it literally happened. Metaphors and stories do not have to be literally true. But all of them say something that is true.

The best stories challenge us. You know already my personal predilection for stories that leave me thinking about issues of morality or truth long after I’ve finished reading. So I would agree with this point, wouldn’t I?!

… ask yourself, ‘Is this true? What is the story about? What counsel has this storyteller got for me?’
Participate in the story. That’s why this story is there. Ask the questions. Use your curiosity.
And feel free to use your imagination.

I so agree with all three points, and indeed it’s exactly the reason why I went into writing stories to explore ethical issues all those years ago. So, Nick Page is on my wavelength. And this is one well-written and refreshingly different book that lives up to its whacky title.



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Esther: Star of Persia

Last year and this, before, during, and after both lockdowns, a number of reports appeared which drew attention to the customs of Hasidic Jews in this country who were flouting the regulations about social distancing and mask-wearing and meeting in large groups, and the consequences in terms of the high incidence of Covid infection. Two jumped out at me: mass gatherings for weddings, and for the Feast of Purim. Reports also came in that in Israel, a curfew had been imposed and strict limits set for the number of people allowed to gather in closed spaces during that festival time.

Mention of the Feast of Purim made me think of its origins: the story of Queen Esther in the Bible; the casting of lots (pur) to decide what date the extermination of the Jews should take place, and how the nation was saved through the bravery of the young queen risking her life for her people, and the feast established to commemorate it.

Also during lockdown, I did a storytelling course, where we were asked to take stories from the Bible and bring them alive. It was then I realised how much careful research and work is needed to do this convincingly and with integrity. Authenticity comes in the detail.

These two things encouraged me to buy two more books for my growing collection of biblical stories told through fiction. Star of Persia by one of my favourite authors, Jill Eileen Smith, and Hadassah: One Night with the King, by Tommy Tenney. And I was impressed by the attention to detail which gives both a ring of authenticity and makes them into page-turners even when we know the basic story and the outcome.

Both are eminently readable, both stick pretty much to the story in the Bible, both create sub plots and additional characters which appear entirely sympathetic to the original. The book of Esther is the only one of the 66 books that make up the Bible not to mention God, and yet the hand of God and reliance on prayer to the Hebrew God pervades the account. Modern scholarship has it that the story is not historical but weaves a moral tale into a period of time where the Jews were scattered, and this particular group were settled in Persia at the time of Xerxes (rule: 486–465 bce).

At its core, is the pagan king – tyrannical, brutal, impetuous, capricious, paranoid for his own safety and sovereignty. He treats women as objects and has an insatiable sexual appetite. In a drunken state he sends for his queen, Vashti, to flaunt her exceptional beauty before all the important men in his land. She refuses to come and is instantly banished from court lest she sets a bad example to wives everywhere.

Who will succeed her? The king is advised to summon all the beautiful virgins to the palace and spend a night with each of them to find a new queen. They are all given a year undergoing extravagant beauty treatments to prepare them to a standard he will find acceptable. Among them is a young Jew, an orphan girl, called Hadassah – Persian name, Esther. She is the one Xerxes eventually favours, and it is she who goes on to save her people from the selfish and ambitious machinations of the king’s advisor, Haman, an Agagite, and long time enemy of the Jews. She is seen to have been placed in that position for just that purpose – as her guardian, Mordecai, says: Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?

There are a few issues about historical accuracy both in the original and these fictitious works, but they don’t detract from the overall merit of the stories told. And I learned a lot about the customs and thinking of those times – in a most palatable form! They made me check up on facts; they stirred my imagination; they challenged my preconceived ideas. And they gave me ideas for my own fiction! All good.

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The Apprenticeship

Saturday 28 December 2019: our twentieth (!!) Christmas story/play with the grandchildren. The culmination of a year knitting over forty hats while I devoured all those psychological thrillers you’ve heard me talking about!

It’s now twenty years since the first child was born and I was asked to create a new tradition for a new generation. Back in 1999 I wrote a simple story for a ten-month-old that involved her floating away on a balloon to a distant land and rescuing a little African girl from poverty. Actual printed-out photos of our baby granddaughter enacting the story back then were glued into position on the page to illustrate it. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I’d still be doing this two decades later! But of course, in that time, technology has changed out of all recognition. The hard-copy books of the story are digitally produced, liberally illustrated; the narrative and the moral within it infinitely more sophisticated.

This year the drama took place largely outside – a first, and a big gamble given our uncertain weather! Thankfully it was dry and relatively mild, although slushy mud in one place claimed one victim (me), and a keen wind towards the end made lighting sparklers tricky. The in-between generation took responsibility for being one step ahead of the actors, setting up each scene in different places throughout our local nature reserve and town. I simply had to trot along, narrating the story, with the youngsters following a lantern, working out clues at each stop.

The story basically revolves around four young people who notice an advert in a shop window for an apprentice to an inspirational and magical milliner. All four decide to apply. Selection is through an initiation ceremony where they have to identify desirable attributes for such an employee, using magical thinking caps and various tools and artefacts – a different colour of the rainbow at each stop.

Puzzling …


Concentrating …

Recording …

Collaborating …

We began at 1pm and it was dark by the time we stood around a fire in the garden, finally  learning who had been successful in gaining the apprenticeship.

The day ended with a rainbow meal, some of it assembled by the teenagers themselves, using colourful ingredients.

Now here we are, post the event I’ve been preparing for all year, racing to get the books created before 12 January – our annual target date for publication, which this year coincides with our second granddaughter officially becoming an adult!

It only remains for me to wish you all every blessing in 2020. To those who are sad or struggling: may you find peace and solace. To those whose lives are rich and full: may you find contentment and gratitude. To those who fear the future: may you find hope and confidence. And may God bless you, everyone.

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Understanding dementia

When I first met my future husband’s grandmother she referred to me as ‘the door handle’. I had no idea how to respond apart from with a shaky smile. By the time my mother developed vascular dementia decades later I was considerably wiser and more confident. Given the exponential rise in incidence rates, all of us must surely come into contact with dementia in one form or another at some point in our lives – a high proportion up close and personal. Having a degree of insight into the condition can transform a tricky situation into a meaningful experience.

As part of preparation for the Portobello Book Festival I’m appearing at in two days time, I’ve just re-read a book that was pivotal in my own understanding of dementia many years ago. It’s called And Still the Music Plays by Dr Graham Stokes, a very experienced clinical psychologist. And I’d highly recommend it.

And Still the Music PlaysEach vivid and sensitively written chapter is devoted to the story of one patient/resident who is exhibiting challenging behaviours, and alongside the narrative the author unravels a rationale for why they’re doing what they’re doing. All too often relatives say dismissively or desperately, ‘This isn’t our mum/dad/aunt/husband/wife. It’s the dementia’, but Stokes’ contention is that many difficult behaviours are not simply attributable to the underlying pathology of the disease, but need to be seen in the bigger context of the person’s life and experiences. Often a simple change of tactic can avert an outburst or distress.

‘Functional analysis is the pursuit of finding out ‘why’ people behave in the way they do. People, whether they have dementia or not, rarely do things without reason. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves, “Why did I say that, why did I act that way?”, and while we may not always like what we find out about ourselves, there will have been a reason. Similarly a person with dementia has reasons for what they do …’

Some solutions were relatively simple. Drawing the curtains at night so that Colin stopped being fearful of the strangers (reflections) lurking outside, and playing his favourite mood music, calmed him noticeably. Changing the colour of a bedroom eliminated Mrs D superstitious fear of the colour purple associated in her Catholic mind with death, grief and mourning. Removing a china cat stopped phobic Lucy’s persistent screaming.

Stop for a moment and consider the setting of a care home, the things that are done there. How would you feel on the receiving end? Then it’s easier to understand why private, reserved, dignified people were disturbed when taken from the relative peace and familiarity of their homes and placed (trapped) in locked wards with complete strangers (residents) all behaving oddly or menacingly, and other strangers (carers) invading their personal space and insisting on doing intimate things to them in secluded places. How are these external factors perceived by a mind altered by inexorable disease? Mrs O went from being ‘the most violent woman I have ever encountered’ to a much calmer gentler soul when Dr Stokes uncovered her past sexual childhood abuse, and realised that she needed the anonymity and unambiguous messages of a disinfected treatment room for all intimate procedures.

I’m sure we can all recognise many of the triggers Stokes identifies: long standing inhibitions about using public toilets; dehumanising or degrading management; an obligation to sit at a table with strangers exhibiting objectionable manners and habits; ‘enforced’ or ‘expected’  socialising; relentless noise, interruptions and activity.

‘Functional displacement provides the person with an equivalent but more acceptable means of meeting their needs in a way that is neither as invasive nor as exasperating for carers to endure.’

What a difference it would make if more of us were sensitive to these triggers and had the patience and persistence to find ways to circumvent them.

As it says on the book cover: ‘Storytelling is the oldest and perhaps best way of learning known to humans.’ The author’s detective work with 22 unique human beings whose lives have been turned upside down by dementia makes compelling reading, and what’s more these accounts help us all to see how important it is to reach out to each individual with compassion and understanding. There but for the grace of God …

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I know, it's been far too long. Oscar will have grown beyond all recognition.    ‘We make stories to make sense of our lives,‘ says psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. ‘But it’s not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.‘ I’m here for my last event of the Book Festival for 2013 so it’s fitting that it’s about storytelling – my job. As before in the Peppers Theatre, it’s baking hot – the poor chairman is visibly melting. And there’s a booming voice competing from next door where a children’s storyteller sounds to be adopting amazing voices.

In his acclaimed book, The Examined Life, Grosz contends that storytelling is key to sanity, and essential in helping us change. But we can be reluctant to accept the need to change – as the well known saying goes: ‘I want to change but not if it involves changing.‘ This is partly because there can’t be change without loss. But loss is part of living, so Grosz has written a collection of short stories about different patients, tracking the trajectory of life from birth to death, with all the attendant losses and changes that involves.

He selects one man with HIV who consulted him for 22 years to illustrate his work and the relationships he builds up. His aim is to reveal the patience needed to help any patient find out who they are. To capture what there is between analyst and patient; to feel one is there in the room with them. To appreciate the privilege it is to face things with someone else. To see ourselves more clearly through the stories of others.

At the heart of his clinical practice is the idea that ‘All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.‘ It may take a long time for someone to eventually tell their story, but Grosz provides a place of acceptance whatever the person is grappling with. The analyst, he says, has to haunt the patient with ghosts of his past and present and future; haunting makes the patient alive to the realities that he might not want to see, just as it did for Scrooge in Dickens‘ famous A Christmas Carol: this is what is going to happen if you don’t change.

What do you need in order to change? Courage to see things that need changing. Acceptance and tolerance of loss. To be ready to let go of some things in order to have others. And one of the signs of good health is the capacity to ask for help in doing so.

But says, Grosz, a good book can also change the way you think. Yes, indeedy. And what more appropriate quote to use as I bow out of the Book Festival for another year. I’m back for a party thrown by my publisher in the Party Pavilion tomorrow night, but this is my last ticketed event. I’ve enjoyed all the sessions I’ve attended. I hope you’ve gleaned something worthwhile from peeping over my shoulder.

Quote in the entrance tent at the Book Festival

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Summer holidays

Holiday time is here again for Scottish schools, and my calendar has several weeks blocked out in indelible ink for the grandchildren who come to stay every summer. A lovely excuse to forget work and get out and about exploring this beautiful and historic land. We’ve made for the sea several times just to escape the intense heat!

EI Book Festival programmeeAlso written in capital letters in the diary are assorted slots for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – always a highlight in the year. As usual some sessions were sold out before tickets even went on sale to the public (grrrr! Why do they do that?), but by dint of buying them on the first available day, I have seats for events about topics as diverse as fleeing a religious cult; a journey into dementia; a history of the Dukes of Devonshire; the neuroscience of memory; the death of Dr David Kelly; the ethics of dying; one woman’s experience of acute encephalitis; and the role of storytelling in maintaining sanity. Sounds pretty good to me.

I’ve also had invitations from elsewhere to attend a debate on assisted dying and to showcase my work in an arts and ethics symposium, both in August, so lots of excitement ahead.

Over my Dead Body coverOn the Over my Dead Body book front things are moving steadily.  Lots of double checking needed to be sure every step is taken on sure foundations, but this week the final final details are going off to the cover designer, and as soon as he’s worked his magic, the whole thing goes to the printer. Too late then for any more tweaking … Help! Hard to believe we’re in the home straight.





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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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