I recently attended the Cove and Kilcreggan Book Festival in Cove Burgh Hall, held during Book Week Scotland. This was the sixth year of the festival, which is completely volunteer-run and the teamwork was pure poetry in motion, surpassed only by the quality of the legendary home-baking.
Headline sponsorship from Creative Scotland helps bring in some of the top names in Scotland, and this year was no exception.
Over the two days, Cove Burgh Hall played host to Denise Mina, Gavin Francis, Melanie Reid, Ambrose Parry, Helena Kennedy QC with Sarah Smith, David Pratt, Stuart Cosgrove with Janice Forsyth, Philip Long and Tom Devine. This stellar line-up was matched by equally impressive chairs – Faith Liddell, Rosemary Burnett, Ruth Wishart, Robbie Fraser and Clare Henry.
In a packed hall on Saturday afternoon I was moved and inspired in equal measure listening to journalist Melanie Reid, who spoke openly, wittily and pragmatically about her life as a tetraplegic following a fall from her horse on Good Friday 2010. Ruth Wishart was a wonderful chair for this session, and she gently and warmly encouraged Melanie to share her stories with the audience.
At the end of the session, Melanie was signing copies of her book “The World I Fell Out Of” and I spent a couple of minutes chatting to her. I could find no substitute for “inspirational” despite Melanie’s dislike of that particular word. I also commented on watching her smile brightly each time someone stepped forward to have their book signed. I told her I admired her for being able to put on this act, but she quickly corrected me and said far from being an act she had never experienced so much love or warmth in her life, for which she felt immensely grateful.
Some of her more humorous insights were that suddenly going from 6ft tall to 4ft sitting in a wheelchair meant you were at “fart height” in any social setting – not always a good place to be! And you also got a birds’ eye view of how well or badly a woman had applied fake tan to her legs.
She had considered calling her book “Down the Rabbit Hole” but then discovered this title had already been taken by a bunny girl. She admitted giving in to the addiction of horse-riding and getting back on a horse, and to her ultimate humiliation of being thrown a second time. However the head of the spinal unit at Glasgow took another perspective and instead reframed her determination, courage and willingness to have another go as signs of success. She said that this set her back a couple of years and she no longer goes near horses.
Melanie spoke at length about the importance and distraction of work – saying how good it could be when you didn’t want to face the realities of life. In the early weeks after her accident she knew that her key coping strategy would be to write about it, and she came up with the title “Spinal Column” which she still writes for the Times.
"Employment is nature’s physician and essential to human happiness."
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She described the parallel worlds of those who are fit, healthy and complacent against the one inhabited by the sick, disabled and elderly and explained that she is striving to be a voice for the latter. In her book the reader is dragged brutally into the world of the sick and paralysed as she shares in stark detail the highs and lows of daily (and nightly) life during the year she spent in the spinal ward in the Southern General hospital in Glasgow.
As would be expected, black humour and absolutely remarkable swearing both featured prominently in the hospital setting, but Melanie spoke warmly of the great camaraderie, support and love she experienced during what must have been some of the darkest of times.
Her comment that life is very random and we are all just 2 seconds away from disaster was a chilling, yet salutary warning for the oft-perceived cliché of not taking anything or anyone for granted. Melanie’s remarks were also apposite given the current political turmoil into which the NHS has been thrust centre-stage. Her book captures the extraordinary expertise and skills within the NHS, but she does not shy away from examining its failings and shortcomings.
So I returned home with a mix of emotions – gratitude for my own family and friends – a reminder of the importance of keeping myself as fit and healthy as possible - and admiration for Melanie’s grit and determination. At the time of writing I was delighted to see that Melanie’s book had just received the Saltire Literary Award for Non-fiction Book of the Year 2019. Well-deserved...and definitely inspirational.
"Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practise any other virtue consistently. You can practise any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage."
Take care. Lead well.