I wonder if anyone else heard Melvyn Bragg on the radio recently, taking no prisoners as he urged the BBC to up its game with Arts programming in the face of increasingly high-standard competition from Sky and Channel Four. He was forthright and very direct ( thank heavens we still have people who can be, and broadcasters who will air such ascerbic criticism of themselves...I love the BBC for it) about programmes shifting from BBC One to the remoter outpost of BBC Four, as well as reducing in frequency, and as far as I can tell only seem to 'star' Alan Yentob these days. It would be nice to see a few new presenting faces. Sky Arts have snapped up super model Lily Cole who has a Cambridge double first in Art History as well as modelling for Alexander McQueen, Auntie would do well to take heed.
Anyway thus was Melvyn perfectly positioned upon my radar when his latest novel Grace and Mary arrived. I can't proclaim much success with his previous novels, and given the focus of this one on ageing and dementia, I wasn't hopeful that Melvyn and I were about to become friends, but on this occasion some disparate planets aligned favourably.
I watched the recent six part series The Village (a BBC success in my book, though not a universal one I gather) because it ties in wonderfully with some of my Beating the Bounds research in connection with our village war memorial. Two lads from the farm that surrounds us here died in the Great War and are named on the memorial. Having harboured all manner of imaginings about how that loss may have impacted on the family, and getting quite caught up in the emotion of thinking about them walking these fields, and what their last visions of home may have been as they lay dying in the trenches (maybe that view from our window even) I decided to find out more. I found out plenty about the family and it has all been a real revelation (which I am still writing up for a future post) but the BBC series gave me some context (fictional or otherwise) for how life may have been lived here at the time.
Grace and Mary, though set in the present day, is also interwoven with a narrative of village life through the Great War. John is visiting Mary, his elderly mother, in a nursing home..
'The mother and son meet mostly in the middle of the last century. After the war. Her disintegrating memory can still take her there... Now she is in her tenth decade, he has just gone seventy, and slowly the roles are reversing... they can still draw warmth from the embers of those days...'
John is treading a gentle path through the miasma of his mother's vascular dementia...
'It was as if it had been sent up from the deep to punish the audacity of the human race in so steadily and cleverly increasing its life span...this creeping undergrowth which strangled the roots of thought.'
Convinced he can still reach the mother he knows, John recreates the story of Grace, Mary's mother. In re-telling the story of Grace's life, and Mary's, and this mother she hardly knew, John hopes to rebuild memory for her, clinging valiantly to the glimmers and brief improvements he hopes this brings to Mary's condition. Except as we know, there is little that can be done to reverse the relentless progress of vascular dementia as it wreaks its trail of destruction...
'...broken and frayed, silted up, chokingly webbed in the intricate threads of ageing...'
Judging by many of my previous reading encounters with this subject, and for reasons various, I expected to find this all thoroughly depressing and far too painful to read. When someone you love has suffered this it can make for hard-earned reading pleasure best avoided. I felt sure I would be waving the white flag of surrender by page fifty, but Melvyn Bragg has been through this too, with his own mother, and his sensitivity to his subject and the depths of love and endless patience, and soothing and caring that John offered his mother won me over, as did the interwoven narrative of Grace.
Writer's take many routes with the subject of dementia and this may be one of the few that has worked for me. I'm a nurse for goodness' sake, I should be able to cope with it, and in real-life I can, but on the fictional page I am highly and subjectively censorious. I need to read of endless kindness being offered to anyone suffering from dementia and the minute an author strays from the path of compassion I'm afraid I just get too upset, invoke reader's prerogative, close the book and move on.
In Mary's world, as constructed by Melvyn Bragg, and in the ideal world that we would hope all dementia sufferers would be cared for, the nurses are endlessly patient, understanding that there will be 'differences of days' and these must be accommodated. When Mary spits her tablets back at them, or becomes abusive, they leave her time to regroup before trying again. But they do try again and with kindness, and they coax the food into her, and sips of drink from the spouted cup, and doubtless those drinks are within reach just in case Mary can manage it herself, and her personal care is dignified and thorough.
It is all sad and poignant, not sentimental... ultimately strangely heartening and giving me the courage to read on.
Strong-willed, single-minded and very determined, Grace's resilience will also be tested to the limits as she mourns the loss of her own mother who died shortly after her birth. It is well-recognised that childhood loss, even of an unknown parent will need to be grieved many times over and Grace is no exception. Finding her way in the world she eventually finds work as a maid in a local home for the wounded soldiers of the Great War.
You can perhaps now see how my walking, watching and reading planets aligned... the lads from the farm and The Village (with a lead character called Grace, brilliantly portrayed by Maxine Peak) all segueing perfectly into this book.
There is a moment in Grace and Mary when Grace and her employer are discussing fiction...
'Agnes enjoyed talking about the characters - were they believable? That was the crucial thing, she said. if you didn't believe in a character how could you possibly go on? And did the writers cheat with the plots?'
No cheating with plot that I noticed and I believed in every one of the characters, even the shadowy and deceitful Alan who Grace falls in love with in the convalescent home, and his embarrassed and evasive parents who Grace finally plucks up the courage to visit when it becomes clear ... no I couldn't possibly spoil it.
But talking of the word, do you remember the days of 'convalescence'??
Days of rest and recovery and recuperation from illness that would set you up properly for life again.
Now it seems you are just so many days post-op/post-viral/ post-chemo until you are well enough to go shopping again.
Themes of memory and loss, recollection and reconnection surround an underlying sense of belief ... in faith, in self, in the soul and in others, and in human nature to prevail for the greater good, as Melvyn Bragg weaves together three generations of a family in Grace and Mary to create a novel that I couldn't put down, and that I knew had been quietly and profoundly moving as I turned the final page.