The Barbellion Prize – A Roundup

At the end of last month I agreed to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize by reviewing its shortlist. I wrote about this here. All I initially knew about the books selected were their titles and the aims of the prize. I trusted that the judges would choose books worth reading – this proved a good call.

This year all shortlisted books were memoirs. It quickly became clear that each was structured differently, reflecting the authors’ skills – including use of language.

Most were beautifully written, a pleasure to read. Experiences were not mined for misery – to garner sympathy – but rather to help raise awareness of issues faced.

Over the past couple of weekends I have posted my thoughts on each book. Below are links to my reviews.

On 12th February, Golem Girl was announced as the winner of the prize. I have no quibbles with the judges’ choice – plus the amazing artwork by the author complemented the text perfectly. My personal favourite was probably Sanatorium, for its lyricism, but the list was so strong there was no disappointment at the outcome.

I was not the only book blogger approached to review the shortlist. If you would like to find out what other readers thought of these titles, check out the following blogs.

My thanks to the Barbellion Prize for arranging with the publishers for me to be sent copies of the four shortlisted books. I feel privileged to have been involved.

Book Review: Kika and Me

“Changing attitudes about disability is mainly about education. That’s why I do my best to talk about my life.”

Amit Patel grew up in the town of Guildford, England. As the son of local corner shop owners, he was well known in his neighbourhood. A livewire, he liked nothing better than to try any new sport, especially those offering some risk. He was supported in all his endeavours by his close-knit family.

As someone who was not privately educated, attaining a place at Cambridge to read medicine was a notable achievement. It was during his university years that Amit learned he had an eye condition – one that should be correctable with surgery. Treatment was not as straightforward as expected. He underwent numerous procedures, although these did enable him to finish his training and enter his specialism as an A&E doctor, working at a busy London hospital. He married the girl of his dreams – Seema – at a lavish wedding attended by 600 friends and relations. They settled down to enjoy married life in a house close to Amit’s parents.

Kika & Me is Amit’s memoir. Although opening with a prologue describing an episode of disturbing human cruelty, the chapters covering his early life paint a picture of perfect happiness. Perhaps that is how he remembers those years given what happened next. In November 2013 he woke up with blurred vision, quickly and unexpectedly losing his sight altogether. Not only was he plunged into a world of darkness, this was accompanied by constant pain. Drugged and depressed, grieving for an expected future he had been anticipating with relish, he pushed Seema away.

Thankfully for Amit, his wife is a determined individual. At the end of the book she provides a brief account of how she too suffered, but at the time she became the rock on which Amit could rebuild his life. Gradually he refocused on new achievements: learning braille, walking with the aid of a white stick, attending therapy sessions run by organisations supporting the visually impaired. He learned to ask for help and attained a degree of independence. Seema encouraged him to apply for a guide dog – a move that would transform their lives for the better.

The writing style is simple and unchallenging but provides fascinating insight into the process of learning to live with blindness. It is horrifying to consider how some people treat the visually impaired – selfish thoughtlessness, attempts at taking advantage, and worse. This is perhaps why a book such as this, bringing such issues to light, matters. The more that is understood about the difficulties faced, the more can be changed to help. Amit proved himself a fine advocate, unafraid to challenge when needed.

Social Media, particularly Twitter, showed him how he could raise awareness. After learning that, unbeknown to him, a fellow traveller on the underground had attacked his guide dog, Kika, he fitted her with a camera. He posted a short video clip of a subsequent attack that went viral. When people know what is happening and find it unacceptable, they may be more willing to help prevent a next time.

Amit was raised a Hindu and writes of his work trying to persuade Temple hierarchy to allow guide dogs admittance. Some have been more accommodating than others. Through responses to tweets, he garners the attention of the mainstream media. He has forged a role for himself as an advisor and speaker, working towards enhancing rights and fostering better understanding of difficulties the visually impaired must navigate.

The attention Amit now commands has granted him the attention of those with influence, as well as earning him awards that help raise his profile further. In gaining a new career, he has regained his self-esteem. His work has the potential to make life better for others.

In his personal life Amit has proved that a blind man can be a hands-on father, even when his efforts have not always met with support from other parents. He writes of his determination never to let his impairment hold his children back.

The book concludes with an ‘Ask Amit’ section that offers suggestions on how to treat those like the author – a useful guide for any who may wish to offer help without offending.

Although an easy, at times sugared, read, the story told fulfils its aim of raising awareness. Given all that Amit has achieved – including driving the ‘reasonably-fast car’ for an episode of Top Gear (!) – it is also an inspiring reminder that disabled does not equate to incapable.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, PanMacMillan, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Golem Girl

“Ableism is the belief that in an ideal world, all bodies should be flawless, or that they should at least try to be cured.”

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958 with the inner layer of her mother’s placental wall adhered to her skin swathing the lower half of her body like a mummy’s bandages. She had a red sac protruding from her back. She had spina bifida. At the time only 90% of babies born with this condition lived to see their second birthday. Prevailing medical opinion was that they should be left alone – only those who survived proving themselves worthy of the medical resources necessary to treat them. Riva’s mother, Carole, had already suffered two distressing miscarriages. She was determined to fight for her living child and found an ally in a surgeon freshly trained in the latest techniques for treating spina bifida. Newborn Riva was operated on – the start of decades of surgery in which doctors would try to make her body more ‘normal’.

Golem Girl is a memoir that tells the personal story of an accomplished artist and teacher whose life has been built on the belief that she is a monster – an aberration. Throughout her childhood she was expected to submit to painful surgeries and treatments that her mother sought in an effort to, if not ‘cure’ her daughter, at least enable her to function and fit more smoothly into a society that would cruelly comment and stare with impunity. Thankfully, attitudes changed over the years, although in her epilogue – written in May 2020 – Riva questions the underlying truth of this.

The first half of the book covers the author’s childhood, during which she would have little agency over her treatment and education. Carole was a formidable advocate, supported by her fiercely Jewish wider family. She did not consider that Riva could want anything other than to be made less obviously disabled. She also took life changing decisions for her daughter because, as she bluntly stated, she did not believe Riva would ever find a loving husband, looking as she did. She wished to protect her child yet could never see her as anything other than someone in need of fixing.

Not all the surgeries Riva underwent resulted in the outcomes aimed for, yet still her mother persisted in her search for treatment that would change how her daughter looked and moved. As she grew older, Riva started to question their necessity, angered that she was not consulted.

Riva was in her late teens before she gained any sort of autonomy – and this was under difficult circumstances for the family. It would be many more years before she would question the orthodoxy that surgery was necessary, not to save her life but to make her look more acceptable. She was a talented artist still trying to find her niche in a world that could not see her and her work except through their blinkers of what others considered the bounds of femininity and disability.

Riva did find love, and also came to question why society struggled to regard people like her as acceptable as they were.

“Disability was natural, as was queerness, and neither were in need of correction or eradication.”

The timeline of the second half of the book jumps back and forth through several decades as the author explores a variety of issues she faced as an adult. There were a number of significant love affairs. There were friendships that resulted in impressive bodies of artwork. Throughout the book are illustrations of some of Riva’s art – many of them portraits that study the lives of other disabled people. These are reproduced in a section at the end which describes them more fully.

I use the term disabled aware that such a term may not be acceptable to some. Riva discusses this as she tells her story – how descriptors have changed in her lifetime. As a child she would be subjected to abuse regularly – neighbourhood children calling her ‘retard’ and pelting her with missiles. As an adult she was approached by a stranger intent on telling her: if I looked like you I’d kill myself. All of this has shaped Riva’s perception of herself, and her self-confidence. That she used her experiences to get to the stage she is at now is remarkable – or maybe that view is also reductive and I should listen more carefully.

This is an eminently readable and important work, depicting as it does life through the lens of a woman who has been both othered and dehumanised. Thanks to her own efforts and the ongoing support of her family, Riva has been able to carve an independent life for herself. She points out that financial constraints prevent many disabled adults from ever leaving their parents – infantilising them in a cocoon of well-meaning autocracy.

A poignant and moving tale but also one that is anger inducing when one considers how the disabled continue to be treated. The artwork within these pages speaks as powerfully as the words – of bodies that are beautiful and have achieved and are various. This is a story that deserves to be heard and then heeded. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: The Pleasure of Regret

I first came across Scott Manley Hadley when I read his poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet. This intrigued me so I started to follow his blog, Triumph of the Now, where he posts his thoughts on books alongside how he is feeling. There is an honesty in his writing that can be shocking at times but is mostly refreshing given how caged most writers – and others – remain about what would be considered their private life.

The Pleasure of Regret is a memoir written in a mix of poetry and prose. It opens with a poem that encapsulates how certain adults try to pass on what they consider wisdom to their children as they reach adulthood – an endeavour that is unlikely to achieve the intended result.

“I think this man
Was not a man
Used to ignoring himself
And here
He confused
Arrogance
With wisdom.”

The advice giver is the father of a valued friend. Manley Hadley has a challenging relationship with his own parents who he grew to despise while attending grammar school, for reasons explained. He writes of the bullying endured at this place, and then the friends he made in sixth form. This section captures the magic of a period in life when everything seems possible – the intensity of friendships made in late teens.

“Nudity and poetry and music and liquor. Cigarettes and dinner jackets and-
I miss it.
I miss it most because I know it, and nothing like it, can ever happen again.”

“It felt magical because it felt like it would never end. It felt magical because I thought life would keep getting better.
It didn’t.”

The author goes to university – an establishment chosen for potential fun rather than academic rigour. Following graduation, he enters a toxic relationship with an older woman that will last a decade. The woman is wealthy and destructive – self-centred and manipulative. This period in Manley Hadley’s life is shaped by substance abuse and depression.

“When I began learning Spanish,
She disapproved.

She said,
“I already speak Spanish.”

She said,
“How is that going to help me?”

my favourite lines
are the lines of poems
her favourite lines
are not”

The breakdown of the relationship is followed by a severe mental health breakdown. As the author writes, not all wounds heal.

There follow sections in which Manley Hadley writes about his parents, both now suffering chronic health conditions that will likely bring forward their deaths. He acknowledges that they are not bad people, but that they didn’t give him what he needed from parents. Again, there is a rare honesty – few would openly admit to such feelings despite their omnipresence.

Footnotes in the book occasionally send the reader to the author’s earlier blog posts. I made sure to read these entries as they offer further understanding of how Manley Hadley’s life has been shaped.

Another thread explored is academia – a career choice considered when the author was trying to claw his way out of impending mental breakdown. The veneer is stripped from the hallowed spires, revealing a truth about how academics exist within their bubbles, revered by peers and detached from those unlike them.

“The academics, the readers, the thinkers… some professional, some – like me – amateur, were all linked by class and intellectual interest.”

The memoir closes with a timeline and then a diagnosis for the disorder the author suffers. While this leads to effective treatment it also eats into how he regards himself – defined, predictable, medically “wrong”.

How much truth can any memoir contain? The author is a poet and writes with laconic intensity. He shares shocking details yet leaves many blank spaces. He longs for love and seeks it in sex that leaves him empty. He harbours regrets and struggles to live with what he is.

This is poignant, powerful writing that offers insights both dark and exquisite. It is intoxicating and searching. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Fragments of my Father

“Being a carer can sometimes mean that you end up being an emotional punchbag. You have to remind yourself that it’s often your loved one’s illness speaking, not them.”

In the summer of 2010, Sam Mills’ mother, Glesney, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in her kidney. Sam’s father, Edward, had suffered from schizophrenia since she was a young child and Glesney had dedicated her married life to caring for him. Now she would need help. Their daughter agreed to move back to the family home in London, from a village outside Manchester where she had felt happily settled, to become her parents’ carer. Her two brothers had full time jobs whereas Sam’s work was mostly freelance. Nevertheless, she was unaware at the time the toll this role would take on her life and health.

The Fragments of my Father is a memoir chronicling the costs of caring for loved ones. Alongside her own experiences, Sam writes of other authors who were carers for many years – Leonard Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald. The former she regards in a positive light, unlike the latter. Although shocking at times, the details of these men’s treatment of their wives are explored with the caveat that carers are human whose own desires risk being subsumed by the needs of their mentally ill relative.

Edward suffers episodes of catatonia that result in him being sectioned and placed in care homes for the mentally unstable. His anti-psychotic medication is designed to prevent this – to provide scaffolding – but leaves him a shadow of the man he could otherwise have been.

 “It seemed such a waste, his life. If only he had been born in a different era, when his voice might have been accepted rather than labelled a sickness he had to fight. The medications he’d taken were not cures, just compromises, putting him in purgatory, half-awake, half-alive.”

Of course, this is not the whole story. When his drugs didn’t work Edward would become agitated and upset by the voices in his head. Unable to repress his emotions, he would express them in ways deemed unacceptable. Society couldn’t cope with his erratic behaviour – such as his choice to wander naked. Medication made him acceptable.

“his symptoms subdued into a sad, quiet existence”

Sam writes of her childhood – of her father’s absences and the impact his inability to hold down a job had on his family. She was a teenager before she understood his behaviour was a named illness – it took years to reach acceptance and look into what schizophrenia meant. When caring for him, she tried to work out what could have caused his mental breakdown. She muses on the balance between madness and the inspiration of artistic creatives.

Glesney married Edward with expectations of a fulfilling life that were repeatedly stymied. Sam reflects on what her mother lost, and on how she herself will cope with the ongoing situation and the pressures it brings. Caring demands more than action. It brings with it an emotional burden. Difficult decisions must be made for patient and carer.

I read this book as someone who chose the more selfish route. When my increasingly frail parents required hands-on support in their old age, I refused to leave my husband and children to move country – as requested by my sister – and share with her the burden of caring for them. As a result, she shouldered this alone for close to a decade until their deaths last year. The fraught and at times angry updates she would give me came to mind as I followed the experiences the author reflects on – her mental and physical exhaustion and need for breaks she couldn’t take.

Sam was unsure about writing this memoir but was encouraged by a friend to do so.

“I was worried being a carer might be seen as a boring topic to explore. Unglamorous. I said that perhaps I ought to choose a sexier subject. He replied that this was exactly why I ought to write it, because there are numerous books out there about doctors and high-flying surgeons and so few about those for whom caring is an unpaid, everyday duty. There are currently 6.5 million carers in the UK, which means that 1 in 8 of us are carers; the number is set to rise”

What comes to the fore in these reflections is the difficulty of providing for those in need when society has little interest in illness – regarding it as something to be managed stoically, or institutionalised. Family carers find their lives and choices revolving around the needs of their loved ones, their own requirements and ambitions slotted into whatever crevices they can carve out in terms of time and energy. There is love but also a strong sense of duty – ties that bind.

The book is structured in a fragmented timeline, jumping between: Sam’s life, the years spent caring for her mother, the effects of her father’s illness, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The language employed is direct, with just the occasional use of words I had to look up: inanition, quiddity. These help emphasise the author’s obvious intelligence, something carers must worry they lose recognition for when they take on a role that is largely undervalued.

This is a story that packs a punch and will resonate with all who have loved ones in need of care, or who face the prospect of need themselves. Sam does not hold herself up for admiration but rather presents this memoir as a cry for better support for all those who, like her, suffer emotionally and financially in order to keep loved ones well. It is also a reminder that mental health issues deserve more empathy and attention.

“psychiatry should not ask the question ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’

A poignant and timely read from a skilled writer. Recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Coasting

Coasting, by Jonathan Raban, was first published in 1986. This edition is from Eland who tell us, ‘For the price of a good bottle of wine our travel books offer inspiration for passionate exploration – in the company of authors who really know, and who know how to tell it.’ The author of this book is pleasingly self-deprecating without sacrificing his obvious abilities. The tale he tells is of its time and place yet offers wider understanding of the psyche of the British. This should be essential reading for those who cannot comprehend why Brexit happened – who talk of lies believed as if those who disagree with their point of view are somehow lacking in cognitive ability, who rail against politicians without digging deeper to understand what matters to those who vote for them.

On April Fool’s Day, 1982, Jonathan Raban set sail from Fowey in Cornwall to circumnavigate the British Isles in a two-mast sailing boat kitted out as a one-man floating home. Travelling widdershins, his plan was to stay close to shore, stopping off regularly to meet with locals and gain a feel for the places where they lived – research for the book he was planning. He had never before taken charge of a boat. A retired naval commander spent a fortnight teaching him the basics. The rest he learned from books and then experience.

The journey ended up lasting four years – four circuits. Ashore, the media were covering: the Falkland’s War, the Miner’s Strike, Diana fever. Many of the British people he encountered had more prosaic concerns. Unemployment was rife, traditional jobs disappearing taking with them a way of life generations in the making. In their place came tourism – Britain as a theme park for increasing numbers of foreign visitors. Opportunities were in service rather than manufacture.

The author is the son of a war veteran turned CofE clergyman. He was educated at the same minor, public school as his father – an inexplicable parental decision given what he had to endure there. Coasting is as much memoir as travel journal. The personal reminiscences are skillfully woven into the stories of storms at sea and encounters on shore. There are also pleasing asides detailing other gentlemen’s sailing adventures over several centuries. Raban is far from the first to have decided time at sea would offer a welcome escape from a life stifled by the practical demands of finance and family.

There is much humour but also insight on offer. The writing is well balanced between details of shore time adventures and the challenges of life at sea. Raban comes to view familiar places through the lens of a tourist, albeit one who wishes to delve beneath the surface of photographic memory making. It is the views of the locals that interest him along with his own reactions to their insularity.

Evocative and entertaining, this is travel memoir that peels back the veneer of Britain to expose the preoccupations of its people. Although evaluative it is written with understanding and generosity. A reminder that change is inevitable but will likely be railed against. An engaging and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.

Book Review: Mother

Mother: A Memoir, by Nicholas Royle, is what it says on the cover – the author’s memories of his mother. These are not presented in a linear manner. Rather, they are reminiscences – echoes – that, realistically, cannot include every thought and feeling from each incident recalled. The portrayal of the mother alters a little with each retelling. What emerges is an impression of a spirited woman who was many things – as people are. In looking at her through the eyes of her son, several decades after her death, the reader becomes aware of how much he venerated her. Whilst acknowledging what others may regard as flaws, he saw her influence over the family and many of those who knew her.

Kathleen McAdam came from Scottish lineage and remained close to her wider family throughout her life. She was a nurse, continuing to work after the birth of her two sons. Kathleen married Maxwell Royle. Maxwell was the son of artists yet attended a public school. They had contacts amongst the famous of the time. Their boys were raised to free range but in relative privilege.

As a mother, Kathleen supported her children’s chosen pursuits, fiercely guarding their interests from any complaints made about their activities. Her conversation drew in many of the friends they brought to the house. At no time in this memoir does her son raise any suggestion of resentment over what she expected of him in terms of time and attention.

Another picture that emerges of Kathleen is that of her sitting at the kitchen table – chain smoking, doing crosswords or reading. There is mention of her love life and how she flirted with admirers – Maxwell may also have had a dalliance. Their son offers no hint of what he thought of this at the time or later.

The memoir opens with the impact on the family of Kathleen’s descent into dementia – an illness that led to her slow demise. The author ponders if this could have been precipitated by the death of his brother. This latter tragedy changed all of their lives. The dynamic woman became a shell of herself, existing but without her trademark spark or energy.

Chapters offer not just memories of Kathleen but of the family – at home and on travels. Details are provided of their ancestry including photographs of previous generations. Nicholas and his brother, Simon, were close to cousins and regularly visited their relatives. The impression offered is one of time capsuled properties with space to roam and menageries of animals. Although appreciative, the descriptions make no attempt to make this upbringing appear idyllic.

Mention is made of misbehaviour – of expulsions from school and experiments verging on the cruel. Punishments at home, if they happened, are not disclosed.

The complexity of family life comes through in the short chapters and recollections of changing scenes across many decades. Although there is obvious emotion, particularly in dealing with illness and death, much of the writing is framed as factual.

And this is the book’s strength. The reader is left to form their own impressions. It matters not what they think of Kathleen. This is her story told from her surviving son’s perspective. It would appear that, until the end, to him she was everything he needed her to be.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Myriad Editions.

Book Review: Jolts

“I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad”

In 2002 Fernando Sdrigotti fled the economic turmoil of his home country, Argentina, and flew to Dublin where he knew a friend would put him up temporarily. The morning after his arrival in Ireland he started work washing dishes – a kitchen porter job in the canteen of an office building. He spent the next seventeen years moving countries and cities, acquiring the visas and paperwork that would enable him to apply for British citizenship.

Jolts is a collection of nine short stories that offer snapshots of the author’s experiences living in transient places. As with any memoir there are elements of fiction.

“I may be sitting in a café in London reading these words. And I may be trying to figure out what is actually real, and what made-up. Or I may be rejoicing in the uncertainty. Or aware of the fantasy, I might be rejoicing in the fabrication.”

What comes through is a picture of the life of a writer as he attempts to establish himself, and the adaptations he goes through to fit his changing circumstances. There is a great deal of alcohol and drug taking along with anger and cynicism. There is also humour, particularly in the representations of those he meets along the way. The narrator appears to possess a degree of self-assurance that I have observed in others – mainly males – and always perplexes me (that they can be so sure of themselves and their opinions). He is not, however, averse to turning criticisms on himself.

The collection opens with the titular story. This is structured as a series of brief vignettes set across several decades. They help explain why the narrator left Argentina and provide a basis for several episodes recounted in more detail in subsequent stories.

“the piece is called ‘Jolts’ and is precisely about jolts in time and space, about how some of us are more sensitive to fragments and how some of us are more fragmented than the rest, particularly on some days.”

Several of the stories are set in London where the author now lives. In Only Up Here the narrator has quit a bar job and is taking in his surroundings having spent days festering in bed. He shares a studio flat with another guy in similar circumstances. Both have experienced the high of potential change before crashing to inertia from which the narrator is now trying to extricate them.

Turkish Delight portrays a different type of acquaintance. The cash-strapped narrator accepts an invitation to Sunday lunch from a financially successful Englishman who has plans for an afternoon of mutual drinking and drug taking. High on whatever has been snorted, the narrator can suppress his concerns at feeling out of place amongst ‘beautiful people’.

Methylated Spirits is a story about shopping in Sainsburys in the week before Christmas. From the items purchased and the amount spent the reader may assume that the narrator is now doing better financially.

Barbecue and Exhumation in Victoria Park Village is a biting exposé of casual xenophobia that the characters portrayed would probably deny. One is a ‘published author’ with opinions about writers and their road to success. The guests at the barbecue talk condescendingly on many topics, trading insults as competition amongst them builds with alcohol consumption. The narrator observes this group of friends while trying to fit in.

As well as London there are stories set in Dublin, Rome, and a childhood holiday in coastal Argentina. In this latter tale, the narrator is spending a summer with a young friend’s family, to keep the boy company. The montage presented is piercing in its evocation of the ordinary experiences children must suffer at the hands of peers and those charged with their care.

The final story, Notes Towards A Return, is set in Buenos Aires towards the end of the period covered by this memoir.

“Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me – I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spend this time couch surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires.”

The narrator does not return to his hometown, Rosario, on this visit. When friends there express disappointment he stops responding to their messages.

“Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago – we have nothing in common anymore – we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.”

Although each story in this collection contains an interesting plot and well developed trajectory, it is the keen observations and elucidation that provide their vigour and entertainment. The writing style and taut structure offer an acutely pertinent if wry portrayal of humanity and their treatment of incomers. Whatever truths are being conveyed about the author’s life, it is as short stories about people’s behaviour that they may be savoured. Whilst I couldn’t empathise with many of the choices made – situations beyond my experience – the first person narrative offers a window into the life of a traveller whose circumstances are more relevant than location.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: This One Is Special

“Whatever will my friends think, when they read this book of dreams? We are not used, as a society, to revealing our inner worlds.”

This One Is Special, by Suzanne Askham, is a memoir of raising the author’s differently abled son, Timmy, who has multiple and complex health issues and needs. Timmy was born apparently healthy but within ninety minutes of his birth had stopped breathing. It was the beginning of a journey that no new parent expects to have to navigate.

Doctors were keen to diagnose, that appropriate care could be offered to the baby. This resulted in a plethora of painful and invasive tests over an extended time period. Suzanne slowly realised that what her son was being put through was as much for the benefit of the clinicians as for his long term wellbeing. Indeed, some of the clinicians did not regard Timmy as having a long term future. Suzanne, however, could see her boy’s potential and would not give up hope.

The bulk of the book is taken from a manuscript written in 1999, when Timmy was three years old. This is bookended by: a prologue explaining why it was written but not published at that time, and by a few chapters written as Timmy reaches adulthood.

Suzanne analyzes her dreams. She prays and practices meditation. Along with her interest in holistic medicine, she admits that some of what she sets store by can sound a bit “woo woo”. Suzanne writes of her spiritual rather than religious beliefs. Reading many of these passages took me outside my comfort zone.

I am a firm believer in the power of the brain in health issues – of the painful reality of psychosomatic illness. Why then does something that sounds more spiritual than scientific unsettle me? I tried hard to read with an open mind. If the author believes she saw Jesus in a dream and this helped her, it harms no one. She states that Timmy benefited from certain alternative treatments.

Suzanne writes with a gentle cadence but there is an underlying anger to how the differently abled are treated. She noticed that Timmy sensed differences in attitude to his presence in a variety of settings. At home, amongst friends, and at nursery he would be relaxed, sociable and happy. In hospitals he would be upset and afraid.

Timmy’s early years were spent in Kingston, a Borough of London. Suzanne describes it thus:

“The primary schools came top of the national tables this year, and the borough has the highest number of graduates in the country. There is a feeling here of many people living fulfilling lives, and a liberal acceptance of differences.”

Such acceptance is not found everywhere. Suzanne encounters many who ask her the wrong questions – projecting their assumptions about her son – or do not treat Timmy as she would wish. As well as trying to make potentially life changing decisions, when the medical establishment does not always provide full information, she must run the gauntlet of public scrutiny.

“It is harder to feel love towards someone who is looking at me critically.”

The book is about Timmy and the difficulties he has faced but also about the changes these catalyzed in Suzanne. She observes how her attitude can affect outcomes. She learned to garner strength from quiet preparation – to picture the positive and seek to forgive.

Suzanne, raised as a military child, attended a boarding school but still appears close to her family. She also writes warmly of the support received from her partner’s family. Friends were attentive, even from a distance. Although ultimately it was down to Suzanne to deal with everyday issues, she had a network she could rely on.

Her partner, Steven, was finance editor at a national newspaper. They had private health insurance. I regard these facts as significant as they enabled Timmy to receive the best care available – money makes a difference. Still though, when Timmy took seriously ill during a holiday in America, the emergency treatment he received there – thanks to their insurance – was superior to anything the NHS could offer. Suzanne is grateful to but not glowing in her praise of NHS healthcare practices.

She observes the need to set aside what might have been – regret – and to enjoy what is possible now.

I most enjoyed the chapters that offered a glimpse at the family life Timmy enjoyed – how he was appreciated for being himself. When Steven was preparing to visit Everest, Timmy and Suzanne went to London to watch him abseil of a high rise office building. Timmy and Steven enjoy star gazing. The family made a happy memory swimming together under a waterfall in St Lucia. Suzanne and Steven are not afraid to take Timmy on adventures. His joyous reaction after his first flight was beautiful to read.

And this book offers many such moments of beauty in amongst the major challenges of a child with severe health issues. Suzanne has found her own way to get through.

The world needs less cynicism and much more kindness. Science progresses when it remains open to possibilities.

Timmy has confounded the experts on many occasions and grown to adulthood. I hope that reading this account of his early years will offer light to other parents of differently abled children. Whatever one thinks of the range of holistic treatments mentioned, it is fine to be challenged by such honest and heart-felt opinion.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Another Planet

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Tracey Thorn is one half of pop duo, Everything But The Girl, the other half being her husband, Ben Watt. The couple met at Hull University in 1981 and have been together since – writing, making music, raising their three children. 

I had not heard of the author prior to picking up this book. I noticed the publicity when it (Thorn’s third memoir) was released in hardback but, put off by the photo on the cover, had ignored whatever was being said. What drew me to pay more attention was the premise, when I finally read it – a teenager growing up in middle class suburbia in the 1970s; my era. Aspirational parents were mentioned along with an ordinary, largely happy childhood. This is not a misery memoir yet the author rebelled. 

What is offered is an exploration of the stories we tell of ourselves – how and why we edit them – when family life appears felicitous to anyone else looking in, yet is the catalyst that drives a desire to escape, to break away from parental expectation.

Thorn kept diaries throughout her teenage years and these form the basis of her recollections. Always though she is looking back at the girl she was through the lens of her present day self – mid-fifties, successful in her field, a mother to adult children. 

The memoir is bookended by a day trip she makes to the suburban estate north of London where she was born and raised. Details have changed but much remains the same. She notices aspects previously missed despite the years she spent there. 

Interspersed with chapters that discuss her diary entries – what is written and, perhaps more importantly, what is not – are chapters giving background to: the place, life in the seventies, the pervading attitudes of middle class English parents who had lived through the war years. These offer a fascinating snapshot of a culture ingrained with stiff upper lipped snobbery and assumption that offspring will conform and provide a continuation of ideology. All this is presented with grace and candour. Thorn was bored and frustrated by her home life but recognises the influence it has had on her personal development.

“Always in the back of my head was a voice telling me to stop showing off. Don’t make a spectacle. Put that drink down. Shhhh.”

“If you didn’t talk about things, they weren’t happening. I was only thirteen, but I’d already learned the code.”

Thorn found her comfortable, conventional family life stultifying. Life in a commuter village surrounded by greenbelt left her feeling isolated from the excitement she craved.

“I was yearning for significance, looking everywhere for it.”   

“It strikes me that I’m talking about an imaginary place as much as a real one. If memory skews our perception, then the village I recall is semi-fictional, and I have to accept that my account isn’t neutral, or wholly truthful; it’s one-sided and irrational, constructed out of experiences and my reaction, sometimes over-reaction, to them.”

Thorn’s parents grew up in London but moved to the suburbs for what they believed would be a better life. Their social circle revolved around the groups to hand, their views aligning with those they mixed with. Thorn couldn’t bring herself to fit in with their values.

“But what if […] you’re being told you don’t have to believe in anything very much to join the church group, and no one seems interested in the arts, and everyone votes Tory and the golf club is racist, what then?”

Jan Carson wrote in The Stinging Fly of how seemingly endless boredom during hours spent listening to Presbyterian sermons led to vivid daydreams that inspired her early stories. Thorn also muses on the creative possibilities when formative years are spent bored and longing for escape from stifling prejudice.

“I’m thinking again about that idea that art flourishes in an unconducive environment, that suburbia is inspiring, surrounding you with ideas and people to reject.” 

For most of her teenage years, Thorn‘s concerns centred on boys, music, television and her social life.

“Current events rarely intruded into my little world, as I was a typically solipsistic teenager, and even when they did, my reaction was only to note the personal effect on me and my boring life.”

As she approaches adulthood, Thorn comes to realise that her parents and their peers were not as content with their lot as they liked others to think.

“The suburban dream suddenly seems creepy, as if its relentless NICEness is only pretend, and can’t survive without repressive conformity and wilful blindness.”

Although well written, candid and interesting, the format of this book sometimes lacks a smooth continuity. The reason becomes clear in the author’s end note. The book started as an essay and, over time, grew – “swallowing up some recent pieces of writing – reviews, articles and columns.” Thorn wrote these for other publications although points out they have been “chopped up, rearranged, in some cases rewritten” for inclusion here. Each chapter fits within her narrative but the story does not always flow as might be expected.

In many ways this is a typical story of life in middle class, middle of the road, family oriented England and, as such, offers a slice of life that garners little attention. Outwardly it appears so lacking in drama – teenage anger and frustration being routinely dismissed. As Thorn points out, many significant artists came from such backgrounds. As did many readers with whom this memoir will likely resonate. 

Any Cop?: Another Planet offers a softly spoken yet piercing history lesson – perhaps of value to the currently vocal looking back on the era with blinkered nostalgia. For those of us who grew up during the 1970s, it is also a trip down memory lane.

 

Jackie Law