When I started to write Smailholm, my dad had just died. He’d had what you would call a particularly horrible death, for him and me. I won’t go into too much gory detail except to say it involved him ending up in hospital for twelve months, losing his sight, his continence, both his legs to gangrene and amputation, his mind, his dignity, every last ounce of fat on his body, his money, pretty much everything he had to lose. He eventually ended up in a care home, well two, because the first one was shut down by care commission for leaving him and others unattended for long periods of time. When he finally got into the care home where he died he was a shadow of the man I once knew. And I don’t mind telling you I felt powerless to stop it all. Looking back I could have done more. I could, with a reasonable amount of effort, brought him home for me to care for. But I had a two children, a job and lots of other responsibility. This decision has haunted me and will probably still do so for the rest of my life. But you can’t have regrets in life, only make decisions that may or may not be the best thing at the time. This story is not a particularly unusual one. It happens to families the world over every single day. The wards of hospitals are full of elderly people who have been left by their family and the system. The social care system in this country is fundamentally broken that is without doubt.
So when I came to write Smailholm, I wanted to say something about it. You might say that this is really not the right place to do so in a children’s book. But children are not immune to these things either. My children walked into the wards and corridors of the care homes with me to see their Grandad, just as countless children see elderly relatives who are deteriorating in mind, body and spirit. Sure, I tried to hide most of it away from them but as I have come to realise, children are more perceptive than you realise.
Smailholm is a two point of view book: one point of view is told from that of a 13 year old girl and one is told from an older protaganist called Deablin. Deablin’s point of view appears every other chapter and is a woman descending into madness, left alone to lament her life in a place that will be revealed, her mind gradually deteriorating over time. Just like my dad in the care home. Without wishing to reveal spoilers here, Deablin is important to the story. Her narrative is filled with the syntax of the medieval ‘thee and thou’, at odds with the first person narrative of the much younger protaganist Wynn. This I chose to represent the older generation vs the younger generation and to show how language moves on between generations. Because Deablin's narrative is every other chapter it does disrupt the flow of the book, but so does the grief of life, and that is what I wanted to say.
My dad and I with the same chops and my very awful 70s hat (what was my mum thinking!) My face never has changed since!
My dad on I on my wedding day.