Hazel McHaffie

WW2

Life after Life

A bonus of lockdown was acquiring ‘new’ books from those donated to our outdoor bookshelf. One such was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, about which I’d seen and read excellent reports. (I’m horrified to discover it’s eight years since it came out, and I’m only now getting round to reading it! Too many books, not enough hours in the day.) But somehow, living in this parallel universe of pandemic for the last eighteen months has made Atkinson’s premise – What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? – even more pertinent; so perhaps after all it’s a good time to read it.

The hook on the back cover is tantalising:
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life?

An ingenious premise upon which to build a novel, huh? And it challenges us to think, What would I do differently, given the opportunity? Would I even want to change things?

Add to that the time period of the story – 1910-1967 – including two great wars, and the implications of a second chance assume even more momentous proportions.
What if a pretty English girl had shot Adolf Hitler in November 1930?
What if a pretty British girl was actually living in Germany when war was declared?
The historic detail relating to big events gives a solid skeleton to this story, but inevitably some factual accuracy is forfeited in the name of literature, as the author herself acknowledges: To find the truth as the heart of a book, a certain amount of reality falls by the way.

Ursula Todd, born in 1910, is a strange child with odd ‘powers’. Was it reincarnation, or clairvoyance, or deja vu, or living in a parallel universe, sixth sense, or what? Certainly her mother thinks she needs ‘fixing’. A Harley Street psychiatrist does his best when she’s 10, but as she grows up, and bad things happen to her, Ursula persists in wondering if death is the answer; she can then have another stab at life and hopefully a happier ending.

We follow her different lives through her rural upbringing with an indulgent father and a superior mother, adult life in London, during the Blitz, and in post-war Berlin. She goes from knowing child, to rape victim, abused wife, assassin, mistress, rescue warden. Back and forth. At times she doesn’t even recognise herself.

It was, I must admit somewhat discombobulating to live through a traumatic experience of the death of a child or young person, only to have them return later in the book very much alive because an alternative version of their lives is being narrated. Short of cataloguing each iteration, I couldn’t hold them all in my head, so went for simply enjoying the moment.

Something of the challenge underpinning this story is captured in these few lines of dialogue about half way through the book:
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’  Ursula said. ‘If one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
   ‘Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?’ Ralph asked mildly.
   ‘Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.’
   ‘But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood?’

For me this book came into its own in the section A Long Hard War, where Ursula is a warden dealing with the aftermath of the bombings in London. It poignantly captures the fragility of life, the human tragedy on both sides, the courage and stamina people can find within them, and the importance of small things.

When asked what the book is about, Atkinson says, It’s about being English. That’s not what I took from it. For me it’s about something much more complex; an unravelling of our multi-layered selves, who we are in our imaginations as well as in different circumstances. And how our destiny can be determined by an accident of birth, or a chance conversation, or a seemingly casual encounter or decision. I’m still mulling over all that … and isn’t that one measure of a successful story?

 

 

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The front line: then and now

Health Minister and Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, was the first member of parliament to be diagnosed with Covid-19. This was back in early March … at a time when there were only 382 reported cases in UK, only 6 people had died. Halcyon days, huh? Less than two months later, we’ve already exceeded 26,000 deaths!

The news about Ms Dorries triggered a memory: I’d read somewhere that she was a trained nurse, and intrigued, I’d bought two of her ‘nursey’ novels in a coffee shop on my way to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town a couple of years ago, stuck them on my shelves, and promptly forgotten about them – The Angels of Lovely Lane and Christmas Angels. Time, methinks, to dig them out and read them … a kind of tribute to the nurses today working so hard to care for people with the virus in a very different world.

I must confess neither the genre, nor the style of writing, are ones I’d normally go for, but there were aspects of these books that gave me pause for thought and sober reflection. These nurses were practising not long before I trained; their experiences resonated with me. Rather like BBC1’s drama, Call the Midwife.

Reading about and recalling those days made me so grateful for all that modern medicine and social care can offer today. How far we have come from those days when
– the NHS was in its infancy
– antibiotics were wonder-drugs
– women had limited career options
– smoking was the norm
– lecture notes were written on typewriters using carbon paper
– rubber tubing was boiled before being inserted into various orifices
– patients were lifted manually
– doctors were revered and all powerful
– women died or were imprisoned following illegal abortions
– ten days bedrest was de rigeur after a simple D&C; three weeks after childbirth
– nurses wore starched collars and frilly caps, always kept their hair off their face tucked inside their caps, lived in hostels with rigid rules, and were all known by their surnames
– silver buckles on petersham belts denoted qualifications
– the Irish were openly discriminated against …

Compare all that with communication, technology, medical expertise, opportunities, science, in 2020. What would have happened if the dreaded coronavirus has struck then?

In her fiction centring on Liverpool in the 1950s, Nadine Dorries has captured a world I knew, and for a few days took me away from the uncertainties and restrictions and anxieties of our present situation, to a bygone era. Memories both happy and sad. But overwhelmingly reasons to be devoutly grateful for what’s available to us today, and the amazing work our front-line staff are doing – and are able to do – to beat Covid-19.

 

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