Last November, I heard Christie Watson read from The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story at a Vintage showcase evening. With Julian Barnes and Richard Flanagan also on the bill, she had stiff competition. Yet it was she who held the audience spellbound with an account of how she and a fellow nurse tenderly washed the smoke-filled hair of a little girl, Jasmin, fatally injured in a house fire. If there was a dry eye in the house, I didn’t see it.
The Language of Kindness, in which Watson shares "the tragedies and joys" of her 20-year nursing career, is an extraordinary, unforgettable book. It packs the same unswerving frankness about the demands of the medical profession as Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt. But it is also a transcendent book that takes the temperature of our society, in the process asking searching questions about the human qualities we should prize most.
Although The Language of Kindness is her non-fiction début, Watson is a writer with form. In 2011, she won the Costa First Novel Award for Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. When we meet, Watson explains how she began writing while on maternity leave with her daughter, now aged 13 (she also has an adopted son). “I did a creative writing course for beginners, mainly to get me out of the house. And I absolutely loved it. I wrote a short story called ‘Basketball Player’, which my tutor said was very good. Then one of my classmates said: ‘I think you should apply for an MA.’ So I Googled: ‘MA in Creative Writing’ and the University of East Anglia came up. I didn’t know anything about UEA. I didn’t have a degree, I didn’t even have an A-Level. But I sent my story off and they accepted me. It was the stuff of dreams”.
Watson spent a year juggling the full-time MA with nursing and with motherhood. "It was really tough. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it." But, by the end of it, her story had become Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. A second novel, Where Women are Kings, followed in 2014. Of the intersection between nursing and writing, Watson remarks: "Both are about stepping into other shoes."
Two years ago, while talking to her agent, Sophie Lambert of Conville & Walsh, about the possibility of writing a nursing story, she floated her desire to write narrative non-fiction. Lambert suggested she put the two together. "Sophie had quite an easy job with me that day!" laughs Watson. Soon after came a "lightbulb moment", when she realised that, despite an array of books by doctors, the nurse’s voice had never really been heard. "That was a real push for me to get it written." The Language of Kindness was completed in five short months in 2016.
Although Watson believed she had identified a hole in the market, she was in no way prepared for the fever-pitch of interest her book immediately generated on submission. It sparked a 14-way bidding war: to date, rights have sold in 19 territories, and the book is also being turned into a TV drama by Mammoth Screen, producer of "Poldark" and "Victoria". "It was overwhelming. So many people were flying in to meet me. By the end of the process, I had flu and was wrapped in a blanket, sneezing all over some very high-profile executives!" Watson tells me.
How does she explain this surge of interest? "I think it’s because while the book started off being about the life of a nurse, it became something much broader about humanity, even though that wasn’t my intention when I started it." Although her father’s death from cancer five years ago wasn’t a catalyst for writing the book as such, the experience of being "the other side of the fence", as the loved one of a patient, was a seminal one. "I’d been doing my job for so long that it became second nature. And then my Dad’s death made me understand for the first time what nursing really is." In one chapter of the book, entitled So We Beat On,Watson describes the remarkable quality of care her father received from Cheryl, his Marie Curie nurse. "She made us feel that we were the only family she was looking after. I think every nurse makes every patient and family feel like that, if they are good. And what an extraordinary thing that is. From then on, I started to think about nursing in a much more profound way."
The narrative arc of The Language of Kindness takes us from birth to death, beginning with Watson’s own “birth” as a nurse, as a rebellious 17-year-old, through to her life-changing experiences working with babies and children (paediatric intensive care was for many years her specialism), and to caring for the elderly. "I wanted it to have a circular feel, and all through it the idea that life carries on, while nurses get up for work day after day." And while The Language of Kindness is an unsparing book that exposes "all the horror and beauty of life" and the "awful things that happen to good people", there is absurdity and humour too, brought out through an unforgettable cast of characters: from Scarlett, the labouring young mother whose vulva, the ingenue Watson discovers, appears nothing like the seashell in Sandro Botticelli’s "The Birth of Venus" she had imagined to herself; to the 92-year-old Mrs Jones, who tells a patronising consultant: "You can’t fix me, dear. I’m not fucking stupid." Was Watson conscious of wanting to write an emotional book? "Not at all. If anything, I pared the emotion back. I just wanted it to be real."
I’m struck by the quality of the eye contact Watson makes as she talks. Her gaze is direct, dignified, patient, and, yes, kind. If you had to hear bad news, she is a person you would choose to hear it from. And you can’t read Watson’s often blistering account of what it takes to be a nurse today without being acutely conscious of the bad news it delivers about the NHS. “I hope I haven’t been too political, because I wanted this to be a story-telling book. But of course we need to talk about the NHS. Friends who are working on the wards today say they have never seen nursing in such a state. The NHS has been chronically underfunded for years. And we’re massively down on nurses, with 33% fewer applications since the nursing bursary was scrapped. Unless that’s reinstated pretty quickly, we face a public health crisis. But the crisis in nursing is also a global issue and I’m interested in why that is. Because if we’re not valuing nurses then it’s a sign of the state of our humanity,” says Watson, vehemently.
The kindness of strangers
Despite the state it’s in, the nursing profession is one which Watson still wholeheartedly recommends. "It takes so much from you, and nowadays it’s an almost impossible endeavour. But being a nurse gives you great gifts too. It enables you to live with your eyes wide open. I certainly live with my eyes wide open, and I know not to waste a single day."
The Language of Kindness is a remarkable paean to nurses, in which Watson reminds us not only how special they are, but also that, one day or other, we will all—as the loved ones of patients, or as patients ourselves— come to rely on the kindness of such strangers. "Nurses show that we are all connected. I think maybe that’s what’s missing from society. The understanding that we’re all the same. But nurses see that. Nurses know that."
I learn then that nursing is not so much about tasks, but about how in every detail a nurse can provide comfort to a patient and a family. It is a privilege to witness people at the frailest, most significant and most extreme moments of life, and to have the capacity to love complete strangers. Nursing, like poetry, is the place where metaphorical and literal meanings cross borders. A hole in the heart is a hole in the heart; the nurse is the thing at the centre; between the surgeon’s skill at fixing the hole, and the patient’s anxiety and loss, the metaphorical hole. Nursing is—or should be—an indiscriminate act of caring, compassion and empathy. It should be a reminder of our capacity to love one another. If the way we treat our most vulnerable is a measure of our society, then the act of nursing itself is a measure of our humanity. Yet it is the most undervalued of all the professions.