Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Art of Reviewing

Ma has served her sentence and will be released on Monday. So, in between rearranging her room, etc., I can return to more literary reflections. I have just finished Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book. It is certainly one of the finest pieces of contemporary fiction that I've read and stands head and shoulders above those which are either more commercial or more literary. I'm really not sure how to define 'literary' but in this context I mean novels carried sheerly by the beauty of their prose with only a passing nod to plot. I've read two of those recently and having exclaimed at beauty on each page, found it more and more difficult to pick them up each evening until, finally, I didn't bother. And then I began on Brooks. This is not what this blog's about. May be the next one. This one is about my misgivings regarding reviews. I have read what the press has said about Brooks, and I have read what the customers say on Amazon, and I believe she is the victim of a widespread disservice of being damned with faint praise.

I like Amazon reviews, but then I get good ones. In fact, my Amazon reviews are what keep me going in the dark times, to think that there are people out there completely unknown to me who have enjoyed a novel so much they've taken the trouble to write about it. Each time it happens, I stand amazed. Equally I stand amazed when I look up reviews of a book by a well known author and find there is none. Or, as in the case of Brooks, that she has not been unanimously awarded five stars.

Whether one connects or not with a book is, of course, a very subjective matter. Last week, for instance, I gave a class of students doing the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing a passage from Melvyn Bragg's Credo as an example of going the extra inch in dramatising. Most of them got very exercised about it - not, to my horror, about it being a graphic account of rape, but about the quality of its writing. They trashed it. They trashed Bragg. I staggered out of the class with my self-confidence - what there is of it - severely threatened. Had I boo-booed? Had I revealed myself as someone with a terrible taste in novels? Well, no, I don't believe I had. What had been revealed was the absolute arrogance on the part of most readers who will dismember an author's work, his efforts and his reputation with no apparent authority or qualification for doing so. This is review by the mob. These were they who lust after public execution. I kid you not, this group was baying. Why?

It's not the first time I've met it. Indeed, looking back, I think each time I select a passage to make a point I lay myself - and the hapless author - open to such attacks. Well, beware you budding writers! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the fate of this book was set when Brooks won the Pullitzer Prize for her previous one. It doesn't do to win prizes in literature, not if you don't like your subsequent work being worried at by rottweilers. Why do people destroy others? Envy, that's why. And so perhaps that's the reason why Bragg was trashed, because he is a famous TV presenter.

As readers, let's cultivate a more generous spirit and know that, when something strikes a false chord in us, that something is only the hammer and it's our strings which are producing the discord. Let me put it another way: opinions differ from person to person. If we don't like a book, by all means we should say so and say why - having the courage of our convictions - but we should not count anybody who disagrees with us as a fool. The problem may well be all our own. With regard to the two 'literary' efforts I tried recently, I haven't written reviews: that is my way of commenting. And it's my way of acknowledging that those who have read these books and absolutely loved them are at perfect liberty to hold such views.

What becomes obvious in reading most reviews is that people read as readers, not as writers. Perhaps - here I console myself - I often find myself at odds with others because I read as a writer, and that's why my appreciation differs. If most people actually knew what it is like putting a book together, devising a plot, establishing the right narrative structure, creating credible characters, their opinions might be better informed and more gently offered. What Brooks has achieved, and I say this as a writer, is a virtuoso piece of story telling, a novel which is not only brilliantly and beautifully written but is also unputdownable.

And to whoever it was on the Amazon site who said that People of the Book is a good holiday read - i.e. reading about the relentless persecution of the Jews over the ages is a great way to relax on the beach - may we never meet, for you are truly scary.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

What happens when somebody thinks

One of the nurses has not only worked out what Mum wants when she calls out all the time, but has had an idea what to do. When we got to the ward yesterday, we found Mum sitting quietly in a wheelchair at reception! Company is what she wants and needs. Not the kind that taxes her with conversation but the kind that includes her as it goes about its business. She greeted us with a smile and for a reward we took her out to see the sunny day.

The John Radcliffe needs a garden. How can you lift a patient's spirit by wheeling her round a carpark? If a garden is not possible, then how about some daffodils planted on the banks?

We asked the Matron to taste the food Mum was given last evening. Understandably, she declined. So we would like to set up a challenge to everyone involved - the dietician, the consultant, the bosses of Carillion: taste the food! If you decline, you have no right whatsoever to put on a patient's notes 'rejects food' as if it is somehow her problem. 'Food inedible' is what should be noted. We took Mum to the cafe and she swigged down a fruit smoothie without a problem.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


What was the point of getting her hair done? By 6pm she had pulled on it so much all the curl had gone and it's back to lank strands. She pulls on her hair and cries out. She claws at her forehead and cries out. She tries to readjust herself in the uncomfortable seat and cries out. 'I want to go HOME!'

My darling mother is now deranged. I will live forever with the guilt of not having stuck to my guns when, three weeks ago, I phoned the consultant to have her moved to the Witney hospital where they have dormitory wards. He talked me out of it.

Science and scientists - so convinced of themselves and that everything they utter is the truth. They do not know best all the time. They do not. Trust your instincts. I certainly should have trusted mine.

Now I can hardly bear what is going on and if anyone asks me how mother is I sidle quickly away like a crab because I do not, cannot talk about it anymore. I wait now for her to go to the home she cries for, the place where there is no pain, the place we came from.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

An Infirmary for the Infirm

I learnt it on Time Team this week - an infirmary was where the old and sick went for simple care. Perhaps that's what the Radcliffe Infirmary was, the old hospital in Jericho pulled down for development a year or so ago. Certainly it's where geratology used to be. Now that it's in the John Radcliffe, everything has changed because this industrial-sized hospital on its hill overlooking Oxford is 'acute'. I'm not sure of all the ins and outs of that, only that it means another set of rules for the staff of Adams Ward to work by which happen to be irrelevant at best, irrational at worst. And that is why they are unhappy.

The wheels grind slowly. After a week or so complaining about Mum's lost glasses, someone asked me the name of the optician yesterday. Who knows - perhaps Mum will get her hair done today, for the first time since admission.

Tomorrow I've been called in to see the Matron. At least they want to know what I have to say.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Soap Aria

Now for something in a lighter vein. . .

Here in this house, we love handmade soap. It is our only weakness. The best is from Marseilles but you can't always get it, so yesterday, passing a likely shop in London, we popped in and spent nearly a fiver on a bar of Tuscan soap. It said on the front that it had been 'saponified and packaged with love and care'. 'Saponified' is, of course, a classy way of saying 'soapified', which made it irresistible. On the back, however, the script got even better.

Absorbed in a bloomy landscape, an alluring soap in its semplicity but with an irresistible charm.

So now I can saponify myself in the shower each morning while dreaming of those bloomy Tuscan landscapes.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


[I wrote this to send to a newspaper but then decided not to. I don't want a big fuss, and there's always another side to the story. This just happens to be mine, and this is the right place for it.]

She is locked up and in solitary confinement, half-starved and neglected, left to wet herself. She is ninety-three years old. Where? In the John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford.

My mother was taken in in February because of kidney retention. She had to go – there was no other option, even though we knew what to expect. For, at that age, once you are in hospital it is very difficult to get out again. There has to be a ‘care-package’ in place and, for that to happen, Social Services have to find an agency who can supply carers. Apparently there are staff shortages amongst carers: it is a job which takes a special person. One who can care. One who can wipe the bottom of another. These people are amazing, and they are on the minimum wage. A 20% increase in wages would give them an extra pound an hour. So it’s not difficult to understand why few people can be found to fill the vacancies. Meanwhile, the elderly lie waiting in hospital gridlocking the system.

The Adams Ward at the John Radcliffe opened at the end of 2008 to great fanfares. Here it is: geritology of the future. No longer will the aged be kept in dormitory wards, surrounded by raving lunatics, kleptomaniacs and MRSA bugs. Now they will have dignity and privacy. Now they will have single rooms. The Adams Ward is the future. Our future. Yours and mine.

The main door into the ward locks automatically and you have to ring a bell to enter. This requires someone on the inside to press a button to release the lock. Do they then come to meet you, greet you, show you where your relative is? No. By the time you reach the desk, they have disappeared. Or they are still there, dog-faced and apparently finding your arrival incomprehensible. If you are really persistent, they will begin to speak to you but it seems their smiles were surgically removed when they took the job.

I find my mother without assistance. I know her voice, and she is calling for help. ‘Help me someone! Please help me!’ In a matter of days of being transferred to the new ward, she has become a pest and a nuisance. She is treated as if that is her fault and staff, when they finally arrive to my pressing of the buzzer, breeze in with a snappy, ‘What is it now?’ What are they like when I’m not there?

She clutches my hand. ‘Get me out of here. Please get me out! Please! What have I done to deserve this?’

What indeed. Usually you have to face a trial by jury before society treats you this way.

The ward sister is truly shocked when, a week later, I begin to complain. What is there to complain about? Single rooms? But they are wonderful, just what everybody wants, and all new builds will have them.

Now three-quarters of me agrees with this. If I were there, I’d love a room to myself. I could read books, speak on the phone to friends, watch that extortionately expensive TV that hangs like a periscope and perhaps even discover computer gaming. That is, if I were well enough. If you are not well enough, or too old and frail, then all day and every day for at least twelve hours, you are on your own with your own thoughts, and that really is not healthy. The ward sister says, but who wouldn’t want a single room? Who would want to be in a ward shared with raving lunatics, kleptomaniacs and MSRA? I say – why is that the alternative? Why can’t we have these rooms – which are in fact lovely with their ensuite showers and toilets – for two, or three, even four? No, she says, everyone wants their privacy and dignity. In an institution that cannot hear what anyone says, I find myself bursting into tears, because I do not want to die like this, and I do not want my mother to die like this.

On my mother’s medical notes, it says she is incontinent. Three times on my almost daily visits I’ve found the buzzer left out of reach. No one along the corridor can hear her frail calls from inside her room. And I’ve been there, used the buzzer myself, and waited 20 minutes for it to be answered. Incontinent? No, she is not. Neither is she suffering ‘macular degeneration’ as the notes state. She was already half-blind when she arrived and had been for many years. But her glasses are lost, switched with someone else’s, and now she can’t see out of the window, the only distraction she has in a long day, apart from flying visits from people with injections, commodes or inedible food.

Sybil was one of the most popular people this planet has known. Non-judgemental, forgiving, she befriended everyone and anybody. She has a smile which wins friends (even amongst raving lunatics and kleptomaniacs). She becomes radiant when meeting anyone whether for the first or the millionth time. In her prime, while still at work, she would receive around one hundred cards on her birthday. She’s outlived her family and most of her friends. Of those that survive, only one has been to see her in the hospital. Hospitals have dreadful reputations and are best avoided by the well. We all say it. So Sybil – the wonderful mother, the much-loved aunt and friend to so many – lies abandoned and shrivelling in misery. Abject misery. Misery of the kind to break hardened criminals.

‘What have I done to deserve this?’ she whimpers, clutching my hand.

‘Nothing, Mum, absolutely nothing.’

The human being is a social animal. We live in herds. A few of us seek solitude to commune with nature or God, but for most, we live in groups – families, communities, societies. Something happens to us when we are in company: there is some subtle, molecular exchange between us. In some curious way, we nourish each other just by our presence. Once, when I lived and worked alone in Hackney, I discovered that all I had to do to avoid depression was to go out each day and walk the high street. I didn’t have to speak to anyone to feel better: I just had to walk amongst them. Depression descends quickly on the isolated. For my mother, in her new accommodation, they’ve upped the dosage of her happy pill but it's not working.

Anyone who, like me, grew up in the 1950s will remember Pete Seager’s song, Little Boxes. We all thought it was a protest against the domestic estates being built at the time. As it turns out, it was a prophecy. As we have lived, so shall we die, in little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. And do you know, everyone in the ‘business’ thinks it’s a jolly good thing, even Age Concern.

If we must have this system, let us at least recognise its shortcomings and do our best to ameliorate them. Visitors should be welcomed and encouraged. Do doors have to be locked? Do visiting times really have to be restricted to late afternoons? And couldn’t staff be sent to Asda training centres to learn how to smile, say hello and ask simple questions, such as ‘how are you today?’ or ‘can I help?’ They may find that such small, effortless exchanges are all it takes to make themselves – as well as their patients and visitors – happy.

Sybil, Christmas 2008, at home where she lives with her daughter and son-in-law.