This is an anthology of writing, mostly poems but also some short prose pieces, by members of the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres in Scotland. The first Maggie Centre was set up in Edinburgh in 1996 by Maggie Keswick Jencks, herself a terminal cancer patient, to help cancer patients to continue to engage with life in the best way possible. One aspect of this is to encourage expressive writing. The anthology is published by PlaySpace, based in Glasgow. The editor is Larry Butler, convenor of Lapidus Scotland whose motto is ‘well-being through writing. All proceeds from the book go to the Maggie’s centres. The titles of the five sections of bundles of bog cotton reflect what is uniquely beneficial about being part of a Maggie Centre: ‘A Place Where Light Stays’; ‘Soft and Vulnerable in a Shell’; ‘Illuminating Darkness’; ‘An Unfathomable Ocean’; and ‘Another Hour in Quiet Tranquility.’ A Front-piece quotes Anaïs Nin: ‘The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.’ In bundles of bog cotton the forty-two contributors do just that, expressing and exploring their pain, loneliness, loss, fears and hopes, their changing ways of looking at the world and their new-found intensity of joyous living. I found these poems and prose pieces to be extremely moving, powerful, penetrating, unflinchingly honest, inspiring and humbling. One of the poems here, ‘Why Write?’ by Victoria Field, says:
‘It takes us out of ourselves
And into ourselves.’
Both for the writers and the readers bundles of bog cotton succeeds in this admirably. There is some truly wonderful writing here.
DRIVING SOUTH TO INVERNESS by Phoebe Caldwell (Pavilion Publishing, 2016)
Unlike Phoebe Caldwell’s other books, which are aimed at professionals in the field of autism, and at parents with children on the extreme end of the spectrum, this book is about her own later life. She writes with unflinching honesty, combining the scientist, the communicator and the poet in her to great effect.
Although the subtitle of the book is ‘Postscript to an active life’, Phoebe Caldwell’s mind is as sharp and active as ever and her considerable empathy for others in no way diminished.
The setting of the book is North Yorkshire and the move from her home in the Wenning Valley into sheltered accommodation in Settle in the Ribble Valley. She addresses loss of identity in a strange place and the struggle to maintain the balance between community and individuality as one grows old. And she writes about the pain of having to discard treasured possession, each one holding a precious memory, when forced to downsize.
Phoebe shares her worries with us: for instance, that her deteriorating eyesight might prevent her driving, and the loss of freedom and independence this will bring. Many other things she shares with us – her love of art, poetry, the beauty of the landscape, her years of working with extreme autism, her thought about death. She recalls her mother saying, ‘You have to learn to let go,’ but knows that, before she can do this, she must learn to face up to things. ‘Facing up,’ she writes, ‘allows us to participate in the process of living and ageing, rather than simply being ferried along as a passenger…. We have to learn to give ourselves away in order to grow.’
Driving South to Inverness is entertaining, readable, powerful, brave, insightful, both witty and serious. This is late life writing at its best. I heartily recommend it.