Edinburgh International Book Festival: Sheena McDonald, Mike Thomson and Alexander McCall Smith

Survivor: Sheena McDonald. Picture: Contributed.
Survivor: Sheena McDonald. Picture: Contributed.
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One Friday night in north London 20 years ago, a police car speeding on the wrong side of the road in response to an emergency ran over Sheena McDonald.

The whole thing was seen by a doctor. “I think she’ll die,” he thought.

Why didn’t she? Luck, said neurologist Jonathan Miller in a TV documentary, and right enough, had her head been at a marginally different angle when the police car hit her, the twist to her brain stem probably would have been fatal. But the audience at yesterday morning’s event at the Book Festival would have suggested a couple of other factors. The two people on stage with her, for starters.

It helped that McDonald was treated within the “golden hour”, and that, as her friend, co-author and neuropsychologist Gail Robinson pointed out, that treatment for patients at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery was being radically improved. And helped too, she added, that Allan Little had intuitively worked out how best to assist his partner’s recovery.

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Like Robinson, Little picked up on the strangeness of McDonald’ condition straight away, how she was at once present and completely absent, unable to remember anything about the accident or indeed very much about the past at all.

Word retrieval was her top priority, and he worked out how to help. Boggle for speed, Scrabble for core vocabulary, the Times cryptic crossword for lateral thinking. He’d read her poetry: Heaney, Lochhead, Shakespeare sonnets. It seemed to help.

But if that was a turning point of sorts, this wasn’t, he said, a fairy story. The book the three of them have written together about the whole process of recovery from brain injury touches on moments of hurt and pain, like when Little had to remember that McDonald’s violent mood swings were the injury talking, not her, or when he realised he had reached the end of his tether and told her he had nothing left to give unless she changed. She did. Not a fairy story, alright. But the audience know a love story when they see one.

There was another one not too long after, when BBC journalist Mike Thomson talked about the love the Syrian rebels in the besieged city of Darayya learnt to feel for books. The lyricism with which the Syrians talked to him about the secret library in the heart of their city was in a class of its own. “Books are like rain,” said one. “Where rain falls, things grow. Where books are, knowledge grows.” Not the shells raining down, year after year, not the government snipers trying to pick them off, could divert them from their haven of hope – and underground library meticulously managed by a 14-year-old librarian. Even the one person in the Thomson’s story who at first didn’t love books was last seen driving a bright red and green van full of 2,000 children’s books for young Syrians under attack near Idlib.

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A lunchtime audience with Alexander McCall Smith is just about as far as it is possible to get from the Syrian civil war, but in Charlotte Square that was just the next tent.

As ever with McCall Smith, this was an entirely unpredictable affair, ranging from solastalgia to Freud’s mother, book tours with armed bodyguards to WH Auden, the nature of evil to Edinburgh’s problem with pushy mothers. He’d been up this morning at 3:30am, he confided, to write about a conversation about the Swedish-Russian war for the latest volume in his series featuring a Swedish policeman with a lip-reading dog. Even in Charlotte Square, there’s probably no other author who could ever say that.

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