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In which I give blood and read Lucky Break by Esther Freud

I always forget to eat when I go to give blood. Not forget to eat as in literally wasting away; over the last few days I have been cooking so much food that we can’t get through it. This is last night’s dinner, chicken, spinach and olive pie for the meat eaters, with a butter bean substitute for the vegetarian option. Also, on Saturday I’d rescued 3 Boursins from the village shop, which were just about to go out of date, so I mixed one of them up in the mashed potato.


However, chicken isn’t much good for iron; if I’d decided, in the run up to blood donation day, to eat make a beef pie, I might have avoided the dreaded “second test” for iron.

The first test is when they take a pin prick of blood and drop it into a blue solution. If your drop of blood doesn’t fall within the ten seconds, you may not have enough iron. That’s when they have find a vein in your non-donating arm and take a phial out of that to test more precisely on a little machine. About half the time, my blood goes down fine. And the other half of the time, I am left thinking “Oh yeah, I knew there was something I forgot to do… eat!” And then they do the second test, where your blood has to reach the magic number 125, and mine is always 122 or 123, meaning that I get sent away with a leaflet about eating eggs and spinach and red meat, rather than the Viennese whirls that have been overindulging in, which after all, are practically just butter, held together with a sprinkling of flour.

Anyway, today the digital readout flashed up with 126 and I was so excited that this had happened that I went “Yes!! Look at me!” and the donor carer doing the test did indeed look at me, like I was a total weirdo.

So I was allowed to give blood, but there was a bit of a wait on, just long enough for me to muse on the fact that the experience of donating blood always reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite books ever, and for me to finish Esther Freud’s Lucky Break.

Lucky Break is an ensemble piece following a group of students from their first year at drama school through the next fourteen years.

It begins with young Nell on her way to her first day at the Drama Arts school, leading us into the first, gripping insight of the students into their new regime.  It’s a great beginning, the most gripping part of the book, as we meet Silvio and Patrick, the diva-ish owners of the School.  Nurturing they are not.  They believe in their methods and there is no room for dissent.  Understandably, at the same time as railing against the system, the students vie for their approval, believing that Silvio and Patrick hold their futures in their hands.

After the drama of drama school ends, the plot tails off and everything gets a bit “random growing up-py”, leaving the characterisation exposed for what it is – verging slightly on the “stock” side; for example, the homely, doubt-filled girl, the glamorous beauty, the  cosy couple, the weirdo.  However, on balance and in the grand scheme of things, I found that this use of recognisable types helped to establish the sheer brutality of the acting business: the “beauty pageant” of castings; the stubborn imbalance between the number of male and female roles; the difficulty that even extremely talented Asian performers have to be cast beyond the standard “arranged marriage” parts; the havoc that the instability of the acting profession wreaks on family life, counterbalanced with the disappointment of the once ambitious when their talent is subsumed into the everyday business of mundane survival. 

I did finish the book feeling seared with the reality of what it is to be an actor, and felt that Freud (who trained as an actor) had written comprehensively about the emotional aspects of the profession: what it is like to be scrutinised for your physical being as part of your work; what it is to live your whole life under the possibility of that one “lucky break” call from your agent; the demoralising nature of work that does not fulfil you.  At the same time, she also revelled in the getting it right, and getting through to what it is to be another person, which ironically, was the method which Silvio and Patrick aimed so cruelly to mould their students to.

I was particularly struck with Freud’s joyous depiction of what it is to be young and optimistic, selfish , cruel and naive.   Seeing her unembarrassed depiction of this last trait made me think about my own writing about the way I find it difficult to make my characters look foolish, just as I myself don’t want to look foolish, or look back to times when I was foolish or naive.  Maybe this is something I should come to terms with.




  1. I have so often wondered what happens at those blood donation centres. I’ve always been too light to donate blood (this is simply due to my genes and the metabolism they’ve given me) and I really wish I could, though I am also aware I’d probably faint dead away. I think it is a very noble thing to do (and your pie looks gorgeous). I’m really glad you enjoyed Lucky Break, I certainly did. And having read so many of my friends’ manuscripts, you are not alone in feeling a tad squeamish about putting your characters through pain or embarrassment. Most writers overidentify with their main protagonists and end up smoothing the way for them, while readers are dreadful heartless souls who love to see catastrophe and suffering under the microscope! You just need to add a few characters based on people you never liked, and whose fate you can throw to the four winds if need be. 🙂

    • You must be tiny! They looked very suspiciously at me this time round when I turned up. I am actually spot on the weight limit, but usually I remember to wear “big clothes” so I don’t get asked. This time, having come from work, I was in skinny trousers and tailored jacket.

      I am fine with my protagonists suffering nobly. I just have to remember that we don’t, most of the time, identify with nobility.

    • Hey, well done Alice, with all your other commitments with your little one!

      My daughter still remembers getting a sticker and some crisps when she came along with me!

  2. Donating blood is a wonderful thing to do. Unfortunately I’ve pretty much been pregnant or breastfeeding for the last 5½ years so haven’t donated in too long. It’s something I want to get back into the regular habit of once I can though. It must have been a good feeling to see 126 flash up 🙂

    The book sounds interesting. I need to broaden my reading material, as I’m stuck on Lionel Shriver’s earlier work at the mo, and not getting on with it too well I have to say 😦

    It can be difficult to look back on times that we now consider to be foolish and naive, but they were essential in making us the people we are today. I think I’ll find it harder watching my kids muddle their way through those stages of life that I found to be so painful at the time…

    • Oh yes that 126 was magic. So many times I’ve given them an extra armful of blood just to find out that I’m still under.

      I am a big admirer of Lionel Shriver, and loved her short story Prepositions. However I could not get on with Kevin and ended up reading the beginning and end only! It was too uncomfortable a read.

      I think you are right about the foolish and naive bit being essential. I guess it’s difficult because we are wiser and changed, and that wouldn’t have happened without the naivity.

  3. You are the second or third person to have raved about Never Let Me Go in the last month. I really have to push that one way up on my to-read list 😉

    It’s wonderful that you gave blood! I am always too small to do it.

    The book by Freud sounds interesting too. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by actors as I think that they are somehow different from the rest of us…it will be eye-opening to read it. I’ll look this one up.

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