Saturday 18 September 2010

Comfort from Strangers - Michelle Lovric

For someone who’s not paid to be there, I’ve spent a lot of time at St Thomas’ Hospital A & E this year. There’s a seat in the corridor outside Majors that – in my daydreams – will one day bear a small, discreet plaque:

The Mourning Emporium

From that seat, you watch the meat wagons arriving full of bloodied drunks, pensioners disoriented after falls, people on bad drug trips. If you’ve read me, you’ll know I’m not squeamish. But at times even I’ve needed to turn away from what was being wheeled down that corridor outside Majors. I’ve also winced at the shrieked claims of inebriated girls about what they took or what they definitely didn’t do with whom. Some of them, sad to say, are young enough to read my children’s books. I’ve shrunk away from the huddles of defensive friends, hustling the fumes of their night’s drinking through the disinfected air. Almost worse is the occasional querulous posh person who turns up with a finger-tip lopped off in a gin-and-gardening incident. They bray their needs imperiously, oblivious to the exhaustion of the staff or the less socially entitled who might be ahead of them in the queue.

On each occasion (apart from the time my eye was swelled closed), my only shield against all this misery has been a manuscript. I’ve been able to tuck myself inside my story, close the trap-door, turn out the cruel hospital lights and light a private candle. I’ve been able to unhear the yelling and the moaning, unsee the blood, to fade far away and quite forget the ugliness and pain.

Instead, I’ve embarked on a floating orphanage in Venice and sailed her through ice floes to London, where I’ve encountered poor children who sleep in the coffins of a funeral parlour, lovingly tended by a Fagin-like English bulldog. I’ve staged verbal battles between wan London mermaids and their feisty Venetian counterparts. I’ve launched a murderous campaign by a pretender to the British throne. I’ve buried Queen Victoria. And nearly buried King Edward VII, somewhat prematurely.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Mourning Emporium, part-written in St Thomas’ A & E, also has a distinctly medicinal flavour. I’ve cured London of the dreadful Half-dead Disease (having first inflicted it on her). I’ve let my London mermaids become addicted to patent feminine nostrums such as ‘Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness’ or ‘Dr Blaud’s Capsules’, which, according to the manufacturer, produced ‘pure, rich blood without any disagreeable effects and are recommended by the medical faculty as the best remedy for bloodlessness’.

It’s not just mermaids. I’ve given one major character haemophilia. One of the children has ‘phossy jaw’, from working in a match factory. Another has a wasting cough – that could surely profit from 'Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic', as illustrated. The rodents of London’s sewers are terrified of a patent verminicide called ‘Rough on Rats’. In fact, I can’t think of a single character who gets through The Mourning Emporium without feeling a little unwell at some point.

Might I have all written those medical pages anyway, seated in the full bloom of health at my desk at home? Perhaps. But I would taken longer, been easily distracted, and succumbed to the blandishments of the cat or the email.

At St Thomas’, however, I was driven into the manuscript, and it welcomed me with all the exclusive, excluding cosiness of a private club. A manuscript is a not just a sanctuary; it’s a portable padded cell with all mod cons.

I, for one, would never get in an ambulance without one.


The Mourning Emporium, the sequel to The Undrowned Child, is published on October 28th.
Michelle Lovric’s website


catdownunder said...


Katherine Langrish said...

Dear me, nothing dates quite like advertising, does it? I

Savita Kalhan said...

I don't like to ask why you spent so much time in an A & E, unless it was purely to 'get in the writing zone', but I hope you're well now.
Were you ever tempted to recommend any of your tonics to your fellow waiting-room?
There's always a notebook for writing in and a book for reading lurking in my bag in case I end up in a place where the background needs to be tuned out.

Andrew Strong said...

Can the hospital cure writer's block? Does the Chill Tonic act as an expectorant for lucid prose? If not, you've got a secret recipe hidden somewhere. A beautiful blog, Michelle.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you all for your concern and interesting comments! I am fine now. But just this spring alone, I had a head injury, pneumonia and a houseguest who collapsed with a seizure. All unrelated, but all leading to many visits to that same chair outside Majors.

Andrew, perhaps my research is hereby exposed as shallow, but I admit I've not tried the Tasteless Chill Tonic.(Not knowingly, that is. As it has no taste, anyone could have adulterated my porridge with it). Perhaps, somewhere in the North Wing of St Thomas', facing a cold clear light, there is the Writers' Block Block, where the patients are all hitched to intravenous ideas drips ... ?

Kath, yes - Groves won't be challenging Beecham's Powders this century. But it's no more ridiculous than some current advertising will look in a hundred years' time. I've written several quite cross novels about Victorian quack medicine, hoping to make a point about modern times - because the 'wellness' industry is STILL peddling unnecessary palliatives, persuading us that we are perfectable, and that all we need is a bit of nutrileum or the latest wonder-extract, to be beautiful, glossy, thin and wise. And unblocked, of course.

michelle lovric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stroppy Author said...

Michelle, as you know, I've spent a good deal of time in A&E over the last 12 months as well, but all of it far too frenzied and terrifying to work on a MS (or even have time to grab one on the way into the ambulance). I did manage to read in A&E in Croatia last month... But I'm impressed that you managed to get the same seat each time. Do you phone ahead and reserve your seat, or do you have to evict whatever drunken and bleeding victim is sitting in it when you get there?

Have you ever directly taken an A&E incident and slotted it into a book?

michelle lovric said...

I know, Anne, you've had even more time than me at A & E and for much scarier reasons, and in foreign hospitals to boot, you poor thing. Not surprised that you didn't sit there working. And perhaps all your expertise as a medical writer served you ill, allowing your mind to wander through the darker tracts of medical history?

Re my seat, perhaps there was something wrong with that chair that I didn't realize and everyone else avoided it like the plague?There are seven in that row outside Majors and no one ever challenged me for mine.

If i had been a favoured patient, I might have hoped for the treatment certain readers used to get at the British Library ... the assistants used to stop other people from using the favourite seat of their favourite reader by telling other applicants that it was 'haunted' if they tried to get books sent there.

I have not taken any actual incidents from A & E - trying, as I do, to stay hermetically sealed in the ms - but I admit to stealing a few facial features here and there for characters. And certainly adverbs for voices of those in distress.

Is this a horrid kind of morbid parasitism? Could writers become a new kind of hospital superbug?

Stroppy Author said...

Writers as a superbug is a brilliant idea! Maybe Cambridge A&E is not always so busy because it's a city full of clumsy people with too large a budget for DIY tools but because it's packed with writers vulturing off the few real patients. [is it 'vulturing off' or 'vulturising'?]

I was wondering already if your seat *was* the haunted seat - BL-style, but true. Maybe there's a story that anyone who sits in that chair doesn't leave the hospital alive?

I was working in the medical library the other day, which is on the hospital site, but it hadn't occurred to me just to go and work in A&E instead...

Anonymous said...

Anne, would you stay seated in Michelle's seat once she comes and gives you a 'look'?