What? Understanding Human Flourishing, Postgraduate Conference
Where? Holgate Centre, Grey College, Durham University
When? 16/17 May 2013
Who? A wonderful mixture of people from a variety of different disciplines
Why? Learning, presenting, networking, eating, exploring
How? With curiosity, trepidation and excitement!
It didn’t start well. When I gave the taxi driver my destination, he said “Oh, I’m a Sunderland driver, I don’t know the place.” Luckily he was game and after a little “help” from maps, sat nav and a hopeful attitude, he took me to the right place. Oh, and on the way he outlined a TV series on taxi drivers that he wanted me to write. Noted.
Inside the conference room I grabbed a coffee and a huge cookie and found a seat beside a woman sitting on her own. Good choice. Jenny Cochrane was presenting on “Sex and the Surgeon: Emotional Distance and Intimacy in Modern Medicine and the Medical Drama”. An academic who enjoys Grey’s Anatomy! Sadly Jenny’s presentation clashed with another I attended.
The first session I went to included material on Violet Jacob and James Kelman, given by Arianna Introna. I was interested to hear that her subject was not popular with the department because it had nothing to do with Scottish identity. Hmm, perhaps Scottish Literature departments could rethink that “limitation”. Views, anyone?
My panel was entitled: “Creative Writing and the Representation of Illness”. Naomi Kruger from Lancaster University gave a fascinating presentation on “The Terrifying Question Mark: Fictional Dementia Narratives and the Possibilities of Representation.” Her novella tells the story of a person with dementia, told from her point of view and from the point of view of some of her relatives. Naomi was articulate on how hard it is to get the balance between portraying a person with dementia accurately without annexing them through methods of typography and layout. It’s something I have struggled with: the balance between showing confusion and confusing the reader beyond their interest. Naomi also demonstrated interesting ways of critiquing fiction about people with dementia.
In my own session “Writing Dementia: The Importance for Carers of Biographical Information About People With Dementia” I spoke about Pick’s Disease and one of its symptoms: confabulation. I also mentioned the factor of “malignant positioning” which is such a threat to the agency and autonomy of someone diagnosed with dementia. I read an extract from my novel Temporal Sentence, describing the diagnosis process and the protagonist’s reaction to it.
The questions from the audience were interesting. Kate Allan wondered why there are no stories about people with dementia living a flourishing life. Kate Allan has come across many of these in her own practice and research. I wondered why these stories never reach the media–not dramatic enough? Kate Latham reminded us that there are moments of humour in the life of someone with dementia. I do know about these and about how laughter can be very helpful but this an aspect that is difficult to portray without risking trivialising the experience or offending readers, or indeed risking readers laughing at rather than with the character. A doctor in the audience said that one of the scenes in my novel had made him question an aspect of his own practice. Claire McKechnie kindly said my reading was brilliant.
It was a relief to have delivered my presentation but unfortunately my euphoria made me deaf to the instructions for getting to the conference dinner that evening. I phoned for a taxi, only to find on the first occasion I couldn’t hear what the receptionist said, and on the second occasion the receptionist pointed out they were a Sunderland firm. I gave up on them, asked the conference organiser for another taxi number and was directed towards another building where a porter would furnish this. I failed to find same building and stood disconsolately at the end of the college drive. Oh, joy, there was a taxi (with a passenger) coming down the drive. I flagged him down and asked him to get another taxi to pick me up. He agreed and told me to stand near the main road. I did for several minutes. Time was passing. I had a heavy suitcase (why is paper so heavy?) I panicked and set off for Durham town centre. It was a very long walk. And then, oh, hooray, I spotted Jenny (sex and doctors on TV) also making for the dinner venue. Despite maps and directions (Jenny had listened to them) we went round in a complete circle past the prison. up the hill looking out for “a red brick building”–there were many to choose from. We asked a student who sent us down the other half circumference of the circle urging us to look for a bridge. No bridge. Then I spotted a parked taxi. We leapt into it and joy of joys the driver knew where the dinner venue was. He also agreed that there were lots of bridges in Durham. Strange that we didn’t see one single one on our perambulation.
Once at Hild and Bede college we were greeted by professional staff in uniforms–why is this so reassuring–and settled at tables with white linen and silverware in a beautiful barrel roofed and stained glass windowed dining hall. You want to know what we ate, don’t you?
Soup, goats cheese fritters, rump of lamb, poached pear and chocolate fondant. I forgot to swipe a menu so you are getting the version without flourishes. It was all delicious, although there was a racket of silver on china as diners attacked the al dente pears. One of the diners at my table sensibly picked his pear up in his hands and ate it.
You probably think you’ve heard all there is to hear about taxis on this trip? Oh, no. I rang to book one to take me to my hotel. The Travelodge. There are two in Durham. Who knew? One of them was across the road from where I was. Emboldened by wine, food and company, I decided to walk. Amazingly the booking I had made was in the hotel across the road!
After a peaceful night, I eschewed the offer of a Travelodge breakfast box and went out to my waiting taxi. The driver took one look at me and my heart sank. He looked disappointed. As he put my case in the boot, he muttered, “I’m going to kill the night duty man.” Really? What had he said about my booking. Guess what? Oh go on, try. Yup, he thought he was picking up Ann Summers. He did get me back to the conference but he didn’t help me with ideas for a TV series. Or did he?
Three of us were early arrivals. We were all devastated that coffee was not scheduled until mid morning so we skulked off to the dining hall in search of a machine. The catering lady said we had had our coffee allocated and she would have to charge us. Never was 70p better spent.
The morning sessions were wonderful. In her presentation “Thinking About Dementia” Kate Latham took us on a speed read through twelve novels about dementia and mourned how acceptance of an ill member of the family has been replaced by the negative picture of dementia with its ”burden” of caring that pervades the public debate. Kate pointed out that we have had knowledge about the increase in numbers of people with dementia since 1982 so the actions being taken now are rather late in the day.
Rebecca Bitenc in her “Dementia in Contemporary Autobiographies and Life Writing Projects” raised a question from the audience about how much do we know about the construction of the texts by people with dementia as they are often edited by their family or friends.
Next Kate Allan in “Forgetting yourself: Flow and Persons With Dementia” put forward the idea that flourishing for people with dementia may come from meaningful activities where they lose track of time and involve themselves completely. Kate has seen instances of this flow when it creates a space where people who have not found it easy to communicate find that ease after the activity. Kate also suggested that we may be able to learn from people with dementia about how to live in a more rewarding way ourselves. This was a passionate and revolutionary presentation.
After lunch there were two excellent presentations given by Peter Swan and Anni Raw on the value of arts in community as healthful interventions and the difficulty of measuring their effects.
The last postgraduate presentation was by Abigail McNiven (also representing Lindsay Ann Coyle). Entitled “Exploring Embodied Engagements with the Art of Frida Kahlo in Social Research Processes” it transformed my future experience of art exhibitions. I had no idea how manipulated by others my leisurely visits to art galleries have been. Now all is clear. Abigail noted how an exhibition full of bodily fluids including birth and breastfeeding had no toilets. Other factors affecting our responses to art are journeys, weather, the path we are allowed to take through the exhibition and where we may stand to listen to tape recorded notes.
The Plenary Panel Discussion on the future of Medical Humanities threw up graphic descriptions of a virtual department–an umbrella beneath which to shelter (and I would add with different spokes pointing in different directions) and as a node. The latter description is too full of other associations as so many of my acquaintance are having their lymph nodes removed but I like the umbrella version.
A controversial point was raised by Professor Brian Hurwitz who insisted that we must not think that the humanities can teach doctors how to be good. Jenny bravely challenged this and I’m glad she did as I also am keen to provide medical students with some form of humanities education. While this would be to encourage empathy (which I am told is partially destroyed by the way doctors are educated with the emphasis on data), I have never thought that creative writing, history or literary criticism could have a moral effect. If only. The world would be a very different place if it could. I do believe that a study of novels helps people to put themselves in other people’s shoes. The partnership between author and reader could perhaps be compared to that between a patient and doctor. Both have to create a whole from something incomplete.
My thanks to all involved in this valuable and entertaining conference.
Hormones: Decreases in estrogen and testosterone in the years between fifty and sixty give way to greater emotional stability, calmness, and increased attention. These hormonal changes also increase tolerance for frustration, which significantly benefits the late-blooming, new artist.
Delighted to announce the publication of Jane Riddell’s debut novel Water’s Edge, available via Thornberry Publishing and on Amazon.
I interviewed Jane and this is what she said:
1. Can you remember when you first knew you wanted to be a writer?
There wasn’t any particular defining moment, more a process. I had been writing as a hobby for many years, but was never caught up enough in it to work on something for more than a couple of hours at a time. During most of these years I had a paid job, but often this was only for three days a week, so time wasn’t really a limiting factor. When we decided to move to France, things changed. I was unlikely to be able to work there because of my limited French, and reckoned that I would probably spend more time writing. Several months before we left Edinburgh, during a Saturday afternoon at the gym, I found myself on the treadmill, listening to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas singing Dancing in the Street, and thinking: I’ll have a go at becoming a serious writer.
When we arrived in France, I found that I could write for longer chunks of time, and became quite productive in terms of finishing pieces of work, rewriting short stories and working on a new novel.
2. Do you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?
No. Perhaps I should devise one. The most sensible thing to do, of course, would be exercises for my shoulder and back, prior to being slumped over a computer.
3. Do you think creative writing is a skill that can be taught?
Yes, up to a point. I think a writer needs to have an inherent ability to write, on which they can build: reading ‘how to’ books, receiving feedback on their work from more experienced writers. I’m sure it also helps to attend classes/courses, provided the teaching is good and pitched at an appropriate level. Having a mentor can prove beneficial. I was lucky to work for a year with such a person, and the learning was invaluable.
4. What was the genesis of Water’s Edge?
As a travelphile I like to set my books in ‘foreign’ countries. After I’d finished writing a novel based in the south of France, I fancied an alpine setting for my next one. I love mountain and lake locations, so Switzerland came to mind. At that time, I had the chance to have a short holiday on my own, and decided to go to Brunnen, on Lake Luzern, where I’d spent a night on my first family holiday abroad as a child. It was only when I arrived there that I decided to make Brunnen the setting for Water’s Edge. It still intrigues me why I didn’t make the connection earlier!
The location was inspired by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac although at the time of writing the first draft of Water’s Edge, I didn’t know that the hotel used in the film version was actually on Lake Luzern. (In the book, the protagonist, Edith Hope, is exiled to a hotel on Lake Geneva.)
I am fascinated by family relationships, the superficial interactions and the subtext. I liked the idea of a family reunion where all is not as it seems, and the idea went from there.
5. With which of your characters in Water’s Edge do you have most sympathy?
Contrary to what many people believe, a writer doesn’t necessarily create a character who is like him/herself. Most of my female characters have a few personality traits which I possess and therefore hopefully can write about in an authentic way, but I’ve never been in any of the situations in which my characters have found themselves. Water’s Edge is relayed by four viewpoints – a mother’s and those of her three daughters. Although I derived pleasure from drawing those characters, I don’t/didn’t empathise with any of them in particular.
6. You spent a while living in France. How did you end up there?
We went there for fun, basically, or to put it in more adult language, to experience living in another country. Fortunately my partner is able to work anywhere in Europe as long as he has internet accesss. I was able to take a career break. We chose France because we both spoke some French. We chose Grenoble because it is surrounded by stunning mountain scenery.
7. How do you feel about your novel being published as an e-book?
I am delighted. Although it’s less of an achievement than being published in hard copy, it’s good enough to increase my confidence and self-belief. Additionally ThornBerry are discerning in what they select so the fact that they’ve taken me on feels like external validation.
Ironically, after signing a contract with TBP, I did receive interest from a more traditional publishing company. However, as they wanted to be able to publish Water’s Edge as an e-book as well as a hard copy, I decided not to pursue this as I would have had to sever my contract with TBP.
8. Do you have an e-reader?
A Kindle Paperwhite. Initially I thought this was something I wouldn’t use, but once I knew my book would be available on such a device, I felt a bit uncomfortable about not possessing one – like having invented a washing powder without owning a washing machine. In fact I do use it a lot, partly because it allows me access to a choice of reading.
9. Is there any difference between reading a novel between two covers and reading it on an e-reader?
Yes. No attractive cover. No page numbers – instead the Kindle lets you know what percentage of the book you have read. A careless flick of the hand and you find yourself presented with a dictionary definition of a word from the page or on a different page. The advantage is that when you switch on, you are taken immediately to the page you left off.
10. What are you working on now?
I am finishing a rewrite of another novel, Chergui’s Child. I completed this years ago but because my writing style has changed since then, decided to return to it and hopefully improve it. I’ve changed its structure but the story remains essentially the same.
I am also in the final stages of writing a short guide to editing which ThornBerry Publishing have expressed an interest in.
I remember how patient Mum was with me when I was ill or anxious overnight. I was never, ever turned away from Mum and Dad’s bed if I needed comfort during the night–this continued long after I left childhood. When I had chronic insomnia in my late twenties we three used to sit up in the dark with cups of tea (made by Dad) and when I was in my forties a prolonged virus used to make my skin itch unbearably at night. Mum was always willing to wake up and keep me company as I scratched!
And now our roles are reversed. From time to time Mum gets confused and this seems to get worse at night. I sit beside her and tell her that no, we can’t ring up Miss X (dead many years ago) at this hour but yes of course I will ring her tomorrow and make sure Miss X is not upset. (About what I have no idea). Yes, of course Dad (another dead many years ago) will be able to help. And going amongst rich people will be fine. In between repeating these anxieties over and over, Mum stares into the far distance, her eyes wide open, her mouth in an “o” of worry.
“If I could just go ping pong” then people could cope,” she says. It makes me think of lift doors opening “Ping pong, first floor…” Perhaps that is what happens at the end of life, we go up in a lift until “Ping, pong, last floor, Heaven”.
When Mum is agitated at night, she goes backwards and forwards between her bedroom and the loo. And I mean backwards and forwards over and over again, sometimes with only a few seconds between each visit. She rarely sits on the pot, preferring to sit on the small chair beside the pot. There is a path trod in the carpet by her feet and her trolley.
The noise of the trolley as it transports Mum to the loo is a useful alarm clock when I’ve gone to bed. Sometimes I need to do nothing, other times I need to re-insert Mum between the correct layers of bed linen as she occasionally lies on top of the bed instead of getting inside.
Last night, I listened as she paced between bedroom and loo even more often than usual. It was tempting to assume that all was well and go back to sleep but something made me get up. The poor love had thrown up, very neatly on the cushion on top of her trolley. She apologised profusely and told me to not let it bother me. She was sorry she had disturbed me. I thought of the many times I had disturbed her and after cleaning up, sat waiting until she went back to sleep. So often these times remind me of my daughter’s early years, sitting waiting till her hands stretched out like starfish before tiptoeing away, standing with a basin underneath her top bunk catching her vomit like a ball and cup game. That daughter had just been accepted by Kings College University, London to do a degree in Adult Nursing. And so the circle of life goes on.
I watched this play online through the magic of the internet and was so impressed. It portrays how people with young onset dementia feel about their diagnosis, their present and their future lives. It is educational, entertaining and a must see for carers, patients and the public.
You should be able to watch this on YouTube when it is uploaded. Until then here is a link to the project.