Free speech?

“This may be offensive to your reader” warns Microsoft Word when it finds bitch in the text of my forthcoming novel. Considering that I was using the term to describe a female dog I find this quite amusing, but it makes me think about other less trivial ways that the use of language is becoming curtailed. One of my characters expresses racist views before being admonished by his wife, and I understand that a similar incident in one of Sally Rooney’s books led a journalist to accuse the author herself of racism. JK Rowling was “cancelled” for a comment that some interpreted as transphobic – fortunately my novel contains nothing about gender identity issues. It seems more acceptable to portray violence towards people and animals in fiction than to risk upsetting “woke” sensibilities.

Free speech is also limited in real life. Here in New Zealand, doctors who express valid concerns about the safety of Covid vaccination are being disciplined by the medical authorities. The rare but well authenticated cases of serious illness or death attributable to this vaccine are seldom reported in the media, and campaign materials designed to get everyone vaccinated make no mention of potential risks. I regard the vaccine as the lesser of two evils so have had my own two shots, but I respect the rights of those who have researched the pros and cons of this intervention and decided not to accept it.

Ireland visits Mt Vic (Devonport dog walks #3)

Ireland the Labrador loves walking up Mount Victoria/Takarunga, known by Devonport locals as Mt Vic. Of unknown age, it is the tallest volcanic cone on Auckland’s North Shore, though being only 87 metres high it is really a hill rather than a mountain. The wooded lower slopes are surrounded by old houses, churches and a primary school and there are several access points.

Mount Victoria viewed from Cambria Park

We usually approach the site through the historic cemetery, dating from the late 1800s, where the Maori warrior and peacemaker Patuone is buried alongside early white settlers.

Mount Victoria cemetery

Mt Vic was once a Maori pa (fortified settlement) and the remains of old terraces and kumara pits can be seen alongside the walking tracks that now encircle the site. Ireland seems fascinated by the place and sometimes, perhaps drawn by sights or smells or spirits of the past, he dashes up the steep grassy hillside and on one occasion took half an hour to return. At other times he freezes on the path as if hypnotised.

Ireland transfixed

On the summit, with its panoramic views of Rangitoto, the Hauraki Gulf, Waitemata Harbour and Auckland’s CBD, are various modern structures: mushroom-shaped vents for an underground reservoir, a signal station for shipping, a disappearing gun. There are a few older military remains on Mt Vic and a delapidated army hut, known as the Bunker, is the venue for the local folk music club.

The Bunker

After completing the steepest part of the walk, Ireland and I stop for a rest and a snack.

Ireland hoping for another biscuit

Ireland visits a maze (Devonport dog walks #2)

Last week I wrote about taking Ireland, my dogshare Labrador, to North Head. Another of our favourite places to walk around Devonport is Ngataringa Park. Developed in the 1990s from an old landfill site, this is not a formal park but mostly consists of large fields which provide an ideal space for dogs to run and play and roll in the long grass.

Various local landmarks can be seen from the curved path that runs through the park. Auckland’s harbour bridge, viewed from across the tidal estuary with its mangrove swamps. Mount Victoria, or Takarunga – the highest volcanic cone on the North Shore – and another good place for a dog walk. The massive new retirement complex being built on a nearby hill overlooking the site. There is a skate park in one of the fields, and a piece of artwork, a pair of wooden statues called The Guardians.

At the far end of the path is a maze, intended to represent the interweaving between Maori and Celtic cultures. Beside it, a network of small circular paths bordered by stones is hidden in a group of trees. This is the halfway point of our walk, and while I have a rest on one of the rustic seats made of driftwood, Ireland eats a few biscuits and then waits patiently at my feet.

We can either go back the same way that we came, across the fields, or take the lower path which is shaded by an arch of trees.

Ireland visits North Head (Devonport dog walks #1)

As Auckland’s lockdown continues and we are told to stay within our own postcode area, the highlight of my daily routine is a walk with my dogshare Labrador, Ireland. There are several interesting places nearby and one of our favourites is the hill called North Head, or Maungauika, which forms a prominent landmark at the end of the Devonport peninsula.

Dogs are permitted here – on lead

The hill is encircled with a network of paths and from the higher ones there are spectacular views of Cheltenham beach to the north, Rangitoto and the islands of the Hauraki gulf to the east, the Waitemata harbour and Auckland’s CBD to the south. It was a wonderful location for watching the yacht races during last summer’s Americas Cup.

Cheltenham beach
Rangitoto

North Head was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions about 50,000 years ago. About 1,000 years ago it became occupied by a Maori tribe, then after European settlers arrived was put to use as a coastal defence site. During the late 19th century a number of large guns were installed to deter a feared Russian invasion. Fortifications including more guns, searchlights, tunnels and underground rooms were added, using prison labour, to cope with subsequent threats during the two world wars. The army left the site in the 1950s but a naval training school remained on the summit until 1996. The site is now managed by the Tupuna Maunga Authority and open to walkers and their dogs (on lead).

One of the many guns on North Head

Remains of the old military installations can be seen around the site. Some of the tunnels are open to the public, others shrouded in mystery and rumoured to contain aircraft or military secrets. At present however all the tunnels are closed due to Covid restrictions, as is the colourful toilet bock.

Ireland denied access to tunnel
The toilet block

I find North Head a fascinating place which carries an air of mystique. It features in Carmen’s Roses, the first short novel I wrote after coming to live in Devonport.

Book review “Cured: the life-changing science of spontaneous healing” by Jeffrey Rediger

Cases of the phenomenon variously called “spontaneous healing” or “spontaneous remission” or “remarkable recovery” are sometimes reported in the medical literature, usually in relation to advanced cancer. They are probably not quite so rare as followup statistics suggest, either because sceptical doctors presume that the original diagnosis was wrong, or because the patients concerned have stopped attending hospital clinics. Jeffrey Rediger, a physician and psychiatrist who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, has spent fifteen years studying this topic by interviewing patients and visiting healing centres. In his book, case histories are interwoven with summaries of the latest research into the body’s defences against disease.

The library copy of Cured on which I based this review is subtitled “the life-changing science of spontaneous healing” by Jeffrey Rediger but the version on the Amazon page, presumably more recent, has “the power of our immune system and the mind-body connection” by Jeff Rediger. Although I don’t know why the subtitle was changed (or the author’s name shortened) it strikes me that the term “spontaneous” could be misleading. Most unexpected, apparently miraculous, recoveries from a disease that had been considered incurable do not happen out of the blue, but after the patients concerned have taken active steps to reclaim their health.

Early chapters focus mainly on physical aspects, with detailed discussion about how to optimise nutrition, and support the functioning of the immune and nervous systems. The later ones have a more obvious “mind-body” emphasis with topics such as the placebo response, faith healing and prayer, the power of love, and what he calls “healing your identity”.

This last aspect may be of crucial importance. It builds on the work of early researchers such as Lawrence Le Shan, whose book Cancer as a Turning Point influenced my own choice of psycho-oncology as a career, and echoes the message of more recent books such as Remarkable Recovery by Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Barasch. Many of the patients described in these books made a decision, consciously or not, to take control of their lives and “rewrite their stories”. This often involved leaving a toxic relationship or an unsatisfying job, reviving an undeveloped talent or ambition, and most importantly making “deep mental and spiritual changes”. An essential feature was being true to themselves rather than conforming to outside expectations, and following their own path. This might require courage and faith, and the discipline to “burn their boats” to prevent a lapse back to the previous way of life. Some became whole-heartedly committed to particular healing practices. These were very varied, ranging from a strict ketogenic diet to daily immersion in yoga or meditation, suggesting that faith in the chosen modality whatever it may be is the crucial factor in its effectiveness.

This psychological picture does not fit every case. Regression from cancer following an acute infection with high fever is well documented, and must have a biological basis rather than a psycho-spiritual one. Some cases of remarkable recovery do appear spontaneous, because no explanation at all can be found.

Dr Rediger provides plenty of information and guidance for those seeking to prevent disease, or to maximise their chances of recovery from an existing condition, and the case histories are inspiring. He rightly avoids recommending particular approaches, and he acknowledges that there are no guarantees. Plenty of patients “do all the right things” and still succumb to their disease; spontaneous healing remains to some extent a mystery. This is a valuable book, though perhaps rather too long and detailed to be easily digested by someone dealing with a serious illness. Future editions could be made more accessible by adding an index, and summaries at the end of each chapter.

***

Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Recovering from wrist fracture: six months on

Six months have passed since I broke my wrist. Having heard from various sources that recovery from this type of fracture should be largely complete by six months, I decided to write what will probably be my last update on the subject, and hope it may be useful for other people dealing with this common injury.

Six months is of course a ballpark figure based on an average of many cases. Healing is a gradual process and its rate varies greatly between individuals. My own recovery is not complete, but there has been a lot of progress. As well as all personal care and household tasks, I can now easily manage the main activities that are important to me: typing on the computer, driving the car and walking the dog. The exception is playing the piano, which continues to hurt. My wrist still looks misshapen and probably always will, but I hope the residual swelling will eventually subside.

At my recent outpatient review with Xray, the consultant orthopaedic surgeon said that the bones were “solidly healed” but that the alignment between radius and ulna was not quite right and therefore certain wrist movements are restricted. He offered an operation to correct the displacement but, considering that this would require another six weeks in plaster with consequent limitation of activity and loss of fitness, I decided not to accept it at present. Surgery can be reconsidered at a later stage, but I hope that my condition will continue to improve on its own.

Finding “silver linings” in an illness is not always easy. I hope this experience has made me more patient, more tolerant of others’ limitations and not in so much of a hurry myself. It has led indirectly to several positive changes: a new choir, a new GP, and attending Pilates and “Silver Swans” ballet classes each week to improve my strength and balance.

***

Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

What I’ve been reading (January – June 2021)

Here is a selection of the books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.

Top pick among my favourite genre of English psychological mystery novels is Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. This held a special attraction for me because of its evocative descriptions of Oxford, where I lived for many years but have been unable to revisit since the pandemic began. Its unusual protagonist is a Scotswoman, a mathematics dropout who works as a nanny for academic families. She becomes closely attached to her latest charge, an eight year old girl neglected by her self-centred parents. The girl disappears, prompting a police investigation. Another good and original read was The Appeal by Janice Hallett, written mainly in the form of email exchanges among the legal team preparing an appeal against a murder conviction. It is set in a fictional town where the amateur dramatics society includes a large cast of players.

After watching the award-winning film Nomadland, I read the book of the same title on which it was based. The author, Jessica Bruder, is a journalist who spent three years observing and befriending some of the thousands of van dwellers who travel around America supporting themselves with seasonal jobs. The majority are single older people who, though often well qualified and skilled, have met with financial hardship and can no longer afford conventional housing. Their fortitude and ingenuity, as they navigate the practical challenges and endure what sound like appalling working conditions in campsites, Amazon warehouses and beet farms, are impressive. I found this book somewhat long and meandering, but its content was an eye-opener.

The only medical book in this selection is The Sleeping Beauties by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who has travelled round the world observing “culture-bound” epidemics of illnesses for which no medical explanation can be found. Such syndromes have been described by many different terms including “hysterical” “psychosomatic” and “functional”. The causes may be complex, but the author believes sociocultural factors to be more relevant than than individual psychopathology. I found the discussion sections at the end of each chapter rather heavy going, but I do know how difficult it is to write clearly about this subject. I liked the final section about the growing “over-medicalisation” of life problems in Western countries.

Two autobiographies are on this list. Father Joe: the man who saved my soul is by the late English satirist Tony Hendra, best known for his work on the Spitting Image TV programmes. As a result of a sexual transgression in his teens, he was sent to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight to meet the Benedictine monk who was to become his spiritual mentor throughout his colourful adult life. A very different memoir is One Woman’s War by Eileen Younghusband who, aged nineteen, volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a “filterer” transcribing Radar transmissions in WW2. After the war she was posted to Europe and among other duties worked in a liberated concentration camp. This beautifully written short book gives a modest account of an extraordinary life.

I recently wrote a separate post about Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine, Derren Brown’s take on Stoic philosophy and other things.

***

Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

You Yet Shall Die: A psychological mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime

I’ve recently been so focused on writing my next book that I’ve neglected the marketing of my previous ones. So I’ve now set up a price promotion for the Kindle version of You Yet Shall Die, a gentle psychological mystery set in rural England in the recent past. The novel has 5-star ratings on Amazon, and readers’ comments include “It was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess” and “Top marks for an absorbing crime and mystery story without the gory bits.”

How to respond to a stranger who claims to be your half-sister? Hilda, a single woman living as a recluse in a marshland cottage with her rescue cats, is faced with this question when she is visited by a young woman claiming to be the “love child” of her late father. Hilda’s quest to investigate her family background leads to a dangerous conflict with her brother, and to the discovery of some shocking events rooted in postwar Oxford and the 1960s London nightclub scene, but also widens the options for her own future.

The Kindle promotion, available to readers in most but not all countrie, is running from 20-27 June. Please have a look on your local Amazon website, and it would be much appreciated if you can help my marketing efforts by sharing this post with your contacts – thank you.

Murder mystery in Matakana

Matakana, a pretty village in the wine-growing region north of Auckland, was the venue for Sunday’s launch of the novel Blood on Vines by my friend Madeleine Eskedahl. My husband and I attended the event and stayed in the Matakana Motel overnight.

Matakana Estate, photo from TripAdvisor

I am unable to drive while recovering from a wrist fracture, so we took public transport. This involved working out the connections between four bus routes: 814 to Akoranga, NX1 to Hibiscus Coast, 995 to Warkworth and 997 to Matakana. We were almost the only passengers for parts of the journey, and as the modern double-decker NX1 on its dedicated busway sped past the traffic jams on the parallel motorway we wondered why Aucklanders are so wedded to their cars. However the trip did take a long time because the rural buses are infrequent. Our wait in the charming little town of Warkworth was pleasantly occupied with lunch and a riverside walk.

The book launch took place in The Vintry, Matakana, an intimate bar in a complex which also contains a cinema, restaurant and boutique shops. We were served with a selection of local wines accompanied by platters of cheeses and tapas while listening to readings from Madeleine’s novel. I haven’t opened my copy yet so can only quote from the back cover blurb: “… an ex-wine-maker is murdered … a rampage of death is about to rock the local community to its core.” The event was well attended and it was good to see some fellow members of the Auckland Crime Writers group.

Madeleine and Jennifer

Afterwards a walk down Wharf Road to the Matakana River. The public toilet buildings at the top of the road looked most distinctive.

Photo by Brian Barraclough

A dip in the pool at the Matakana Motel, and a delicious dinner at the Matakana Country Kitchen, rounded off the evening and our overnight accomodation was quiet and comfortable. There was a spot of panic in the morning when, due to a discrepancy between the timetable on the bus shelter and the information on the Auckland Transport app, we risked missing the 997 on its occasional trip from Matakana to Warkworth. But all was well and we were home by lunchtime. It felt good to have had a “mini-break” especially considering that, due to lockdowns, I haven’t been away from Auckland since my last visit to England in 2019.

Recovering from wrist fracture: ten weeks on

Recovery demands a lot of patience, but there have been several positive changes since my last post five weeks ago. I hope writing these updates will help me to appreciate the progress made, and be useful to readers recovering from similar fractures.

My cast was removed about six weeks after the injury. I was anxious about seeing my wrist again, knowing that the two attempts to reset the displaced bones had been only partly successful and the final position would not be perfect. It did indeed look crooked and thickened compared to the other side, and still does, though I hope some of the swelling will go down in time. It was a relief to have the cast replaced by a removable lightweight splint.

I see a physiotherapist once a week, and carry out the prescribed exercises four times per day. I can’t manage the full range of movements but measurements have shown a slight improvement at each clinic visit. Gently massaging the skin with herbal or homeopathic creams, and essential oils, is comforting. I no longer feel any need to take analgesics, but the ulnar side of the wrist is still stiff and tender, and I understand this can be a persistent problem which might require surgery later on.

As regards daily activities the the most significant advances include being able to drive the car and cut my own nails, though I still can’t use a knife and fork. My general vitality, which was impaired for weeks after the injury, has recovered now and I hope to get back to creative writing soon.

On the negative side, the Dexa scan carried out as part of the follow-up showed reduced bone density. This was disappointing because I take plenty of outdoor exercise and eat the right foods. Before considering medication I shall try extra vitamins and sunbathing, and be more careful about avoiding falls.

All the aftercare is free of charge under New Zealand’s generous Accident Compensation scheme.