Two brave women

My list of non-fiction recommendations for 2019 will include two biographical books about women who sustained life-changing injuries in middle age. By coincidence, both books arrived together from my local library last week, and I noticed several similarities between their subjects: both were born in the late 1950s, grew exceptionally tall and athletic, worked as journalists for the Times newspaper group, and were injured as a result of their chosen activities. But the nature of their traumas, and their ways of coping, were very different.

My former medical career brought me into contact with many people recovering from serious illness or injury. Emotional responses varied tremendously. Initial distress usually resolved, being replaced by the capacity to accept and cope even with longterm impairment, often including some positive changes in attitudes, beliefs, relationships or way of life. But not everyone was able to adjust, and some were left with ongoing psychiatric symptoms. Given the complex interplay of biological, psychological and social factors unique to each case it is unwise to generalise or to predict individual responses, and blanket advice to “think positive” or show a “fighting spirit” can be unhelpful. The stories of the women in these two books illustrate this diversity. 

Melanie Reid (1957 – ) was thrown from her horse in 2010 when he refused a cross-country jump. She sustained spinal fractures which rendered her tetraplegic apart from having limited function in her right hand. Her memoir The World I Fell Out Of describes the months she spent in hospital, and subsequent years back at home with her husband. The practical limitations of being largely confined to a wheelchair mean that the mundane essentials of living – washing, dressing, toileting, eating and drinking – require assistance, and occupy a large part of each day. The inability to move, the bodily disfigurement, the loss of sexual attractiveness, being deprived of the sense of touch, have a huge emotional impact for patients themselves and for those close to them. To a healthy person all this might sound so horrific that it would inevitably lead to deep despair and the desire to end it all. Spinal cord injury is in fact one of the few medical disorders shown to be associated with a raised suicide rate (Harris and Barraclough 1994). Melanie Reid does make brief reference to considering a one-way trip to Switzerland, and to taking antidepressants, but on the whole her mood stays upbeat. With tenacious determination to work on rehabilitation, her physical function improved much more than her doctors predicted. She was eventually able to drive a car, and even return ride a horse until she was thrown off again and suffered further injuries. She has overcome this setback, and continues to channel her mental energy into writing. This book, and her “Spinal Column” in The Times, contain frank and often darkly humorous accounts of life following her accident.

Marie Colvin (1956-2012) lost the sight of one eye after being shot in the face and chest by snipers in Sri Lanka in 2001. In Extremis: the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, written by her friend and colleague Lindsey Hilsum, gives a comprehensive account of her life and complex character. Described as brave, passionate, driven, intellectually outstanding, beautiful, glamorous and generous, she has been hailed as the greatest war correspondent of her generation. Yet quotations from her diaries reveal an inner insecurity and her personal life was tumultuous, marked by heavy drinking and smoking and a succession of doomed love affairs. The optic nerve injury, though not the main focus of the book, was a watershed. Her blind eye had been preserved and looked normal from outside, but she always covered it with a large black patch: “part of me in a way, something that would make a clear division between life before and after”. She also replaced all her clothes with those of a more “architectural” cut than her previous “lacy or flowing styles”. As soon as she was physically fit she resumed assignments in the Middle East but worsening nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and depression eventually forced her to take leave and undergo psychiatric treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. Over the next few years, while her intrepid forays into war zones and graphic dispatches brought international acclaim, her private life became increasingly miserable and chaotic. She was killed by a rocket attack in Syria in 2012.  

Inevitably, reading such stories makes me wonder how I would cope with a life-changing injury myself. And it could happen to anyone, even someone like me who is neither athletic nor adventurous and is not attracted to extreme sports or situations. My most demanding activity is dog-walking and even this can be hazardous – I have already had two bony fractures due to being knocked or pulled over by excited canines. Both injuries have healed perfectly but I know they could have been much worse, in which case I very much doubt that I would have been able to marshal such courage and determination as that shown by Marie Colvin or Melanie Reid. But none of us can predict how we will respond if faced with a health challenge of such magnitude as theirs. 

 

 

Daisy rest in peace

Daisy with flowersToday we had to say goodbye to our eldest cat, Daisy, who has died at the age of about seventeen years. Her coat was dark tortoiseshell, and she had a distinctive ginger stripe on her forehead.

Daisy came to us for foster care when she was a young mother with three tiny kittens. Her previous owners had dumped them all at the vet clinic. As always happens with our foster cats, we ended up adopting her after the kittens were old enough to be rehomed and she had been desexed.

Daisy was a strong character, who liked human company but barely tolerated our other cats, and would attack any dog who visited the property. Her greatest enthusiasms were playing the piano, especially the bass keys, and licking the cream from our breakfast porridge bowls.

Her health had been gradually failing in recent months. Her kidney function was poor, so she was on a special renal diet and needed to drink a great deal of water, but still appeared to enjoy life. Yesterday evening she suddenly went downhill, dragging her back legs and hardly able to walk. We made the harrowing decision to book her in for euthanasia next day, and I did my best to keep her comfortable in a quiet room overnight. By morning she was semiconscious, and died peacefully at home a few hours later. It was a mercifully quick and natural death.

Now Daisy is buried in our garden along with the other cats who have shared our lives since we came to New Zealand – Cindy, Floella, Felix and Homer. We will miss Daisy very much but still have our two lovely four-year-olds, Magic and Leo.

Update one month later:  I was very touched to receive, from our friends at Auckland SPCA, this photo of a new kitten with similar tortoiseshell colouring who has been named after Daisy and is now up for adoption.

Daisy Jnr

Writing plans 2019: Kent, cats and family secrets

I came home from the RototuaNoir crime writing festival in January fired with enthusiasm for working on my next novel. The story is inspired to some degree by my own life experience, involving some old family secrets, and set in the North Kent marshes close to where I was brought up. Writing from my home in New Zealand I have rely on the internet to refresh my memories of these isolated wetlands beside the Thames estuary, a haven for birds and wildlife littered with relics of light industry. The video in this blog post by Carol Donaldson conveys the area’s strange appeal.
The crime element of my new plot, which is purely fictional, is essential to the story but occupies a relatively small part of the text. This is in keeping with the trend, noted at the festival, for the term “crime fiction” to include much more than the traditional who-dun-its and police procedurals. “Crossover” books which combine crime with, say, the historical or romance genres or qualify as literary fiction are increasingly popular.
The characters in my new novel are also fictional, with the exception of rescue kitten Magic who plays a small part as herself. Despite its feline content, I don’t think the book will belong in the BISAC category of Fiction/Mystery & Detective/Cozy/Cats & Dogs, as it touches on some serious themes. I would prefer to see it coded as Fiction/Family Life or simply Fiction/Crime.
magic-on-bed.jpg
I hope the new novel will be published later this year. Meanwhile some of my earlier books are being discounted in the Smashwords sale from March 3 to March 9, so please have a look at this link and consider downloading one or more of them for less than the cost of a cup of coffee! They include the three 1980s medical crime-cum-black comedy novels I presented at the RotoruaNoir festival; the more recent Three Novellas set between England and New Zealand; and non-fiction books mostly on health-related topics.
Lastly, if you found this post through the “North Kent” tag, you may be interested in the new book Sunday’s Child by Jean Hendy-Harris describing some vividly detailed memories of what life in the area was like in the post-war years.     

Writing crime fiction set in the recent past

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending New Zealand’s first crime writing festival, Rotorua Noir. I’d been invited to take part in a panel session called “Digging into the Past”, which was a surprise because my novels are set within my own lifetime and I had not previously thought of them as historical. But of course they are, because the world has changed such a lot in recent decades. Writing about the recent past, which I will arbitrarily define as covering the 70-odd years following World War 2, is somewhat different from tackling more obviously historical settings such as medieval England or Ancient Rome.

Human nature doesn’t change much and nor do the basic motives for murder. PD James summed these up as the four Ls – Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. To these might be added Lunacy, although that is an outdated term and it would be a cop-out to use it as the sole explanation for a fictional crime. Only a minority of murders in real life result from the delusions and hallucinations of mental illness. Most murderers do however have some or all of the personality characteristics which are labelled psychopathic, and psychopaths have always existed.

So, the main challenge for writers of historical crime fiction is getting the background right. Checking on the dates of major events is easy enough. It is harder to capture the subtle cultural changes – when did certain behaviours, attitudes and terms of speech that once were commonplace start to be regarded as outdated or inappropriate? Social attitudes have changed considerably, with the advent of political correctness and greater acceptance of minority groups. Then there are the practical details of everyday life, for example: When did the use of computers and mobile phones become widespread? When did the contraceptive pill became available to unmarried women? When did gramophone records give way to cassettes and CDs? What clothes were in fashion, and what songs were in the Top 10? What did people have for breakfast? While most readers might not pick up inaccuracies about such matters, a few will delight in pointing them out.

How should the writer deal with those historical aspects which might cause confusion unless they are explained? “Show not tell” is the ideal. Overloading the text with facts, in the style of a history lesson, is to risk boring and patronising the readers. A better way to convey information is through the characters’ speech and behaviour, which demands considerable skill, or by including explanatory notes at the beginning or end of the book.

My own long and winding path to becoming a fiction writer illustrates these points. During the 1980s I wrote three novels based on my experiences of working as a doctor in England:  Overdose set in a psychiatric hospital, Fatal Feverfew in an alternative health retreat and Unfaithful Unto Death in rural general practice. Having previously found publishers keen to accept my medical books, it was a shock to find that fiction publishing was a different ballgame and after a few rejections I gave up. I put my typescripts away in a box, and almost forgot about them.

In 2000 my husband and I moved to Auckland, and having retired from medicine I had time to take up other interests and decided to have another go at fiction. I wrote three linked short novels: Carmen’s Roses, Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration, set between England and New Zealand with flashbacks to the characters’ earlier lives as far back as 1940. Self-publishing had become a viable option and, feeling that I was getting too old to spend time waiting for responses from traditional publishers, I decided to try the indie way and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom it conferred.

Wondering what to write next I remembered my 1980s novels, though I wasn’t even sure if they had survived the major decluttering process which preceded our move. I managed to find the faded typescripts and read them again. Some of their content seemed old-fashioned and rather shocking – arrogant doctors who disrespect their patients, accept lavish hospitality from drug companies, drink alcohol before driving, sexually exploit junior colleagues – such behaviour would not be tolerated today although it would be naive to believe it never happens. Should I tone my text down, to avoid offending modern readers? But I decided to leave it largely unchanged, as an only slightly exaggerated record of how things sometimes used to be.

The timeline of the new novel I am writing shifts between the years 1965 and 2005. I find a useful technique is to draw up a detailed chronology, listing the dates of the main events and the characters’ ages at the time. This list is not for publication, but to prevent me from making mistakes.

Carmen’s Roses, the first book in my Three Novellas trilogy, can be downloaded free of charge until 28 February 2019 from Smashwords.com.

Our “Optimum Wellbeing Retreat”

Brian and I spent five days at Gwinganna, an upmarket “lifestyle retreat” set in 200 hectares of native bushland high above Australia’s Gold Coast. We stayed in the Billabong Villas.

Billabong Villas Gwinganna

I was apprehensive about being woken at 5.30 a.m., deprived of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, dairy and gluten (any guest caught smuggling in such items is sent away without a refund), and having only limited access to my iPhone. I had cut down on coffee and tea beforehand in the hope of avoiding withdrawal symptoms but, in common with several of the other 50-odd other guests, I had a mild headache for the first two days. Then I felt well for the rest of the course.

The environment is beautiful, with walking tracks traversing the woodlands and valleys, and two outdoor swimming pools. There are plenty of wallabies and birds, the occasional koala and one sociable peacock.

 

The morning timetable is intensive, with just a cup of herbal tea at 6 a.m. before the qi gong session held in a field overlooking the sea. Then a choice of activities: an energetic walk, a gentle walk, or a guided tour of the orchards and vegetable gardens. A substantial breakfast at 8 a.m. is followed by a stretch class, then again a choice of activities such as yoga, Pilates or dance. More herbal tea at 11 a.m. and then a talk on nutrition, exercise or managing stress. Lunch at 1 p.m. includes fish or chicken with large salads and sometimes vegetable soup. Afternoons are free to rest, swim, or experience one of the many special therapies. A massage and a facial are included in the price of the retreat, and over 80 other modalities ranging from Reiki to colonic irrigation are available at extra cost. Missing my own animals, I had a session of Equine Assisted Therapy.

Horse therapy Gwinganna

Dinner is at 7 p.m. with fish or meat or vegetarian options. After that most people are ready for bed, though on some evenings there are group meditation sessions.

All the staff are passionate about Gwinganna’s approach and most have worked there for many years. Several of the guests are also old hands, attending once or twice each year because they are stressed by high pressure jobs or coping with chronic illness. Brian and I had already been feeling alright before we went there, but we both enjoyed the experience, and returned feeling refreshed and relaxed. Pleased that my body composition analysis showed a normal bone mass and low belly fat, I decided that my usual diet and lifestyle are healthy enough, and do not intend to make any major changes although I feel less desire for coffee and wine. My muscle mass was a bit on the low side so I am back to cold water swimming.

 

 

My top ten books of 2018

Here is my annual roundup of some books I have recently enjoyed or found interesting. They are arranged by alphabetical order of title, and the links refer to the Amazon versions.

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: The memoirs of a literary editor and biographer whose distinguished career has been combined with an eventful personal history. Despite her experiences of family tragedy, she has found contentment in later life. She comes over as remarkably intelligent, energetic and capable, and writes in elegant prose without a trace of self-pity or self-praise. 

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott: The narrative of this long and ambitious thriller alternates between France and the UK, the 1940s and the present day. Investigation of the murder of an elderly woman reveals links with her past as an SOE agent during the wartime Resistance. The historical detail is extensively researched. An absorbing read, even if the convolutions of the plot had me baffled in places. 

Admissions by Henry Marsh: Another memoir from the British neurosurgeon whose previous book Do No Harm was on my 2016 list. Descriptions of his clinical cases and frustrations with the NHS are interwoven with reflections on his own life and the approach of old age. Thoughtful, frank, provocative and drily humorous.

Air Force Blue by Patrick Bishop: Following on from Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, this is a masterly account of the history of the Royal Air Force and its role in World War Two, illustrated by personal accounts from those who lived through the conflict.

Bluff by Michael Kardos: A fast paced American thriller about a magician who turns to cardsharping in the hope of reviving her failing fortunes. I don’t know how to play poker, so much of the detail went over my head, but even so I found it a gripping read with a clever twist at the end. Not for the squeamish.

Into the Gray Zone by Adrian Owen: Through years of painstaking research using neuroimaging techniques, the author has shown that brain-damaged patients who appear to be in a vegetative state are sometimes aware of what is said to them and capable of mental responses. This has important implications for their clinical care, even when recovery is not possible.

Salt Lane by William Shaw: Having been brought up in Kent, I liked the descriptions of the remote landscape near Dungeness which forms the backdrop to this British murder mystery. The investigation, led by a female police detective with a complex private life, touches on the topical theme of illegal immigration.

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere: This extraordinary book is described as a novel but the first part, the story of a French intellectual’s passionate though transitory immersion in the Catholic faith, appears to be autobiographical. I did not finish the second part, a fictional account of early Church history focused on St Luke and St Paul.    

Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Weber: a memoir by the brilliant composer of many hit musicals (Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and more), who was brought up in a bohemian London family and has led a colourful life. 

Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt: The utterances of dying people are often dismissed as nonsensical ramblings, but this linguistic analysis of some clinical examples suggests they often contain insights about this life and the next, expressed in symbolic terms.  

I haven’t published any new books of my own this year, but the Smashwords version of Carmen’s Roses – the first of my Three Novellas – is free from this link until Christmas Day. If you enjoy it you might also like the others in the trilogy: Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration. All these are also available through my author page on Amazon.

Best wishes for the holiday season,

Jennifer http://jenniferbarraclough.com

 

Memories of Bomber Command

This year I have been volunteering with the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC). This charity, based in Lincoln UK, was “created to provide a world-class facility to serve as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command” and officially opened in 2018 as part of the RAF centenary celebrations. My role involves carrying out audio interviews with World War II veterans who now live in the Auckland region of New Zealand.

Image 3(photo courtesy of IBCC)

My interest in military aviation stems from having edited Geoffrey Guy’s War, my late uncle’s memoir about his experience as a photographic reconnaissance pilot in World War II (see here for a detailed summary and review). That led me to read some of the many other books about the conflict, and go to a local airport to take a trial training flight; one of the peak experiences of my life.

By a combination of skill, hardiness, and good luck my IBCC interviewees had not only survived the war, but lived to an advanced age; they were at least in their mid-90s and the oldest was 100. Several had flown in Lancasters as pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator or gunner. As the photograph shows, these operations also involved a large number of ground staff. I have not interviewed any of these, but they played an essential role.  Another man in my group was a pilot with the Pathfinder force, dropping flares to mark the targets for bombing. The only woman I saw had served in the WAAF, processing the photographs taken during the raids to show which targets had been hit. Many of the men continued in aviation work after the war, and one of them was chosen for the role of a pilot in The Dam Busters movie. They felt great pride in their service as evidenced by all the books, photos and memorabilia in their rooms. Even those whose memories were failing were immediately able to recall their service numbers.

Personal anecdotes were many and varied: Being shot down in a bombing raid over Germany, and spending the rest of the war in a POW camp after a failed attempt to escape through a tunnel. Parachuting into occupied France, and managing to cross over the mountains into Spain, disguised with the help of local people. Performing a slow roll in the Gypsy Moth used for training, in deliberate defiance of the order “No aerobatics”, and getting himself and the aircraft smothered in hot oil. Managing to fly home safely after the navigator of his two-seater Mosquito lost consciousness.

They described some gruelling events with calm detachment, often with humour, and obviously had no doubt that their service had been worthwhile. Patriotism, camaraderie and the love of flying must have sustained them through the years of extreme hardship, challenge and loss. Bomber Command has been criticised because its operations caused the deaths of German civilians, and a few interviewees expressed regrets about this, but regarded it as unavoidable: “It was them or us”.

As a former psychiatrist I am interested in the mental and physical disorders that can affect military personnel. I touched on this topic in an earlier blog post and in my short novel Blue Moon for Bombers. Even a couple of my IBCC interviewees, a highly resilient group who did not develop any major problems, spontaneously mentioned symptoms such as nightmares persisting for some years after the war ended.

It is a pity that this work could not have been carried out before now. The quality of some recordings is compromised by the frailty of the aged participants. Other veterans who might have been included are too unwell to take part or have already died. But better late than never, and when they have been uploaded to its website, these veterans’ interviews will contribute towards the IBCC’s aim of “ensuring that generations to come can learn of [Bomber Command’s] vital role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today”.