moving account of her experience of leukemia in last week's Scottish Review was a timely reminder about consulting your doctor over troubling symptoms, especially now when illnesses other than COVID-19 have tended to be sidelined and treatment delayed. Don't assume they are unimportant or they will vanish of their own accord. They may, but they may not.
I was reminded of my Highland grandfather who died in 1952, the same year as King George VI. He was in his early 70s, a retired poultry farmer and soldier. He had worked for Lord Lovat on his Beaufort Estate in Beauly. He had been a pipe-major in the Lovat Scouts, fought in the Boer and First World wars and chauffeured his aristocratic boss at home and abroad in some of the earliest 20th-century cars. Clever and practical, family circumstances had forced him to leave school early to learn a trade. Later, like many Scots, he wanted to emigrate. Opportunities beckoned, first to an orange farm in South Africa, then to a hill sheep farm in New Zealand, but my grandmother wouldn't leave her widowed mother to go so far away.
In his retirement, he bought three conjoined cottages, each facing a different way, in Drumnadrochit near Loch Ness, where he gardened, kept bees and poultry. He and my grandmother looked after me as a toddler while my mother completed her medical studies at Aberdeen University. Although frequently admonished in my childish wanderings – 'Tut, tut. Off grandpa's borders' – I was much attached to them both.
When he first developed symptoms of the cancer that would kill him, he kept it to himself. A proud old military man, he was embarrassed to admit frailty. So he didn't seek medical help until the pain became intolerable. My mother had him taken to see a distinguished specialist in London. But it was too late. He returned to the Highlands by train to die. The irony was that, had he sought help sooner, it was a treatable cancer even then.
There's a distinct atmosphere of settled gloom pretty much everywhere at the moment as a result of this prolonged pandemic. Highly contagious, it creeps about invisibly, infiltrating like a miasma, a medieval plague in the 21st century. We moderns thought we were over such things. It more properly belongs to the dark hinterland of a Grimms' brothers fairytale or dystopian future where our achievements are mere ruins in the desert sand. Aside from potentially dire economic consequences, it severs friends and families, causes depression, disturbed sleep and savage dreams, induces agoraphobia in the housebound, kills many and leaves others with long-term health consequences for which there is as yet no cure. We pray for a vaccine as our forebears prayed for God's help. What if they can't find one? What then?
Its insidious, silent, asymptomatic infectiousness is scary. We fear our friends as much as our enemies, cover our faces and keep our distance. Some still don't even believe it exists. They think it's some kind of government hoax, a secret plot devised to deprive us of our independence, democratic rights and freedoms of speech. So when you can't see the danger, why not thwart the restrictions? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, with any luck, we'll mostly still be here.
I've spent the past two or three months following a couple of online novel writing courses, run by a London-based literary agency, Curtis Brown Creative. I published a collection of short fiction in the autumn of last year and then followed a new course in writing short stories CBC were offering. I felt comfortable writing short stories, but unless you're an established name or have a strongly topical theme, they're not exactly money-spinners. I had a novel-length story that had been through several drafts over a number of years, which I had put away. Was there any life left in it? CBC run three six-week long online courses for aspiring novelists: 'Starting to Write Your Novel', 'Writing to the End of Your Novel' and 'Edit and Pitch Your Novel'. I wasn't ready for the third of these, but I reckoned I had nothing to lose by signing up for the first two.
I enjoyed the experience. I wish such courses had been available when I was much younger. I'm too long in the tooth for them to be much use to me now. But hey ho, nothing ventured. I knew a lot already about techniques of fiction writing. I've been to classes, read a score of books. Applying them is the difficulty. Applying them over the length of a novel is even more challenging. Avoiding the twin dangers of overwriting and banality. Show, don't tell. Cut to the chase, ramp up the pace, pile on the jeopardy for your protagonist and make any dialogue you write sound authentic, which, paradoxically, is not the same as writing dialogue the way real life dialogue actually sounds.
Computing has made the graft of writing so much easier. I remember manual typewriting, first on an old Bluebird Ace one of my aunts gave me, which had seen her through the Blitz in her central London flat. Then a neat little aqua-coloured Olivetti I bought in London when I worked there briefly in the early 1970s. But oh the faff of carbon copies, applying Tippex and Snopake, sourcing and inserting new ribbons. Then came the short-lived Amstrad. I had two of those.
Meanwhile, the umpteenth novel revamp continues apace.