Category Archives: Non fiction

Scandalous secrets of how hospital doctors are treated

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay: book review

If you’ve ever required treatment at a National Health Service hospital, you’ll know how frustrating that can be:

  • Lengthy waits to see a specialist/consultant.
  • Clinic appointments  running hours behind schedule
  • Surgery dates postponed or cancelled.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to feel after those experiences, that the much-lauded public health service in the UK has reached a breaking point. That it’s on the point of collapse.

Adam Kay’s memoirs make it evident it’s the selfless efforts of junior doctors that prevent it from collapsing.

Equally clear however is that their dedication comes at a huge personal cost.

This is Going to Hurt is a painfully honest memoir from one junior doctor  on the frontline of the NHS.  Adam Kay worked in hospitals for six years. He hung up his stethoscope in 2010 after a traumatic experience with a mother and baby in his surgery.

I’ve read enough newspaper reports to know that junior hospital doctors (those below consultant level) are poorly paid and over-worked. In 2016, in a bitter dispute over employment contracts, they staged the first strike in the history of the NHS. The dispute was settled only this week.

Undermined by bureaucracy

What I hadn’t realised until reading Adam Kay’s book was how much these professionals are undervalued and their expertise undermined.

Junior doctors give up their personal time and put marriages and friendships at risk rather than walk away from patients whose lives are in danger.

Yet scandalously ….

….they get charged for parking their car at the hospital.  And fined when they over-stay ( even when their delay was caused by an emergency patient);

… doctors have to find their own cover when they inconveniently fall ill and

… they are not allowed to sleep on a  spare patient bed after an 18 hour shift. They have to make do with a chair.

I was astounded to discover just how relentlessly gruelling are the lives of junior doctors.  The system makes it virtually impossible for them to have any kind of life outside their work.

It was not unusual for Kay to work a 100 hour week.

He describes times when he fell asleep in his car, in the hospital grounds, or at the traffic lights. Once he nodded off while sitting on an operating theatre stool waiting for his patient to be wheeled in.

On one occasion he was recalled from a long overdue holiday in Mauritius because the doctor meant to be covering his shift was ill. The  hospital refused to pay for a locum. He lost count of the number of  anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and theatre performances he missed “because of work.”

What kept him going was the positive feeling he would get after a shift in which he delivered multiple babies or aided infertile couples to become parents.

Comedy amid the tragedy

Although Kay doesn’t hold back from describing tense situations, when the life of his patient hung on a thread, he balances the darkness with flippancy and witty repartee.

When the doctors and nurses are not attending to patients, they’re busy swapping jokes and anecdotes about the bizarre conditions presented by some of their patients. I suspect this is the kind of black humour often used by police officers and firemen.  It’s a kind of release valve for people working in the emergency services.

Adam Kay has plenty of stories.

There’s the one about the drunken woman who climbed over a fence to get away from policemen. She slipped and ended up in emergency with a metal pole thrust through her vagina. After removal she calmly asked if she could take the pole home as a souvenir.

Or the tale of another woman who secreted a Kinder egg containing an engagement ring, intending to give her boyfriend the surprise of his life. It worked, though maybe not the way she intended, when the egg got stuck…

As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology he encountered a surprisingly large number of people who arrived at hospital with foreign objects in their rectums. The staff are so familiar with the problem they’ve even found a name for it: “Eiffel syndrome” (to understand the joke you need to say the following words aloud – “I fell, doctor! I fell!”).

Not all encounters generate humour. Medical staff are often confronted by aggressive patients and family members, or patients who make unreasonable demands. There’s a particularly yucky case he mentions in which an expectant mother wants to eat her placenta. He gets his revenge by ‘accidentally’ revealing the gender of the baby to the most aggressive of the expectant parents.

Lack of investment

This Is Going to Hurt swings between flippancy and  frustration. Some of Adam Kay’s criticism is  directed at hospital administrators for their propensity to introduce ever more new rules. But he lays the greatest blame on the shoulders of politicians who had failed to invest in the NHS over several years, leading to staff demoralisation.

My over-riding impression however is that Adam Kay loved the NHS and preferred to work in the public sector even when private practice would have been more financially rewarding.

Asked to represent the medical profession at a school’s careers event he decides honesty is the best approach:

So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re under-appreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.

This was a fabulously engaging book that was a good companion to Do No Harm by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year.

Funny, informative and poignant it ends on a note of frustration, particularly when Kay describes the agonising event that prompted his resignation. It let to the death of both baby and mother following a caesarian operation. Although Kay had followed all the correct procedures, he still blamed himself. He suffered a period of depression but was not given any therapy by the hospital or allowed time off to recover. After a few months he handed in his resignation.


This Is Going to Hurt: footnotes 

This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017 by Picador.

It’s written in the form of diary entries that were maintained by Kay during his medical training and his time as a hospital doctor.  The diaries were intended as a  “reflective practice” in which he could log any interesting clinical experiences he experienced. He used the material, suitably anonymised to write his book.

He has since embarked on a career as a comedian and scriptwriter. His new book Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, is published in October 2019.

Read an interview with him in The Guardian newspaper.

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

 

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

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A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.

 


 

The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

Best selling novel or a classic? What I’ll read next

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

I’m almost at the end of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.  This was one of the books I received as a present last Christmas having heard about it via one of the national newspapers in the UK. It’s proving as superb as their review indicated. It’s the true story of a couple in their fifties who lose their farm, their home and their business after an investment in a friend’s company went belly up. Then they get told the husband (who labours under the strange name of Moth) has a serious brain disease for which there is no cure. Homeless and penniless they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path – a trail of 630 miles, camping wild as they tramped. It’s a fantastic tale about courage but also makes some insightful comments about the way in which homeless people are viewed in the UK.

I’m also reading Punch, a collection of short stories by Kate North, one of the authors from Wales I’ve highlighted in my Cwtch Corner feature. Kate described the book as “A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.” I’ve read two so far and they are definitely strange – one involves an author who takes a rental cottage in France to complete her latest commission but has to share the premises with a very unfriendly mask. Another is about a man who develops a weird growth on his hand….

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Mary Barton was the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell although her authorship was not known at the time of its publication in 1849. It’s set in Manchester and is partly a romance but, far more interesting, is that depicts the problems experienced by the working class in the city and the growth of trade unionism. The final sections do become a little heavy on the message of redemption and the need for increased understanding between workers and employers but otherwise this was a beautifully written and constructed tale.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t have to think too hard about this for once. We have a book club meeting at the weekend and I haven’t yet opened the chosen novel – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.  My last experience with Atkinson via Life After Life wasn’t a good one so I’m hoping Transcription proves to be more akin to the earlier Atkinson novels that I loved.

 

After that comes Evelina by Francis Burney which was the novel I ended up with as a result of the last Classics Club spin and which I’m *supposed* to read by end of May. But I won’t feel compelled to read it if I don’t feel in the mood at the time. I keep eyeing all the books I’ve bought in recent weeks and they’re calling to me more than Miss Burney.

 

Exploring the power of the mind #bookreview

healing powersI first came across the term “mindfullness” in the context of a new safety campaign at work. At the time I thought it was yet another buzz term winging its way across the Atlantic; a new trend about which we would hear endlessly for a year or so before it fizzled out like so many others.

But I kept bumping up against the term in newspapers and magazines and in radio interviews although these didn’t seem to have anything to do with safety awareness. Various ‘celebs’ seemed to be getting super excited about this mindfulness malarky  (a development which is guaranteed to get my eyes rolling). Over time certain expressions associated with this concept wormed their way into my head, the chief one of which was “being in the moment” whatever that meant. Sounded very hippy drippy to me.

It’s taken a while for me to get over that initial suspicion and I don’t claim to be anything like an expert but this year I’ve come round to thinking that there is after all more to mindfulness than I’d expected.

My ‘ah ha’ moment (conversion is far too strong a term) came during a mindfulness introductory day run by my local authority. I decided to go with an open mind. Fortunately the tutor was someone who had extensive research evidence to back up claims about the ability of the regular practice of mindfulness techniques to affect our brains, our sense of well being and our health.

Fresh with that new found insight, but wanting more, I went in search of some sitble reading material.

Oh dear. There is an awful lot of dross out there on this topic. Some books I came across contained about as much useful information as a box of detergent. Massive claims about how the practice can change your life. But little evidence about how….

But then, via NetGalley I came across a book by a man who is considered the leading expert on mindfulness, the man credited with starting the whole shabang.

Jon Kabat-ZinnJon Kabat-Zinn  has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. His work in the area of stress reduction and what became known as mindfulness, began in 1979 when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s developed the practice based on extensive research studies.

In his book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, he shares examples from his decades of experience working with people suffering anxiety, depression and stress. He’s clear that it isn’t a cure for all situations  – he doesn’t claim it cures serious illness for example – though it can boost the immune system to make you less susceptible to certain diseases. It’s more a case that the regular practice of mindfulness techniques helps rewire the mind so we can each deal with our particular challenges and make the most of what we have, whatever that might be.

Through the book we learn about a concept called brain plasticity (the astonishing ability of the brain change and reorganise itself – as evidenced by studies  showing the effects of meditation of Buddhist monks. Now in case you were alarmed, thinking that you’d have to become a monk to reap the benefits of mindfullness, rest assured Kabat-Zinn isn’t expecting that of you. In fact, some years ago he deliberately removed the Buddhist element to his teachings so that it would have wider appeal.

Reading The Healing Power of Mindfulness, I also, finally, got to understand what that phrase “being in the moment” really means – it’s about coming to terms with things as they are, not worrying about the future or revisiting the past. But just thinking about the present moment.

Stress is cause by being here, but wanting to be there, or being in the present but wanting to be in the future. It’s a split that tears you apart inside. … It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is ….

This is not an easy book to read.  Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book titled Coming to Our SensesThe Healing Power of Mindfulness is written often in a complex style that means I had to read passages more than once before I grasped the meaning. It wouldn’t be the book to read if you had no prior knowledge of mindfulness. But if you have some knowledge, and want to go further, this would be great resource. If your appetite is still not satisfied by the time you to the end, there is an extensive bibliography of additional material to explore.

 

 

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosely #book review

What happens in our bodies when we eat a meal or swallow a drink?

clever gutsMany people would rather not know the answer and yet the last few years have seen more and more evidence about the importance of our digestive system to overall health and well-being. Three separate specialists from different branches of medicine  and health have all told me in the last year that the gut is now considered as a second brain: a highly integrated system that manages a set of processes as complex as all those neural pathways. When a surgeon, a physiotherapist and a mindfullness teacher all sang the same song  I began to sit up and pay attention.

Which is how I came to be reading Michael Mosely’s book: The Clever Guts Diet: How to Revolutionise Your Body From The Inside Out.

I’ve seen Michael Mosely multiple times on British television through his Trust Me I’m A Doctor series and he always struck me as the kind of man who isn’t swayed by fads or pseudo science of the kind  trotted by many a clean eating celebrity.  He has a deeply inquiring mind  that often leads him to take extreme actions in a search for answers. In this case, his desire to know how the digestive system really works, what foods might trigger problems like allergies or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and cancer, led him to an experiment with a live audience at the British Museum.

After a meal of steak, chips and kale washed down with apple juice he then swallowed a microscopic camera called a “pillcam”, which captured digital images of  his gastrointestinal tract . The idea was to watch in real-time what happened to his meal.

Your gut is astonishingly clever. It contains millions of neurons – as many as you would find in the head of a cat. It is also home to the microbiome, trillions of microbes that influence our mood, weight and immune system.

Mosely loves those microbes.  He can name the different species of the 50 million microbes (mainly bacteria)  that live in the gut and make up the microbiome.

The bad news? A diet limited in variety and heavy in processed food – along with antibiotic overuse – has ravaged the modern microbiome. This helps explain dramatic increases in health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, allergies, food intolerances, asthma and eczema.

But there is good news in the book too. It’s possible, says Mosely, to halt the damage and reboot the system back to health with a gut-friendly eating regime. Avoiding fruit juice is an early piece of advice. It moves through the body so quickly there’s little time for its nutrients to be absorbed. Worse still: it creates a spike in blood sugar levels.  Sugar encourages the growth of the microbes that love sugar,. They crave even more of it – telling your brain (and you) to eat more … and more….  In the meantime, the good microbes get destroyed.

So message number one: cut down (or even better, out) uncessary sugar.

Message number two:  encourage the growth and variety of “good” gut microbes, by eating probiotics (fermented foods that contain live bacteria and yeast) and prebiotics (certain vegetables and pulses containing indigestible plant fibre).

The Clever Guts Diet is based on research Mosely conducted for more than a year during which he interviewed multiple experts and read scores of research papers. The result is a  treasure house of insights and factual information.   It’s often amusing. Often provokes a reaction of Yuck when you read it. But it’s also thought provoking. This is not a book for anyone who feels in the slightest bit queasy when confronted by information about bodily functions but it is definitely a book for anyone who wants to take back control of their health.

 

About the author

Michael Mosely  was an investment banker who retrained as a doctor. After studying medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London and qualifying as a doctor…he decided that he was better suited to the world of television. He has made numerous science and history documentaries for the BBC, first behind the camera and more recently as a presenter.

He has won numerous awards, including being named Medical Journalist of the Year by the British Medical Association in 1995. 

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

i am i amI Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an astonishing memoir, a celebration of the tenacity for which we cling to life while on the edge of death.

It chronicles 17 occasions when Maggie O’Farrell came close to death and how those experiences have shaped her outlook on life and her attitude towards her children.

Her close encounters with death began with the sudden onset of viral encephalitis at eight years old. It rendered her incapable of speech and robbed her of the ability to walk. Medical experts put her chances of full recovery at next to nothing. But they had not reckoned with this girl’s determination to beat the odds.

O’Farrell reflects that “a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”. And yet the evidence of this book speaks to the contrary. In the middle of a crisis, she often berates herself for having not thought more carefully about her actions. Was it wise, she wonders in hindsight,  to have taken that evening walk around a remote late in Chile (she was seized from behind by a thief who presses a machete against her throat)? Why had she trusted the holiday maker and tried to wade out to a diving platform in the Indian Ocean with her young son ( a non swimmer)? Why had she been the one to leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teenager?

What drives her actions is often her intense desire for freedom: to break free from all bonds.

It is an urge so strong, so all-encompassing that it overwhelms everything else. I cannot stand my life as it is. I cannot stand to be here, in this town, in this school. I have to get away.

In her quest for that freedom, O’Farrell becomes a risk taker. It’s as if, having survived once, she is determined forever after to stick two fingers up to death. To face it down.

Her life is one crammed to the brim with accidents, illness and frighteningly close calls. They include a haemorrhage during a too-long delayed cesarean section, amoebic dysentery picked up on holiday in China, a close encounter with a blindfolded circus knife-thrower, and a narrow escape from a murderer .

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is consequently built upon drama, piling one hair-raising moment on another. On a walk up a mountain she escapes from a murderer by prattling on about ducks; on a flight to Hong Kong the plane plummets; on holiday in France she fumbles desperately for the door lock when two strange men approach the car in which she is feeding her new born baby.

This book could easily have become little more than a litany of episodes but O’Farrell has this knack of balancing the drama with reflection as she looks to make sense of her extraordinary life.

It’s one in which she has had cause to be thankful for the vast array of medical practitioners she has encountered over the years. Mostly she recalls their kindnesses: the unknown man who held her hand while surgeons battled to save her life in a theatre awash with her blood. She never saw him again but recalls even now the touch of his hand. Or the nurse who refused to leave the consulting room where the young Maggie O’Farrell was seeing a pediatric specialist. Decades later she hears he has been revealed as a paedophile.

Her life continues to involve “a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors” but now it’s her daughter that requires emergency medical treatment. Born with a severe immune disorder this child can have between 12 and 15 severe anaphylactic shocks a year.  It means O’Farrell and her husband are constantly on the alert for any encounter that could trigger a reaction.

It’s this final section of the book that I found the most powerfull and compelling. It’s brim full of the anxiety she felt as a young mum faced with a small child who is covered head to toe in burning, itching, bleeding eczema. She shares her feelings of desolation and helplessness and how the desire to protect her daughter is overwhelming.

Ultimately this isn’t a book about death or danger. It’s about life and love. Though O’Farrell concedes that our life on life is fragile:

We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.

her book is really a message to her daughter that the human spirit is a resilient one. It can  meet with danger and endure trauma. And can still bounce back.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an intense reading experience. But it’s one that is the highlight of my year so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Fiction November: perfect couples

nonfiction-november-2018.jpg

For Nonfiction November this week we’re looking at pairing up a work of fiction with a work of non fiction.

I’m feeling generous this week (it’s probably all those endorphins floating around after my session in the gym this morning) so am going to offer you not one, but two pairings. In a week that we will mark the end of one of the worst conflicts in history, I thought it was fitting that both are on the theme of war.

Couple #1: World War 1

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks follows two characters who live at different times. One is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during the First World War.  The other is his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, who more than fifty years later discovers his journals from World War I and seeks to learns about his experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme.

Faulks said that he wrote the novel partly because he felt that the First World War had not been discussed enough in both literary and historical contexts.

I’m not sure whether he thinks that has now changed. We’ve certainly seen “The Great War” feature more prominently in the UK school curriculum in the last few years and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this weekend is appropriately being marked around the country.

Unfortunately so many of the people who returned from that conflict are no longer with us to share their memories and experiences. We do however have the archives of the Imperial War Museum who recorded thousands of soldiers, the families they left behind and people who survived the war. The results are available in The Forgotten Voices series of books. The one I read, the Forgotten Voices of the Great War contained some tremendously moving testimonies that helped me appreciate what my great grandfather experienced ( he was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family). Highly recommended reading if you have anyone in your family who served in the war or even if you didn’t but want to understand more about the war that was meant to end all wars.

 Couple #2: World War 2 

 

Oskar Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2. His actions were brought to public attention through the book Schindler’s List (sold as Schindler’s Ark outside the United States) by Keneally. The book, which Keneally labelled a novel, won him the Booker Prize in 1982. The film version directed by Steven Spielberg, won seven Academy Awards.

But none of this would have happened it it had not been for chance encounter in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles between Keneally and Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg had tried for years to interest writers and film makers about the story of Schindler but it was only when Thomas Keneally walked into his shop that he got the response he wanted.

The story of that meeting and the visits the two men made to Poland, to talk to people whose lives Schindler saved, are recorded in Searching for Schindler.  It’s worth reading this to understand some of the challenges Keneally encountered when he came to write his novel and the even bigger challenge of creating the film script. Here’s my review.

 

 

Non-Fiction November: favourite reads

nonfiction-november-2018.jpg

I’ve taken the plunge and joined Nonfiction November which is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books for a month. There are five hosts who will take turns to post a topic for discussion each week.

This week’s topic comes from Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness is all about reflecting on the year so far via four questions.

What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?

Do No Harm

This is a toss up between two books with vastly different styles and topics.  Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is the no-holds-barred memoir of a neurological surgeon in which he discusses some of the challenges of working with one of the most complex systems in the body. The Wicked Boyby Kate Summerscale is a hybrid of biography/real life crime that focuses on the case in 1895 of a young boy who killed his mother and was sentenced to spend an indefinite period in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital.  On balance I’m going to settle for Do No Harm, largely because it was so different from anything I have read previously.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

poppy

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of World War 1. The Royal British Legion in the UK has been marking that event by asking people to remember people who were killed while serving in the conflict. I’m trying to do my bit by researching the 22 men from the Commonwealth who share my maiden name and posting information about them on line. It’s meant I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading the war diaries; a day by day account; completed by commanding officers of battalions in the field. They can be uncomfortable reading at times – today for example I discovered one battalion lost more than 400 men in one attack in the final year of the war. I’ve also been dipping into a number of books which deal with different aspects of the war..

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Do No Harm is the book I’ve talked most about this year. But my recommendation always comes with a caveat that this book does go into a lot of detail about surgical procedures. So if you are at all squeamish then this book is not for you.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

The number of books of fiction I read each year far outweighs the number for non fiction. So I’m hoping that Nonfiction November will give me a bit of a nudge to get reading with the many books I have on the shelves. A lot of them are history related but I also have some about literature and culture.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale [book review]

The Wicked BoyIn the summer of 1895, readers of British newspapers were both shocked and gripped by the case of two boys accused of killing their mother in her London home.

The decomposing body of Emily Coombes had lain in bed for ten days while her sons, aged 12 and 13 had a jolly time. They played cards, went to cricket matches and to the seaside and ate their favourites foods. They fobbed off relatives’ inquiries about their mother with a variety of reasons for her absence. Only when neighbours noticed a sickening smell coming from the terraced house was the crime revealed. One local newspaper described the murder as ‘the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.”

The true-life story of Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nathaniel (known as Nattie) is revealed in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy. 

This book is a forensic examination of the events before and after the day in July when Robert stabbed his mother with a knife he had bought specifically for that purpose.  Robert admitted immediately that he had killed his mother, explaining that it was because Nattie had been beaten for stealing food and he thought he would be next. Nattie was let off the murder charge so he could testify against his brother,

When Robert appeared for trial at the Old Bailey, the key question for the jurors was whether he was mad or just bad.

Contemporary opinion was that criminals and lunatics had certain physical characteristics that distinguished them from normal people. Robert’s demeanour contradicted that theory however. While his brother sobbed and shook with fear, Robert was cool and calm, a picture of a young gentleman dressed smartly and neatly in a boater and blazer.

Some of the Coombes’ neighbours testified that he was a clever and musically talented child, well-spoken and well-dressed. His teachers described him as obedient and unusually bright.

If he wasn’t mad or bad had he killed his mother in the interests of self preservation? Was it true, as both children claimed, that Mrs Coombes was prone to sudden outbreaks of violence against her children, particularly when her husband was away at sea?

Summerscale posits another idea: that Robert was influenced by the Penny Dreadfuls —sensational comics which chronicled the adventures of pirates and highwaymen — a collection of which were found in his bedroom.

In the end the jury brought in a verdict of guilty but insane and he was sent to  the Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.

At this point in the narrative other authors may have brought the book to an end with a short summary of what happened to Robert subsequent to his conviction. But Summerscale is nothing if not a completist and also a meticulous researcher. The Wicked Boy  is packed with social, historical and political details but Summerscale never allows the factual content to detract from the story itself.

She visited Broadmoor, discovering the lad was a model prisoner who learned to sew and to to grow veg and became a skilled chess player. By chance she found a picture of his gravestone in Australia and discovered he had emigrated after 17 years incarceration, had won a medal while serving in World War 1 and was a well respected leader of a military band. The very model of an upright citizen about whose previous troubles no-one in Australia was aware.

If the details about Robert’s childhood are interesting, it was the sections about his time at Broadmoor and then his military service that fascinated me the most.  I had imagined Broadmoor at the end of the 19th century to operate an austere regime but it was actually rather enlightened. Robert was allowed access to books, could walk in flower gardens and encouraged to take part in activities like chess and billiards. He was taught to play the violin and the cornet to almost a professional standard.

australian stretcher bearers

Australian stretcher bearers on the Western Front, World War 1

At the start of World War 1 when the Australian government pledged its full support for the allied cause, Robert enlisted for the army. He was despatched to Egypt for training and then to Gallipoli where he served with great distinction, being mentioned for his bravery under sustained attacks. He also led the troops to and from the trenches in France, playing stirring tunes on his cornet.

robert coombes headstoneIn due course he returned to Australia, living in a quiet shack in a remote valley where he grew and sold vegetables. When one of his neighbours was arrested for a vicious assault on his son, Robert stepped in and became the boy’s ward. Kate Summerscale tracked the boy — now a man in his nineties — to his home in Australia and learned how Robert had been a force for good in his life.  That man, Harry Mulville, gave thanks to his de facto father by arranging a headstone for Robert.

By the end of The Wicked Boy it was impossible not to feel that whatever wrong Robert had committed in his early life, his rescue of another unhappy child, had in the end been his redemption.

Footnotes

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. It was shortlisted in the non fiction category of  the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2017. It went on to win the 2017 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.  There’s an interesting interview with The Telegraph newspaper in which Summerscale explains what drew her to the story of  the Coombes family.

 

 

 

 

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