ANNE PETTIGREW: What I did at 50…

Tracey: With great excitement, I present to you the first post in my series — by authors, readers, publishers, bookshop owners, bloggers (the list goes on!) — about what life-changes they made at the age of 50. Author Anne Pettigrew’s going to start us off with tales from her life. Welcome, Anne. 

small promo pic Anne Pettigrew

Anne: Thank you. I’ve never thought, while grass-hoppering round careers, about ‘milestones.’ But Tracey has hit a chord: 50 was a milestone. But first the prologue…

The directions we take are usually governed by the ideas and influence of those around us- with a big dollop of serendipity. I’m no different. A sickly child, at 10 I decided to be a doctor. At 17 I enthusiastically started medicine at Glasgow. At 22 my resolution wavered (I fell in madly in love). But at 24, I qualified. Scary. And married. Lovely.  My plan was hospital consultant — but with no prospect of part-time work should I produce a sprog — I veered off into General Practice. Rewarding. By 30 I was a mum and happy part-time GP. By 40 I’d had sprog 2 and developed a wild notion that TV production would be great: the BBC didn’t think so.

I was diverted by medical politics and wrote my first letter to a newspaper (The Herald) ranting about Thatcher’s NHS changes.  The editor printed it as a feature and asked me to become a regular journalist for them. Other papers and medical magazines commissioned me. It was a great outlet for gripes and grumbles and passing on lessons learned. My main interests were complementary medicine (I became a Homeopath) plus preventive and women’s health, but by 50: I was despondent.

Problem was, I was seeing babies being born to babies I had delivered decades earlier coming into households still smoking, drinking, taking no exercise and dying prematurely despite our best efforts. I was also ground down by the excess computer data-collecting prescribed by the Government: too little time for patients: too much time wasted logging excess statistics no one ever looked at or used. You couldn’t ignore it or money to fund your patient services would be cut. I needed re-energised, so joined a Health Board Health Promotion Committee.  They moved meetings to a Monday morning, our busiest time so no front-line staff could attend. Frustrating. By now my son was finishing a Masters in Biophysics, my daughter off to Sixth Form College the other side of Scotland and my husband re-energised in a new Pharmaceutical Society post, developing pharmacy services… What should I do?

Then I had an epiphany.

It was a Post-grad prospectus. My wonderful son had a bundle of these for PhD applications. Glass of Sauvignon in hand (essential for all good decision-making in my view) I found an unknown subject: Medical Anthropology. Totally fascinating. A light bulb moment.  Perhaps studying how the beliefs of the healers and the sick over past centuries and across the globe might illuminate how behaviours formed – and how they might be modified? But, hmm. It was a Masters, hard. And at the University of Oxford — no chance.

I applied anyway. My son wrote my personal statement. I didn’t recognise myself, but they must have seen something. I was interviewed, accepted and before I knew it, I was on sabbatical, a locum in place. I was rooming in a house attached to Wolfson College. By quirk of fate, my son also went that year to Oxford for his PhD. At first keeping out of his way, I discovered he thought it hilarious his mum was also studying there. Weird but enjoyable being a student with your son.

The year with Rhodes Scholars and classmates from around the world was life changing. I was forced to stand back and look candidly at my profession. Or, as my tutor put it, be ‘de-constructed’! I found some answers to my problem of how to change unhealthy behaviour. The greatest improvements in infant mortality and health have been achieved by educating all girls. Kerala and Costa Rica are prime examples. It was a sobering thought to realise the best thing I’d ever done for patients was not prescribing medicine, but persuading girls back into college. My book royalties will benefit the truly anthropological and community-sensitive work of PlanUK. My publisher Ringwood is non-profit.

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— a cheesy grin after graduating MSc Medical Anthropology from University of Oxford!

Graduation was emotional — in Latin and complexly ceremonial, with much bowing and nodding — but also a fun family affair.  I returned to Scotland, made my sabbatical report to the Scottish Office and returned happily to practice until I retired.

But the sabbatical effect didn’t end there. I decided to write a novel about women doctors (there aren’t any except pioneers and pathologists) so signed up for Creative Writing classes at the University of Glasgow. There the undergrads were fascinated by our student experiences in the 60s: how on earth did we manage without the pill (not available on the NHS to the unmarried) without mobile phones and with no internet for research? The book would be sixties. And Oxford had made me think about doctors’ power.

I published my novel, Not The Life Imagined, in January 2019, aged 68. It was runner up in the Scottish Association of Writers Constable Silver Stag Award 2018.

front cover AP book

— Not the Life Imagined

— So my frustration at 50 led to an Oxford Masters, an obsession with promoting girls’ agency (ending child marriage and FGM while improving access to education) and a novel looking dispassionately at medicine 50 years ago when discrimination was the norm and ‘MeToo’ unthinkable —

We need our doctors to be competent, compassionate, trustworthy and practice sexual propriety. My first novel, Not The Life Imagined, deals with sex: narrator Beth exposes a rogue surgeon. The second will have her uncovering an untrustworthy Shipman character. Both are darkly humorous and entertaining — as well as thought-provoking. Medics make disastrous mistakes in love and life just like ordinary mortals! No mystique should surround them… 

The year out also led to life-long friendships. A German classmate with a degree in Tibetan medicine took me on her PhD trip to visit Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim. With her, we’ve also sponsored several Darjeeling hills girls. Two have graduated in Hotel and Tourism and one is finishing dentistry. All from a glass of sauvignon… What next? I will be 70 next year but as yet am unsure which direction to shoot off in. Serendipity may well provide the answer…

Tracey: Thank you so much for being the first to tell us ‘What I did at 50’, Anne. I’ve really enjoyed your story!

‘Not the Life Imagined’ BUY HERE

Here’s the Book blurb for NOT THE LIFE IMAGINED. Beth Slater is shocked at how few female medical students there are and that some people, such as Conor Towmey, think they shouldn’t be there at all. Devastated by a close friend’s suicide, Beth uncovers a revealing diary and vows to find the person responsible for her death. In Not the Life Imagined, retired medic, Anne Pettigrew, has written a tale of ambition and prejudice laced with sharp observations, irony and powerful perceptions that provide a humorous and compelling insight into the complex dynamics of the NHS fifty years ago.

Struggling with the pressure of exams while supporting friends though disasters, Beth charts the students’ changing, often stormy, relationships over two decades in a contemporary backdrop of Free Love, the Ibrox Football Disaster, the emergence of HIV and DNA forensics. In time, indiscretions surface with dire consequences for some.

A darkly humorous, thought-provoking story of Scottish medical students in the sixties, a time of changing social and sexual mores. None of the teenagers starting at Glasgow University in 1967 live the life they imagine.

Dr Anne Pettigrew is a retired GP and writer. You can connect with her in the following ways: 

Website http://www.annepettigrew.co.uk 

Instagram anne.pettigrew.author   

Twitter @pettigrew_anne

Facebook @annepettigrewauthor

 

Holly Bidgood – portrait of a young author by Lana Christon (@Authorpa44)

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Holly Bidgood is the author of The Eagle and the Oystercatcher. Holly enjoyed writing from a young age, but it wasn’t until she was 18, and after a fleeting visit to the Faroe Islands that Icelandic culture and history began to influence her work. Now living in a community in Scotland with her husband and two young children, her values of community and creativity are clear within her writing. (Learn more about Camphill Community towards the end of this post.)

Though she grew up in Derbyshire, Holly has always had a love for and been drawn to the sea, and this only furthered her interest in Iceland. So much so that she went on to study – and graduate with a First Class Honours Degree – Icelandic at University College London and at the University of Iceland where she learnt the Icelandic language. She developed her interest in Nordic cinema, literature, and culture, which is very clear in her first novel.

From her time in countries such as Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands (where her first novel is set), Holly says that landscape, wilderness, and closeness to the elements influence her writing. The Eagle and the Oystercatcher features all these themes but also the themes of friendship, loss, and social change during the 1940s. The Eagle and the Oystercatcher was released at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on the 23rd August, 2016. A five star review on her GoodReads page calls the book ‘Beautifully written, with a captivating story.’

Holly values community and creativity, as she herself lives in a Camphill Community, in a shared house with her husband, two very young children and five adults with special needs. With 23 centres across the UK, the community includes schools and colleges, where individual abilities and qualities are recognised and nurtured as the foundation for a fulfilling life. They also specialise in helping those with learning disabilities, however they state that they see no difference between the carer and the cared-for.

The Camphill founding values have a spiritual core of essential humanity, and each of the residents has a unique destiny to fulfil. This ethos has been at the heart of the Camphill Movement from the moment it was set up in 1940, expressing these values through building communities that ‘preserve and promote the dignity and potential of each member, with Camphill being a life choice, not a placement. It feels a perfect fit for Holly and her family.

holly signing

Holly’s debut novel ‘The Eagle and the Oystercatcher’ is available on Amazon and in various bookstores now.

From The Eagle and the Oystercatcher

In April 1940, two British Destroyers sail into the harbour at Tórshavn. From that point onwards the lives of the Faroe Islanders are irrevocably altered. Eighteen-year-old Kjartan blames the war for taking away the last remaining member of his family. At the same time he struggles with intense feelings for his best friend Orri. While they puzzle over the true identity of the herbalist who lives on the spiky slopes of the islet Tindhólmur, miraculous recoveries of the sick begin taking place all over the islands.
There is one person above all others that Kjartan and Orri wish to be made well again, but when this finally seems to be happening, the war deals them its cruellest blow yet.
Peopled by a cast of characters worthy of Dickens, The Eagle and The Oystercatcher resonates with the evocative bleakness of the Faroe Islands, coloured by rain and snow. With her skilful writing, the author adeptly conveys the everyday details of the islanders’ lives.

‘The destroyers were bigger than any manmade thing I had ever seen, and I was gripped by a shivering sense of dread to think that man could assemble something so large and commandeering; that man should feel the need to. They dwarfed our little fishing boats into primitive insignificance – their masts now matchsticks, their sails tissue paper – and they did not just fill the vision, these cold-blooded destroyers, they grasped the soul.
Destroyer: that was the day I learnt that English word, and I remembered it instantly. Magnus’s English was limited – the little he knew he had picked up from trading with Scotland – but even he knew that word. He spoke it with a fragile caution, as though the sounds themselves might be dangerous, and the typical Faroese spin on the letter ‘R’ rolled off his tongue, through his beard and into the cool, dense air. Orri and I watched it curiously, that snippet of new knowledge, opening up a world that even then seemed dark and confusing. We could see no reason to trust it.’

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Buy The Eagle and the Oystercatcher here

Here’s a tantalising snippet from Holly’s second, as yet unpublished novel set in Greenland:

‘We cut small pieces of the whale’s nourishing skin and chewed contentedly, savouring the goodness of this mattak: I could taste it now, feel its toughness between my teeth. Never before had I tasted it so fresh.
The world around us had fallen into a tranquil stillness, serenity in the wake of a life taken, a struggle ended. The only sound was that of our voices and laughter, carried upwards and lost in the vastness of the broken pack ice and the blue, empty sky. My cheeks stung pink from the cold.
I had feared that the son of a white man would find no solace with those whose arctic blood ran pure. But at that moment I knew who my people were. If only it could have lasted; if only I could have stayed forever in that most wonderful, archaic of places where each life draws sustenance from another and the world moves in harmony.
If only I had not had to return home to find my own mother – loveless, lovelorn stranger – sprawled, like the narwhal, on the cold floor. Intoxicated to the eyeballs she stared at nothing, for her eyes were clouded over and her body lay lifeless. This creature did not speak to me of graceful, ancient beauty.’

Holly describes her writing progress at the moment as “spectacularly slow” due to her work in the community and her two toddlers, but she’s determined to finish her second novel and send it out into the world to join the first. We shall just have to wait with bated breath!

Follow Holly Bidgood on Twitter:Holly Bidgood

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