Hazel McHaffie

The Queen

Inhabiting characters

Fragile: approach with care!

I remember going to an event years ago, where the audience walked past several actors in various poses. We were advised not to speak to them as they were already ‘in character’. And we were subsequently treated to a masterclass in how they achieved this level of identification and immersion in order to project the final images which had us mesmerised. Fascinating insights.

And I’m sure we can all appreciate how thoroughly good actors can inhabit their characters when we see the same person in completely different roles. Just think Meryl Streep – literally Oscar winning!: Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady,  Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She is these women for us! How does she do it? ‘Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there,’ she says. But the end result is utterly convincing on our end of the process.

Even in films where a well-known person of our time is being represented – King George VI, the Queen, Winston Churchill, Ghandi – a good actor can make us suspend disbelief by somehow capturing the essence of the character; a style of speech or dress, a gait, a look, an idiosyncratic habit. And to do that, they delve into archives, study mannerisms, learn speech patterns and dialects, anything that will increase empathy and understanding of who exactly such persons were/are. Just watch something like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and you can see the little foibles and eccentricities that help the identification process in a huge cast of well known faces.

To an extent an author too, needs to get inside the skin of their characters, in order to make them believable and relatable. Unless we care, we don’t want to read on. In my case, I want to make them real enough for the reader also to feel their pain, empathise with their situation, identify with their challenges and choices. To ask themselves: What would I have done? With my current book, this has meant immersing myself in the psychological depths of a new mother struggling to cope; an ambitious businessman torn by divided loyalties; health care professionals grapplling with the threat of making a wrong call; a clever manipulative mind … no wonder it’s exhausting and depressing and stressful at times! Even now, when I’m reading and re-reading and reading again to make sure every dot and nuance is as good as I can make it before Killing me Gently is published. Perhaps authors too should have mentors and support networks built in to their job descriptions. And a label: Fragile: approach with care.

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Remember, remember

Whatever you think about the morality and efficacy of war, this has been a week to pause and reflect. I wonder what memories and associations it brought for you. Maybe of loved ones killed, maimed, bereaved, traumatised by conflicts past or present. Maybe of long-gone ancestors whose heroism has been romanticised by time. Maybe of traumas or fears you’ve experienced yourself. It only takes a simple wooden cross, a name carved out of granite, the sound of a lone piper, to unleash powerful emotions.

Thiepval memorialFor me, every Armistice day makes me think of my uncle, blown to pieces at the age of 21, before even my mother was born. But this November I’ve been struck in a different way by the power of the senses to trigger memories. I spent a considerable proportion of the week with elderly people, in their 80s and 90s, who lived through the last great conflict, but whose horizons have now shrunk, as mobility, mental agility, memory have gradually failed them. Locked away in their minds and hearts are hundreds of years of vibrant memories – of youth, of careers, of loves, of losses, of successes and failures, of huge world crises and calamities.

It’s part of my role to find that smell, that taste, that association, that word, that will unlock the reservoir, to listen carefully to the first-hand account, encourage the activation of surrounding memories. And I never cease to be amazed at the sheer variety of seemingly ordinary things that release those unique memories and fascinating revelations … the aroma of caraway seed cake, a picture of the Queen repairing an army truck, the feel of a lace collar, a ringlet, the sound of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

It was Proust in Swann’s Way (part of his monumental A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time]) who captured this phenomenon best:

‘The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest.’

What a privilege to sit at the feet of these people who have actually seen and heard and tasted and touched the things the rest of us learned from history lessons. They have forgotten more than I ever knew.


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Do Not Resuscitate

You’d have to be an ostrich on an uninhabited desert island not to be aware that this week marked the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen’s accession to the throne. Whatever you think of the institution of monarchy, I’m sure you would agree she is a truly remarkable woman. Well into her eighties she shows a stamina and strength of character and purpose few of her age group could or would attempt to emulate. Her timetables are punishing. Her application to the duties and responsibilities of her position, unflagging. She seems to make few concessions to the years. No other 86 year old of my acquaintance would stand for hours on a barge on a cold wet day and stay up all hours listening to deafening music and smile and chat relentlessly to perfect strangers hour after hour and … well, you get my drift.

But she is human. She is elderly. A jolt went through the nation recently when her husband, Prince Philip, aged 90, showed his frailty, actually missing royal Christmas festivities because he required cardiac surgery. Serious stuff. And now this week he’s in hospital missing the Diamond Jubilee celebrations because of a bladder infection. Not of itself serious, but obviously someone somewhere has concerns.

It made me think … What if he or the Queen suffered a sudden medical emergency necessitating resuscitation? What would be the morally right course of action? What would they themselves choose? Would their preferences prevail?

This week we’ve learned that an alarming number of elderly people are being resuscitated against their wishes. Hey, never mind the royals, I have a vested interest in this. A few years ago I wrote my own advanced directive spelling out the circumstances in which I wish to be allowed to die with dignity. No dragging me back for a life of pain and suffering and degradation, thank you very much. I had the said declaration medically witnessed. I filed it carefully and clearly. I had deep and meaningful discussion with my nearest and dearest, so that they are fully informed of my intentions and preferences, and committed to ensuring they are respected.

Imagine if some enthusiastic (or maybe insecure) junior doctor somewhere decided he would overrule all that careful thinking and discussion and do his own thing. Boy, would I be mad! What gives him the right to know better than I what is best for me?

So the National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death Review, looking into the care given to 585 acutely-ill patients (average age 77 years) who ended up having a cardiac arrest, made sobering reading this week. The watchdog concluded that ‘cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) had wrongly become the default setting.‘ They recommended that sensible assessment as to the necessity for resuscitation should become standard. Well, hurrah. Sensible indeed.

In the wake of these revelations, naturally lots of people have stories to tell of misapplied zeal, or woeful lack of monitoring or commonsense. And of course, their accounts also remind us that experience and preferences vary greatly.

My fatherMy own father had a heart attack very publicly on a bus when aged 75, on his way to visit a beautiful garden. Only minutes into the journey he observed that it was going to be a lovely day and then slumped against my mother, dead, without fuss or drama. For him, perfect. But my mother had to stand on one side while he was pummelled vigorously. In vain. The paramedics had no choice but to attempt to revive him, they said.

My motherIn her case, as soon as she went into residential care, we made it absolutely clear to all relevant parties that she did not want heroic efforts to resuscitate her, with appropriate signed-and-sealed documentation in place. The day she put her name to her advanced declaration in the presence of two independent witnesses, the family were going to a funeral and the room was full of black-clad sombre people, which gave it all an unintended but rather theatrical ambience! When her last illness took hold, she was past acting autonomously, but we were able to reinforce that considered and sustained choice with the caring team. She died with peace and dignity aged 90, unmolested.I devoutly hope that this latest public report will spark sensible discussion and lead to more sensitive and appropriate practice. We only die once.

And of course I wish His Highness a speedy and complete recovery.

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