Today my guest blogger is the person I owe my whole writing career to (and is published by Sandstone Press along with Jorn!). She was the writer in residence at the writer's group I attended after I had fractured my spine. Writing was something I had never intended to do, I had no real desire to be a writer. It was the long months in hospital, the utter boredom and the threat to my livelihood that made me think that somebody upstairs was telling me to change my course in life. It was her who suggested sending the typescript to Jane Gregory. You know the rest!
John le Carre said her writing was ‘Brave, vulnerable, intensely observant and articulate, packed with life’. Fay Weldon called her 'brilliant.' Even Val McDermid waxes lyrical about her.
Her name is Ajay Close. But to the hooligan reprobates of the Johnstone writer's group she was just Ajay. And she would patiently explain the difference between uninterested and disinterested for the sixth time - while still looking interested.
Her new book, Petrol Scented Spring sold out after three weeks - yes weeks!
It's a book ....well she explains below what the book is about, a touching and intriguing story.
My little knowledge of the Suffragette movement in the UK is largely limited to its most famous public moment ; the instant Emily Davison charges the King's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby.
She died later of her injuries, the jockey never got over the incident and committed suicide later in life. The horse was retired for political reasons and lived a long and happy life at stud.
Here's what Ajay has to say. And when you have read this you should visit her website at www.ajayclose.co.uk and read the 'about' section. Quote, 'Nevertheless, for me, happiness is living in two fictional worlds: the one I am currently reading, and the one I am writing. Depression is the state of being between books. '
Over to Ajay...
We think of terrorism as a 21st century problem, but in 1914 Scots were no less nervous about unattended luggage. Nine bombs were planted across Scotland. Two exploded: in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and Rosslyn Chapel (of Da Vinci Code fame).
The fires were more destructive. Railway stations, schools, racecourse stands, sports pavilions, a university laboratory, a church, a hospital and several large private houses were targeted. Today, the damage would run to many millions of pounds.
Once in a lifetime, a novelist finds the perfect ready-made story, a sequence of real events so dramatic you couldn’t make it up. I came across mine after moving to Perth ten years ago. It had everything: female terrorists, a big moral issue, cabinet-level politics – and a highly-charged relationship across the divide, a strange sort of love story.
In the summer of 1914, four militant suffragettes are jailed in Perth for attacks on property. They refuse to eat or drink. In England, their comrades have been force-fed since 1909. In Scotland, prison doctors won’t do it. Rather than see women die behind bars, jails have been releasing them on licence to return once they regain their strength. (They never do return, of course, unless recaptured.)
Now the government decides it can’t have one rule for English terrorists and another for Scots.
Dr Hugh Ferguson Watson is 40. An Ayrshire tenant farmer’s son, dux at Ayr Academy, then a grocer’s apprentice. It has not been easy, working his way through medical school, watching men with money and connections overtaking him. Having carried out “artificial feeding” in asylums when patients won’t eat, he has the skills the Prison Commission needs.
The first suffragette he feeds, in Edinburgh, nearly dies of pneumonia after milk gets into her lungs.
In June, Arabella Scott arrives in Perth to serve nine months for setting fire to Kelso racecourse stand. A 29-year-old schoolteacher, she’s a bit of a celebrity in the suffragette movement. Also, strikingly goodlooking.
Before long, the doctor also has care of Frances Gordon (who set fire to a mansion house), Maude Edwards (stuck an axe in the King’s portrait), and Fanny Parker (caught with a bomb at Burns Cottage in Alloway).
Unlike the other three, Arabella copes with force feeding surprisingly well. A mixture of milk, eggs and sugar is poured through a rubber tube inserted down her throat into her stomach. Afterwards, her nose and mouth are blocked for upto two hours so nothing can be vomited out. It’s a brutal experience if the patient is docile, and Arabella is anything but. Up to eight warders are needed to hold her down.
She is kept in solitary confinement in the prison hospital, flat on her back. No exercise, visitors, letters, books or newspapers. The one person she talks to is the doctor, who spends many hours alone with her, trying to persuade her to give up her hunger strike.
We know about the Stockholm syndrome and the deep bond hostages can form with their captors. But if Arabella is under extreme pressure, so is the doctor.
As the other suffragettes are released and talk to the newspapers, the nation learns they were fed with nutrient suppositories. To Dr Ferguson Watson, it’s the obvious solution to a medical problem. For the authorities, it’s a PR disaster. There are questions in the House of Commons, many outraged letters to the editor.
In some ways, the doctor and Arabella are very similar: intelligent, principled, uncompromising – and for the five weeks she spends in jail, isolated. She doesn’t leave the prison hospital. He doesn’t leave the prison grounds.
In the archives, reading his daily medical reports on the four suffragettes, I noticed a striking difference. With the other three, he’s coldly factual: temperature, pulse, bowel movements. With Arabella, he describes her moods and emotions. One day she bites his hand. Twice she threatens to shoot him.
As an old lady, she sat down with her niece and recorded some memories of this period. It seems the doctor told her that, if she abandoned her hunger strike, she could avoid public embarrassment by emigrating. The government would send her to Canada. He would escort her there.
Clearly this was no ordinary doctor-patient relationship.
Ajay Close guest blogging for Caro Ramsay 16/10/2015