Being Mortal, a message for writers, remembering Paris

Is mortality a subject you avoid?

Atul Gawande, the influential and clear-thinking American surgeon, wrote Being Mortal to think through those difficult decisions we all face if we are lucky to live a long life or unlucky and face an early but prolonged death. So yes, this might be a book some of us would instinctively avoid, yet I want to shout at everyone, young and old, READ THIS, because he shows you how to retake control.

If, as most of us do, we fear pain or prolonged weakness at time of our death, this book is a revelation. Gawande, with a curious and open mind, investigates current and historical end-of-life care and discusses what matters most and how it can be achieved. He learns from those quiet experts at the coal face, the dying, the relatives, the nurses and the carers, what questions to ask yourself and what questions to ask those you love. He emphasises the deep importance of asking those questions while in good health as well as when they need answering in extreme circumstances.

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This book is not difficult to read because it is so well written and full of real examples. It does, however, need courage if these are questions you always avoid or if you find clearly-discussed medical matters uncomfortable to read. The magic is that facing fear makes you feel better. This book gives you tools to cope with that fear and a sense of control over your mortality.

So, what does it do for writers along the way? Gawande looks at research into the differences between our experience during events and our memory of that experience. Being human, these are often contradictory – at the time we experience ‘the peaks of joys and the valleys of misery’, but when we remember it is ‘how the stories works out as a whole’. So a really entertaining football match in which your team performs blissfully for hours can be ruined by some bad football at the end. Why? ‘Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.’ [my italics] The Peak-End moment is what matters to memory.

Last Tuesday night I read two poems from Paul Stephenson’s recent pamphlet, The Days That Followed Paris, at the Cambridge Speaker’s Club – our Toastmaster’s venue. Listener’s found these as moving as I did; they convey the mood – strangeness, fear, pain and warmth – of those days. I read Safety Feature and Blindfold [about that brave muslim in the Place de la République].   dscn0101-version-2

Four-decker book sandwich

DSCN7753As usual I have (mis)managed my reading by finding myself in the middle of four books simultaneously. I don’t know how many of you have the same experience, but there is a strange crossfire between books as a result… I have just checked my list and realised that three more books have crept into this sandwich (this is embarrassing, but I have finished two of these and lent the third to a friend who had left her iPad behind).

DSCN7754 - Version 2So, I started David Willetts’, The Pinch, on holiday in the wonderful library in Borgo Pignano, and ordered a second-had copy on my return. As a Baby Boomer myself, I’d like to understand this discrepancy between what we have had and what our children will inherit. What I have read so far, about how the historical structure of the British family make  it different from the rest of the continent (and much of the rest of world) I find fascinating. I reserve judgement on some of the lines he is taking.

 

[I ended the holiday by re-reading an old friend, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground. Returning to my stacked bedside I picked up The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, a serious and riveting piece of research taking in the upper echelons of British Society, and WWI. Don’t be put off by the way it is uncomfortably dolled up for marketing purposes as a ‘True Gothic Mystery’. The research and the story are good and very revealing. I finished this in time for the visit last week by the kind friend who had given it me.]

DSCN7756 - Version 2A WWII Spitfire pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, appeared on TV the other night and my husband dropped the book he published in 2002, First Light, onto my desk. Had I really not read it? With an Mosquito navigator uncle and Halifax pilot father-in-law, I should have read this enthralling classic  So I started and am totally involved. This is heart-beating stuff told without the least swagger, carrying you from the schoolboy who writes to the Air Ministry to the (very) young Spitfire pilot trying to keep his end up in the battle of Britain.

DSCN7755 - Version 2However, I have a reading group meeting tomorrow night, so, slightly out of breath, I started Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is unpromisingly billed as: Pride and Prejudice – the servants’ story. It turns out to be an excellent read, full of interesting life and detail and a totally absorbing story in its own right. The P & P narrative is there, above stairs, and acts as a brilliant backstory, because we already know it. I am impressed and read happily and quickly.

DSCN7757 - Version 2In the meantime the winner of the Poetry Business Competition, is a young poet, Paul Stephenson, whose work I really enjoy. The result of the win is his first published poetry pamphlet, Those People. I can’t resist browsing. Some I recognise from individual magazine publications, others are new. There is a delightful mixture of his impish (Passwords) and tragic (Birthday Cards) take on life and delight in words (Wake Up And…) and sharp and hilarious observations (Angle End) and all these elements crossfire within the poems.

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I’ve finished Longbourn, and returned to First Light; The Pinch next (though I need to fit in Golding’s The Spire for Other Reading group) and I’m dropping in on Those People at intervals. Now I must get down to the serious business of the Researching FEPOW (Far East POW) History conference this Friday in Liverpool.

Poetry, prose and everything between

I have been, as is my unwise habit, reading four very different books, if not simultaneously, then turn and turn about.

Of these the one that gripped me most was Sarah Hesketh’s The Hard Word Box – a poet’s exploration of dementia and ageing. DSCN7047 - Version 2In a mixture of poetry and verbatim interviews, Sarah tracks the 20 weeks she spent visiting people living in a residential care home. In spite of their struggles with words, individual personalities emerge strongly. You understand that even as the brain fades, life experiences remain, such as the bullying Angela suffered at the hands of the brothers she adored. This slim volume takes you into worlds that most of us imagine to be impenetrable. There is a deftness and grace about the way she has done this that I admire greatly.

DSCN7045_2 More poetry, this time the 27th anthology of the Highgate poets. This collection is varied, entertaining and often moving. Among the many poems that I enjoyed are  Paul Stephenson’s Feel Good (Gone Viral) for instance, or Robert Peake’s The Knowledge, these gave me exactly that kick of recognition good poetry gives with a delicious last line. Mary Hastilow’s poems, By the Lea with Clio, To My Brother and Thin Skin, took me to emotional places I could recognise very well.

My third book is a novel, it is fiction and has an engaging Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 19.12.57story about family relationships, yet the wonder of this book is not the narrative, but the setting. Cinda MacKinnon’s,  A Place in the World takes us to Columbia in the latter part of the last century (which feels like yesterday to me). The story follows a young American girl with a peripatetic childhood who marries a Columbian coffee farmer. It is the life on this remote coffee farm in the cloud forest that kept me turning the pages, as the weather, the volcanic ash, the market and the politics of the region during those volatile years played havoc with the crop. The intricate, natural beauty – and the dangers – of the cloud forest, the slow pace of modernisation and the cultural differences between the Columbian and the American outlook make for absorbing reading.

DSCN7050Finally Richard Flannagan’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, also a novel, also fiction, is a book of two worlds. The life and romantic relationships of a man before and after the WW2 and his incarceration during WW2 as a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma-Siam railroad. For me there was an imbalance not so much between these worlds, as within each one. The scenes on the railroad were shockingly believable (and this is an area I have researched and read many first-hand accounts), and I could also accept the after-effects of this experience on the man. However, the brave attempt to get into the mind-set of the Japanese guards on the railroad and of their life afterwards, I found unconvincing and overdone in places. Similarly, the pre-WW2 romance left me unimpressed, and although I could readily believe the stresses on the postwar marriage, I could not believe in the thoughts and outlook of either of the women involved. Finally, I found the endless ruminations of several characters just a little… overindulgent? However this is a marathon of a book in terms of content.