Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?
A bit of a miscellany today, as a placeholder until I finally have some more reviews to share.
Stuck in the Middle
I’ve been reading up a storm in 2021, of course, but I’m having an unusual problem: I can’t seem to finish anything. Okay, I’ve finished three books so far – Intensive Care, my first read and only proper review so far of the year; In These Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird, a surprising and funny poetry collection about mental illness and the crutches people turn to, including drugs and sex; and one more poetry book, a recent release I’ll round up later in the month – but compare that to January 2020, when I’d finished 11 books within the first 11 days. Half a month gone and I’m way behind on my Goodreads challenge already.
Most of you know that I take multi-reading to an extreme: I currently have nearly 30 books on the go, plus piles of set-aside and occasional-reading titles that I try to reintroduce a few at a time. All in all, that’s nearly 60 books I’m partway through, whether by a mere 10 pages or over 200. These stacks represent thousands of pages read, but no finished books. By the end of this month, I will at least have finished and reviewed the five more January releases, but it’s still an awfully slow start to the year for me. Maybe I’ve spread myself too thin.
I often stretch the definition of “currently reading” in that most days I don’t sit with every book on my stack; instead, I end up spending time with a changing subset of 10‒15. Some books I have barely touched since Christmas. But there are others that consistently hold my attention and that I look forward to reading 20 or more pages in each day. Here are some of the highlights on the pile:
Spinster by Kate Bolick: Written as she was approaching 40, this is a cross between a memoir, a social history of unmarried women (mostly in the USA), and a group biography of five real-life heroines who convinced her it was alright to not want marriage and motherhood. First was Maeve Brennan; now I’m reading about Neith Boyce. The writing is top-notch.
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the 1990s in the Philippines and in the Filipino immigrant neighborhoods of California, this novel throws you into an unfamiliar culture and history right at the deep end. The characters shine and the story is complex and confident – I’m reminded especially of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work.
Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley: Finally pregnant after a grueling IVF process, Heminsley thought her family was perfect. But then her husband began transitioning. This is not just a memoir of queer family-making, but, as the title hints, a story of getting back in touch with her body after an assault and Instagram’s obsession with exercise perfection.
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard: We’re reading the first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles for a supplementary book club meeting. I can hardly believe it was published in 1990; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of 1937‒8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex as war approaches. It’s so Downton Abbey; I love it and will continue the series.
Outlawed by Anna North: After Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club, there’s no chance you haven’t heard about this one. I requested it because I’m a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, but I’m also enjoying this alternative history/speculative take on the Western. It’s very Handmaid’s, with a fun medical slant.
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud: It was already on my TBR after the Faber Live Fiction Showcase in November, but my interest was redoubled by this recently winning the Costa First Novel Award. Set in Trinidad, it’s narrated, delightfully, in turn by Betty, a young widow; Solo, her teenage son; and Mr. Chetan, their lodger. Perfect for fans of Mr Loverman.
Last week I ordered 21 books in one day. (In my defense, only 18 of them were for me.) It started like this: “Ah, must find a clearance 2021 calendar. Waterstones had a good selection last year…” And indeed, I found the perfect calendar, for half price. But then I continued browsing the online sale items and before I knew it there were also seven books in my basket. While I was at it, I went onto Awesomebooks.com and put together an order of secondhand books by authors I’ve been wanting to try or read more by. Add to that a couple more review books coming through the door and a couple of giveaways from neighbors (the Nicolson in the first photo, and Stoner for me to reread) and it’s been a big week for book acquisitions.
Attending a Book Launch
My fifth book launch since March 2020; my first to take place on Instagram. Hosted by Damian Barr, who runs a literary salon, it was for one I’ve already mentioned, Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley, which came out on the 14th. (Barr and his husband are the book’s dedicatees.) “I am not ashamed of what happened,” she said about how her family has changed, adding that writing about such recent events has been a way of solidifying how she felt about them. Her ex has not read the book but wrote to Chatto & Windus saying she completely trusted Heminsley and consented to the publication. Some of her offers were for a more mass-market memoir about the marriage, whereas the book ended up being more diffuse, including other medical experiences and challenges to self-belief. It was amusing to hear that after the BLM movement her manuscript went through a “Karen edit” to make sure she hadn’t taken her privilege for granted.
A New TBR Challenge
“Hands. Face. Space.” is a current UK public health campaign slogan. It inspired me to trawl through my TBR shelves for appropriate covers and titles. I don’t know if I’m actually serious about reading these particular books I selected (I could have chosen any of dozens for the Face covers), but it was fun to put together the photo shoot. I had two replies from people on Twitter who came up with their own trio of titles.
And to cap off this miscellany, something non-book-related…
Top 5 albums from 2020
I originally wrote this little note for Facebook.
Banana Skin Shoes, Badly Drawn Boy – His best since his annus mirabilis of 2002. Funky pop gems we’ve been caught dancing to by people walking past the living room window … oops! A track to try: “Is This a Dream?” (psychedelic music video)!
Where the World Is Thin, Kris Drever – You may know him from Lau. Top musicianship and the most distinctive voice in folk. Nine folk-pop winners, including a lockdown anthem. A track to try: “I’ll Always Leave the Light On.”
Henry Martin, Edgelarks – Mention traditional folk and I’ll usually run a mile. But the musical skill and new arrangements, along with Hannah Martin’s rich alto, hit the spot. A track to try: “Bird in a Cage.”
Blindsided, Mark Erelli – We saw him perform the whole of his new folk-Americana album live in lockdown. Love the Motown and Elvis influences; his voice is at a peak. A track to try: “Rose-Colored Rearview.”
American Foursquare, Denison Witmer – A gorgeous ode to family life in small-town Pennsylvania from a singer-songwriter whose career we’ve been following for upwards of 15 years. A track to try: “Birds of Virginia.”
How is your 2021 reading going?
Novellas in November will be coming to a close on Monday and has been a great success in terms of blogger engagement. I’ve been adding review links to the master post nearly every day of the month, and I’m sure there are some I have missed. Although I still have a couple of novellas on the go, I don’t see myself finishing them this month, so I’m going to end with this set: three short classics to continue the week’s theme, two graphic novels, and a pair of nature/art/music/poetry books.
Something Special by Iris Murdoch (1957)
A Murdoch rarity, this appeared in a 1950s anthology and in an English-language textbook in Japan, but was not otherwise published in the author’s lifetime. I think it’s her only short story. I’m counting it as a novella because it was published as a stand-alone volume by Vintage Classics in 2000. Twenty-four-year-old Yvonne Geary doesn’t know precisely what she wants from life, but hopes there might be more for her than a conventional marriage to Sam, her beau. “Can’t I live my life as I please since it’s the only thing I have?” she asks her hen-pecking mother. “I can’t see him as something special and I won’t marry him if I can’t.” Maybe she’ll escape to England. But for now she’s off for a night on the town in Dublin with Sam, going from a rowdy pub to the quiet of a locked-up park. Sam may be dull, but he seems sensitive, solicitous and well-meaning. Yvonne’s feelings for him flip-flop over the course of the evening. I’ve noticed before that Murdoch is a bit funny about Jewishness, but this is still a brisk, bittersweet story in the direct lineage of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (With striking black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations by Michael McCurdy.)
The Fairacre Festival by ‘Miss Read’ (1968)
I’m not sure why I’d never tried anything by ‘Miss Read’ (the pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, a teacher turned author who was based not far from me in Berkshire) until now. She wrote two series of quaint novels set in the fictional villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green; this is #7 in the Fairacre series. Miss Read, her narrator, is a schoolteacher who records her wry observations of all the local happenings. After an autumn storm damages the church roof, the parishioners are dismayed to learn the renovations could cost £2000. No amount of jumble sales, concerts and tea dances will raise that much. So they set their sights higher, to an Edinburgh-style festival with a light show and an appearance from a famous opera singer. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing now, is it? This was cozy, quaint fun, and if I wished it had been a full-length book, that means I’ll just have to begin at the beginning with 1955’s Village School.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)
Lise has her “glad rags” on – bright new clothes in clashing patterns that strangers can’t help commenting on. The 34-year-old single woman has worked in an accounting office for the last 16 years and is now off to the South (Italy?) for a long-awaited vacation. This will be no blissful holiday, though. Just 11 pages in, we get our first hint that things are going to go wrong, and in the opening line of Chapter 3 Spark gives the game away. Clearly, her intention is to subordinate what happens to why it happens, so the foreshadowing of the early chapters is twisted to ironic effect later on. Lise is an unappealing character, haughty and deceitful, and the strangers she meets on the flight and at the hotel, including a man obsessed with the macrobiotic diet, are little better. I felt I didn’t have enough time to change my mind about Lise before we’re asked to have pity. Of course, this is meant to be a black comedy, but it was a little abrasive for my taste. This was my third and probably last from Spark, as I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her work; I do love this pithy description of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, though: “An entertaining tale of satanism in South London.”
Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx, illus. Roz Chast (2019)
I loved Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? and figured this would have the same witty approach to an elderly parent’s decline. Apart from a brief introduction to her mother (from Philadelphia, outspoken, worked as a guidance counselor and for her husband’s office supplies company), there is hardly any text; the rest is just illustrated one-liners, sayings her mother had or opinions she espoused. Many of these have to do with fashion no-nos, dinner party etiquette, grammar pedantry, avoiding the outdoors and exercise, and childrearing. “My mother never hesitates to say what other mothers would not even think to think. She calls it constructive criticism.” She reminds me of Bess Kalb’s grandmother in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me, an overall much funnier and more complete picture of an entertaining figure.
The Exciting World of Churchgoing by Dave Walker (2010)
A third set of Church Times comics, not as memorable as the original Dave Walker Guide to the Church. Once again, Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. You really need to be familiar with the UK churchgoing scene, and specifically with Anglican churches, to get much out of the cartoons. I loved “According to legend, there is a lady who changes the teatowels in the church kitchen from time to time” and the “Infestations” spread that starts with bats and wasps and moves on to Charismatics. Most striking are two pages on church proceedings during swine flu – what was meant to be a joke doesn’t seem so funny now that it literally describes in-person services during COVID-19: “Shaking hands during the peace should be replaced by a friendly wave,” “Administration of anti-bacterial gel should take place,” etc.
The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane, illus. Jackie Morris (2017)
Macfarlane’s work has been hit or miss for me and I was suspicious of this project in general, thinking it would be twee or juvenile, but the beauty of the artwork and playful energy of the poems won me over. It’s common knowledge that this book arose as a response to news that many words to do with nature had been removed from the latest version of a junior dictionary published in the UK, to be replaced by technology vocabulary. Macfarlane spotlights these omitted words through acrostic poems alive with alliteration (“Fern’s first form is furled, / Each frond fast as a fiddle-head”), wordplay and internal rhymes. He peppers in questions, both rhetorical and literal-minded, and exclamations. Conker, Dandelion, Lark and Otter are highlights. Morris’s wildlife paintings are superb, with a Giotto-like gilt portrait facing each poem and two-page in situ tableaux in between.
The Lost Words Spell Songs (2019)
I followed up immediately with this companion book to the 14-track album a group of eight folk musicians made in response to The Lost Words. We were already fans of Kris Drever (mostly via Lau), Karine Polwart and Beth Porter (via the Bookshop Band), and became familiar with a few more of the artists (Kerry Andrew, Julie Fowlis and Rachel Newton) earlier this year through the online Folk on Foot festivals. This volume includes six additional poems, four of which directly inspired songs on the album, plus brief bios and words on the project from each artist (each portrayed by Morris as a relevant bird, with the musician serving as the “spirit human” for the bird) the complete lyrics with notes from whoever took the lead on a particular song, and short essays by Macfarlane, Morris (also an interview) and Polwart.
It was interesting to compare the different approaches to the project: five songs directly set Macfarlane’s poetry to music, two of them primarily in spoken word form; five are based on Macfarlane “extras,” like the new spells and the “charm against harm” he wrote during anti-tree felling campaigns like the one in Sheffield; a few are essentially pop songs based around major lines from Dandelion, Goldfinch and Lark (these plus “Selkie-Boy,” based on Grey Seal, ended up being my favorites); one is a traditional song from Seckou Keita’s native Senegal that also incorporates the bilingual Fowlis’s Gaelic to mourn the words that are lost with the past; and one is a final blessing song that weaves in bits from multiple spells. The artists all bring their individual styles, but the collaborations are strong, too.
Are you squeezing in any more novellas this month?
Do you like the sound of any of the ones I’ve read?
The Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. This is my second entry for the week after Monday’s post on postpartum depression, as well as the second installment in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself.
It will be no surprise to regular readers that both of my ‘expert’ posts have been on a health theme: I have an amateur’s love of medical memoirs and works of medical history, and I’ve followed the Wellcome Book Prize closely for a number of years – participating in official blog tours, creating a shadow panel, and running this past year’s Not the Wellcome Prize.
The three books below are linked by the word “Care” in the title or subtitle; all reflect, in the wake of COVID-19, on the ongoing crisis in UK healthcare and the vital role of nurses.
Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
Bunting’s previous nonfiction work could hardly be more different: Love of Country was a travel memoir about the Scottish Hebrides. It was the first book I finished reading in 2017, and there could have been no better start to a year’s reading. With a background in history, journalism and politics, the author is well placed to comment on current events. Labours of Love arose from five years of travel to healthcare settings across the UK: care homes for the elderly and disabled, hospitals, local doctors’ surgeries, and palliative care units. Forget the Thursday-night clapping and rainbows in the windows: the NHS is perennially underfunded and its staff undervalued, by conservative governments as well as by people who rely on it.
We first experience bodily care as infants, Bunting notes, and many of the questions that run through her book originated in her early days of motherhood. Despite all the advances of feminism, parental duties follow the female-dominated pattern evident in the caring careers:
By the age of fifty-nine, women will have a fifty-fifty chance of being, or having been, a carer for a sick or elderly person. At the same time, many are still raising their teenage children and almost half of those over fifty-five are providing regular care for grandchildren.
Women dominate caring professions such as nursing (89 per cent), social work (75 per cent) and childcare (98 per cent). They now form the majority of GPs (54 per cent) and three out of four teachers are female. And they provide the vast bulk of the army of healthcare workers in the NHS (80 per cent) and social-care workers (82 per cent) for the long-term sick, disabled and frail elderly.
These are things we know intuitively, but seeing the numbers laid out so plainly is shocking. I most valued the general information in Bunting’s introduction and in between her interviews, while I found that the bulk of the book alternated between dry statistics and page after page of interview transcripts. However, I did love hearing more from Marion Coutts, the author of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize winner, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from brain cancer. (Labours of Love was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2020.)
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Duty of Care: One NHS Doctor’s Story of Courage and Compassion on the COVID-19 Frontline by Dr Dominic Pimenta
We’re going to see a flood of such books; I’m most looking forward to Dr Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking (coming in January). Given how long it takes to get a book from manuscript to published product, I was impressed to find this on my library’s Bestsellers shelf in October. Pimenta’s was an early voice warning of the scale of the crisis and the government’s lack of preparation. He focuses on a narrow window of time, from February – when he encountered his first apparent case of coronavirus – to May, when, in protest at a government official flouting lockdown (readers outside the UK might not be familiar with the Cummings affair), he resigned his cardiology job at a London hospital to focus on his new charity, HEROES, which supports healthcare workers via PPE, childcare grants, mental health help and so on.
It felt uncanny to be watching events from earlier in the year unfold again: so clearly on a trajectory to disaster, but still gripping in the telling. Pimenta’s recreated dialogue and scenes are excellent. He gives a real sense of the challenges in his personal and professional lives. But I think I’d like a little more distance before I read this in entirety. Just from my skim, I know that it’s a very fluid book that reads almost like a thriller, and it ends with a sober but sensible statement of the situation we face. (All royalties from the book go to HEROES.)
The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion by Christie Watson
I worried this would be a dull work of polemic; perhaps the title, though stirring, is inapt, as the book is actually a straightforward sequel to Watson’s 2018 memoir about being a nurse, The Language of Kindness. Although, like Bunting, Watson traveled widely to research the state of care in the country, she mostly relies on her own experience of various nursing settings over two decades: a pediatric intensive care unit, home healthcare for the elderly, a children’s oncology day center, a residential home for those with severe physical and learning disabilities, a community mental-health visiting team, and the emergency room. She also shadows military nurses and prison doctors.
With a novelist’s talent for scene-setting and characterization, Watson weaves each patient and incident into a vibrant story. Another strand is about parenthood: giving birth to her daughter and the process of adopting her son – both are now teenagers she raises as a single mother. She affirms the value of everyday care delivered by parents and nurses alike. I was especially struck by the account of a teenage girl who contracted measles (then pneumonia, meningitis and encephalitis) and was left blind and profoundly disabled, all because her parents were antivaxxers. In general, I’ve wearied of doctors’ memoirs composed of obviously anonymized case studies, but I’ll always make an exception for Clarke and Watson because of their gorgeous writing.
Note: Watson had left nursing to write full-time, but explains in an afterword that she returned to critical care in a London hospital during COVID-19.
What I learned:
Empathy is a key term for all three authors. They emphasize that the skills of compassion and listening are just as important as the ability to perform the required medical procedures.
A chilling specific fact I learned: 43,000 people died in the Blitz* in the UK. Pimenta cited that figure and warned that COVID-19 could be worse. And indeed, as of now, over 63,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the UK. The American death toll is even more alarming.
Here are some passages that stood out for me from each book:
Bunting: “Good care is as much an art as a skill, as much competence as tact. … Care is where we make profound collective decisions about the worth of an individual life. … There is no tradition of ageing wisely in the West, unlike in many Asian and African cultures where age has prestige, status and is associated with wisdom … We need to speak about care in a different language, instead of the relentless macho repetition of words such as ‘efficiency’, ‘quality’, ‘driving’, ‘choice’, ‘delivery’ and productivity.’”
Pimenta: “this will be akin to the Blitz*, and … we need to start thinking of it like that. A marathon, not a sprint. … The challenges to come – a second or even third wave, a global recession, climate change, mass misinformation … and political and societal upheaval … – will all require more from all of us if we hope to meet them. The challenge of our generation is not behind us, it is only just beginning. I plan to continue doing something about it, and perhaps now you do as well. So stay informed, stay safe and be kind.”
Watson: “So much of nursing, I think to myself, seems obvious, and yet seeing that need in the first place is difficult and takes experience, training and something extra. … The mundanity of human existence is where I find the most beauty … It takes my breath away: how fragile, extraordinary and vulnerable, how full of hatred and love and obsession and complexity we all are – every single one of us.”
*I highly recommend all of folk artist Kris Drever’s latest album, Where the World Is Thin, but especially the song “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit,” which has become my lockdown anthem.
If you read just one, though… Make it The Courage to Care by Christie Watson.