Tag Archives: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s a good story – a journalist investigates a claim of a virgin birth. It’s 1957 and the world is a different place. There were local newspapers and no knowledge of DNA and no internet to help with research. Everyone smoked. London was frequently obscured by fog. At work it was a man’s world, and the story was seen by the editorial group of the North Kent Echo as a women’s interest item and was therefore given to Jean to investigate. 

Jean is the character whose fortunes we follow in this book. Her life has been going along evenly, with considerable boredom, until she has to investigate Mrs Tilbury’s claim of parthenogenesis.

Small Pleasures

Jean is nearly 40 and sees her life slipping away, having failed in the matter of finding a husband and establishing a family and a home. Instead, she looks after her dependant and neurotic mother in their semi in the suburbs south of London. Theirs is a life governed by routine and modest expenditure. Quiet desperation, one might almost say. 

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer … (328)

And then Jean goes to see the young woman who claims that there was no father involved in the conception of her child. Gretchen Tilbury is an attractive young woman and a competent seamstress. It is unclear to Jean why Gretchen wants her story investigated. Gretchen tells Jean that at the time when the baby would have been conceived she was in a private clinic, St Cecilia’s Nursing Home, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Since Margaret’s birth Gretchen had married Howard, who believed her story. Jean decides to visit the husband at his shop near Covent Garden, and to meet with the matron and fellow patients who occupied the ward in St Cecelia’s alongside Gretchen at the time when the baby would have been conceived. 

As the investigation proceeds Jean is befriended by Gretchen and her much older husband. And she finds Margaret, the child at the centre of the story, very appealing too. Jean begins to spend time at the weekend with the family. Gretchen makes her a dress and Jean buys Margaret a pet rabbit in return. She also finds herself being drawn to Howard Tilbury. And it begins to look as though there was a virgin birth.

I love this about fiction: I know that there has been no proven case of a virgin birth, but I was prepared to accept the possibility that Gretchen Tilbury had a good claim, because it was within a novel.

As Gretchen’s claims become harder to dismiss the reader comes to see that trouble lies ahead for Jean: she and Howard fall in love; her mother has a turn and goes to hospital for a few days; the doctors’ tests continue; Jean begins to hope for a better future than one only enlivened by small pleasures. I won’t relate the rest of the story. It is well told, and tension is kept to the end.

There is a lot about duty and decency in this novel, what was expected of people in the 1950s and what had to be hidden. The author shows the sexism of the time, but the most attractive male characters are those that treat women well: Roy Drake the editor of the North Kent Echo; and Howard Tilbury, the stepfather of Margaret. The sexism of the other reporters, the headmaster she meets and the doctors conducting the tests is pretty dreadful, but it reminds us of how much has changed in 50 years.

Small Pleasures has been chosen by my book group for discussion soon. I am sure we will find that there are many aspects of this novel that we can discuss. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, published in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 350pp

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Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

If we are ill and in hospital, fearing for our life, awaiting terrifying surgery, we have to trust the doctors treating us – at least, life is very difficult if we don’t. It is not surprising that we invest doctors with superhuman qualities as a way of overcoming our fears. (xi)

In common use brain surgeon is a synonym for a person able to deal with difficult problems with extreme accuracy based on profound knowledge. And brain surgeons do have great skill and are often at the peak of their medical career. We should also remember that …

Doctors are human like the rest of us. (xi)

Do No Harm  is a celebration of the human approaches in this medical specialism.

Do No Harm: stories of life, death and brain surgery

Richard Marsh recently retired from his position in a leading London Hospital where he had been a brain surgeon. This is his account of his career, his memoirs told through a series of case studies, each focusing on a different medical condition. He is keen to point out the fallibility of people in his position and that mistakes do get made, with quite awful consequences. He also reveals the importance of having good skills at explaining and reassuring people, patients and their families. And for teaching those who will ultimately replace him.

There is a central mystery in the brain. It is just jelly-like stuff. This grey-white stuff enables us to be conscious, to make decisions, to learn, understand, even to perform brain surgery. Yet it is still just jelly-like stuff fed by networks of blood vessels. If you are of a feeble disposition look away from this quotation.

I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing. With a pair of diathermy forceps I coagulate the beautiful and intricate red blood vessels that lie on the brain’s shining surface. I cut into it with a small scalpel and make a hole through which I can push a fine sucker – as the brain has the consistency of jelly a sucker is the brain surgeon’s principal tool. I look down my operating microscope, feeling my way downwards through the soft white substance of the brain, searching for the tumour. The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason that memories, dreams and reflection should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand. All I can see in front of me is matter. (1)

This is the opening of the first chapter, called Pineocytoma (an uncommon, slow-growing tumour of the pineal gland). Not all brain surgery is in pursuit of tumours; some is to attend to aneurysms, and some is actually spinal surgery.

And while each chapter looks at a different condition, the reader is never in doubt that these are people in whose brains Henry Marsh is moving his sucker. Some are in a very serious condition, others need preventative work, but all are people, who usually have families, and who are usually very frightened.

Meanwhile he also makes it clear that he is a member of a team, the theatre team and also the team of nursing staff. That these carefully built up working arrangements are endangered by management systems in hospitals and the recent financial and recruitment difficulties inflicted upon the NHS provokes incandescence in a doctor concerned above all with patients.

He tells a good tale, invaluable for those who must learn from him, and which makes for a very readable account of his work inside people’s heads. Here are some of the words reviewers have used to describe this book: elegant, frank, compassionate, profoundly moving, extraordinarily intimate, full of humanity …

It may well be that doctors do not have superhuman qualities, but Henry Marsh demonstrates some profoundly humanitarian one.

I picked up my copy in the Red Cross Shop in Chichester. It is one of the best reads for £1.75 I have had for some time.

Do No Harm: stories of life, death and brain surgery by Henry Marsh, published in2015 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 290pp

Winner of the PEN Ackerley Prize and the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Literature. Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

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