Writer and Author

Category: UK

Lockdown!

The UK is now closed. Photo by Yogesh Pedamkar on Unsplash

What a difference 24 hours makes. Three days ago people were still going for a grand day out at the beach, queuing for the chipper and enjoying the sun. As if to rebuke the Guardian report this morning that the government had passed on advice to set up an emergency alert system, a text message was sent to phones around the country today, telling everyone to stay at home. As if things couldn’t get more end-of-days-ish.

One must just hope they didn’t have to pay for every text message. It is already surreal sharing this experience with friends on the other side of the planet. Universal text messages telling us to save lives take us into a weird Black Mirror world. It might be one we’ve been sliding into for a few weeks now but we have finally well and truly arrived.

Mind you, it really doesn’t seem like a brave new world out there. My desk is beside a window and I can see people passing by at both ends of the day. I can hear the main road from here too and the traffic has not stopped. Considering this is an unprecedented lockdown I had rather expected it to sound as quiet as it does on Christmas Day. We must have a lot of workers living locally – or possibly the new rules are taking a while to sink in. One can’t help wondering if a strict lockdown is possible in a country which has championed individualism for decades, with an I’m-all-right-Jack, attitude that leads us to obsess about sovereignty and independence. It was rather shocking last night to hear Boris Johnson actually sound like a credible leader, albeit a tightly scripted and pre-recorded one.

But then these are strange days indeed. When a Tory government effectively re-nationalises the railways and considers a universal basic income (link behind a paywall and the universal basic income is still just an idea, for the moment). Workers who were deemed low skilled and therefore low-value mere weeks ago are now key workers who are keeping society going. This virus is turning the world as we know it on its head. It might be temporary, it might be a lasting change. This really is the kind of event that defines decades, even centuries.

I haven’t blogged on a daily basis for years but now it seems a natural thing to do. I know I’m adding to the chatter, the cacophony of analysis and navel-gazing but I can’t look away. We are living through history. I want to record this time so that I remember it. Keep a record of the things I notice, things I feel. This is important.

After weeks of rain, the sun came out just as the country started to really take note of the virus. Today, the first day of lockdown the weather is absolutely gorgeous. I’m used to watching the sun through the window while I work though. I wrote both my books during summer recesses from the courts to tight deadlines. But the sky seems higher in Sussex than it was in Dublin. This is going to be a long and very quiet spring.

Head to the Hills – or rather do not head to the hills

We all know the scene, the deserted cottage on the Moors/up the mountain. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We’re all familiar with the scenario. When pestilence sweeps through the land or the zombie apocalypse hits, our heroes head out of town and try to find somewhere to batten down the hatches. In John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes husband and wife reporter Mike and Phyllis Watson try to make it to their remote cottage in Cornwall as all other hope fails. Similarly in Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids sanctuary is found and hope of a normal life are found in a rural location.  In Terry Nation’s 1975 series Survivors, sanctuary is found outside the cities away from infection. The first series shows the main characters searching for somewhere remote to hole up and subsequent series see them forming a community and getting back to nature. This is what one is supposed to do in a pandemic. I’ve had many a conversation with friends about the perfect blot hole for when society finally came crashing down (what can I say – I belong to Generation X), what it would look like, where would it be. But that was all fantasy, the reality is very different.

This weekend scenic spots all over the British Isles saw heavy traffic as people ignored the warnings about gatherings. The government has issued specific guidance for the owners of holiday homes and second homes that heading for the hills does not count as essential travel. The problem is that, while this might be the course of action that characters take in fiction, in reality, going to that isolated cottage is going to put extra strain on communities that really don’t have the resources to cope. All over the weekend community leaders and police forces have been warning out-of-towners away. It turns out that, in reality, if you are going from an area with a high rate of infection, to somewhere isolated with less infection, all you’re doing is potentially bringing infection with you. Actually, this salient fact is in the fiction. In Survivors, for example, there are numerous storylines where infection is brought into isolated communities. But those stories are talking about a truly cataclysmic pandemic. While Covid19 is bad and we need to do all we can to flatten the curve and make sure the NHS can cope with what’s to come, this is not the end of society as we know it. Yes, this is a once in a century event and it will shape the rest of our lives in ways we don’t yet know, but this is something we will get through – as long as we look out for each other and don’t act like assholes.

Personally I’ve been too busy getting ready for teaching to resume this week to go gadding about the countryside – oh, and I don’t have a holiday home. I had my first online seminar today. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for all of us but I’m just hoping my students feel supported enough to get through this disruption to their education. Starting university this year has been a roller coaster for any first-year students and my heart goes out to final years. It had already been a turbulent year before we had heard of coronavirus and social distancing. It’s hard not to feel helpless as this thing keeps smashing through our daily lives. All we can do is get through day by day. There’s very little that I can say that won’t sound trite because this is simply too big.

As well as teaching I’m also helping to organise our first online PhD game night on Wednesday. As I wrote yesterday, Twitter has been brilliant with help on that. But there is something about this time that almost feels like the early days of social media all over again. We’re looking at how to connect, how to stay together, in more meaningful ways I think. This isn’t about social media as a utility, it’s about social media as a lifeline. That’s what it was for introverts or scattered families and friends when it was new and shiny. Then, as it became ubiquitous, we began to shun the alwaysonness of it all. I even want to talk on the phone these days. Times really have changed.

Mothers in a time of distance

Me and my mum, back in the days when we hadn’t heard of social distancing.

For weeks now businesses have been gearing up for the Mothers’ Day blitz. Well, there’s always some excuse to sell but Mothers’ Day sends them into overdrive. I’ve had exhortations to buy my dear old mum mugs, teatowel, perfume and speciality teas and those are just the ones that are relatively bespoke. I’m increasingly relieved when a company asks if I want to opt-out of the barrage of Mothers’ Day marketing. I always say yes. I know there are plenty who think these opt-outs are just another example of the delicacy of modern life but I’m always relieved when a marketing department actually realises that the day isn’t an uncomplicated love-fest for all of us.

I had a complicated relationship with my mum. When I was a kid she was wonderful. I was an only child and my dad had died when I was a baby so my childhood was solitary but happy. I know my mum found it hard – she was an actress and loved being the centre of attention, something that’s rather difficult to maintain on your own with a toddler. She never really recovered from my dad’s death. While as an adult I understand the decisions she made after that, there are some I will never quite forgive. I’ve written about my mum before here. Let’s just say she was a complicated woman and sometimes a hard mother to love.

I’m also not a mother myself. This is something that has loomed bigger in my life at some times than others. I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. While it’s not something I lose sleep over I would rather it wasn’t shoved in my face on a regular basis. It sometimes feels as if you aren’t quite counted as a woman if you’re not the custodian of small humans. Not all the time, but sometimes. Mothers’ Day is complicated and a little sad and a little bleak and usually I will go out of my way to avoid it.

This year, of course, Mothers’ Day is problematic for everyone. There will be guilt, far more than usual. People will be wondering if they should visit elderly relatives, younger mothers will be worried about their health and the health of their children. Family visits will be missed, Skype calls will be plentiful. It’s another thing that has changed in this strange new world of ours. In the last week we’ve begun to get used to change but today is a reminder of how many things will not happen this year because of the pandemic. The rhythm of our lives will be different this year. The next weeks and months will be filled with other things that have stopped, that are missed. If people don’t stop treating the general stoppage as some extended bank holiday we will find ourselves under much stricter constraints than today. That too will change quickly. That is the way we live now.

Today I have spent time planning new ways to socialise. I help to organise a games night for fellow PhDs at my university and this month we’re moving our gathering online. One thing has become apparent this week as the general sense of weirdness grew. Social media is suddenly feeling as helpful as it was almost a decade ago. These are times when social media comes into its own, where people can come together and reach out. We’ll see a lot more of that as the weeks draw on I hope. For the moment I’ve gone from knowing very little about online gaming to actually knowing how to get set up. For years I’ve promised to keep better touch with far-flung friends but never quite got round to it. Too easy to use the excuse of the pace of modern life. Let’s hope this is at least an opportunity to reset our relationship with each other, to perhaps finally step out from our bubbles, even in the face of global isolation, and reconnect with each other. This is the first global pandemic in such a connected world. It is in a sense, new territory.

So this is the fourth day of the revived blog. Goodness knows how long I’ll keep up these daily posts. At the moment it’s helping to get things straight in my mind as the world spins around me, although that could just be the vertigo. We’ll see as the days progress.

 

The Way We Live Now

Do we all have stashes of toilet roll now?

We live in a strange new world. A world where a delivery of toilet paper is anticipated almost as much as the new Hilary Mantel, where a silence has fallen on sports grounds and cinemas and more people are tuning into the nightly news than Strictly Come Dancing. We have all learned how to wash our hands all over again and now lots of us sing while we do so. We are learning new uses and combinations of words – social distancing, cocooning. It is like living in a sci-fi film.

The university made the decision to move all teaching online on Monday. I’ve spent most of this week working out how on earth I’m going to deliver teaching without actually being in the same room as my students. I worked remotely for two years for a company where my teammates were sometimes in three different countries, before that I was freelance for a decade. Working from home doesn’t bother me and technology doesn’t phase me but there is something exquisitely infuriating about realising that even though it’s a while since I’ve done either, the technological solutions are no less annoying and just as apt to wig out when they are actually put to the use they were supposedly designed for.  In case any of those students are reading this, don’t worry I’m not talking about the stuff I’m going to be teaching you. The first few days passed in a flurry of panic, trying to assess the new reality. After weeks of being told the coronavirus was a concern but under control and nothing to worry about suddenly we’re all at DEFCON 1 and life as we know it has come to an abrupt pause. Nothing is as it was but for those of us that worry every flu season because the wrong dose could potentially mean months of incapacitation, there’s a strange sense of vindication. I’ve been paranoid about touching door handles, cash machines and public transport for months now, it’s kind of nice to know that most people are now on the same page – even if it does mean you can’t get toilet roll for love nor money.

If you are someone who has spent most of their lives waiting for the end of the world – and that does tend to be the scenario I catastrophise to, then there is a sense of familiarity with all of this. I grew up in a time when the threat of nuclear war seemed very real indeed. The early 80s was a period of intense sabre-rattling between the US and what was then the USSR. In 1982, the Home Office was running practise scenarios for a nuclear strike on Britain. Between 1984 and 1986, TV programmes like Threads, Z for Zachariah and When the Wind Blows shaped the cultural imagination. Being a kid at that time you knew something was up. Even the children’s programmes showed death and disaster – I particularly remember Dramarama Spooky, which ran in 1982 and featured an episode where a schoolkid is haunted by the girl who died when his school was hit by a doodle-bug bomb during WW2. There were the outlines of a family on the pavement outside the town hall, which I stepped over every morning. I knew they were just paint but I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that they represented all that would be left if a nuclear bomb hit. As if to reinforce the sense of impending panic, the fire station that stood beside my school had a habit of testing its old air raid siren every time we had a class with the windows open. I grew familiar with a noise that my mum and my grandmother had left me in no doubt meant death. It was around that time that BBC radio did an adaptation of the War of the Worlds and I discovered John Wyndham. These stories shaped my imagination, they became a genre I have sought out ever since. I’ve always loved a good dystopia.

So some of this feels familiar. The idea of having stores of food is one I’ve had all my life. My mum was a war baby and always had her tin cupboard well-stocked. I’ve spent too much of my life in in not particularly well-paid jobs not to know a thing or two about buying in bulk and making things last. That doesn’t make any of this less scary. I’m worried for elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives. I’m worried for myself but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head telling me “it’s ok, we know how this goes”. It’s an annoying little voice because yes, we know how things go and that why I’ve been avoiding door handles and obsessively washing up after using public transport for weeks!

As I said yesterday, this is a personal blog. It’s my way of getting this all straight in my head. This seems like a time to shout into the void so I’ll be doing it as often as possible,

 

 

On Strikes, Teaching and Times Past.

Striking Victorian belles. Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian

Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DIgiVIctorian on Twitter

It’s been a year since I’ve posted here and a very busy year at that. I’ve had a little more time lately – although that is a relative term when there’s a thesis brewing – so here I am again. As the nights draw in it becomes a time for reflection and getting nostalgic. We’re almost at the end of the second universities strike in two years. Tomorrow is the last of 8 strike days in the UCU strike and I’ll be heading to the picket line again. I was brought up to respect unions and the power of collective action and bargaining. My mum was an actress.  Joining the union, Equity, meant that you could work. Getting your Equity card was your badge of professionalism, it meant you’d had at least five paying jobs. As a journalist, I applied for my NUJ card as soon as I started studying. It meant that I could blag my way into nightclubs but over the years I’ve been glad of my union membership. As a freelance journalist knowing that you have the support of a union behind you when you’re otherwise out on your own is a huge thing. There was a strike in the first journalism job I ever had, at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast. I was freelancing but I wouldn’t cross the picket line. Solidarity is an important thing  – though on that occasion I did go into Broadcasting House when the picket went for lunch. I was too precarious not to.

Well, I’m still precarious. I love teaching but it does feel like being back in those early journalism days. My first cheque was for £30 if I remember rightly. I was dead chuffed (that was my rent back then). That’s the thing with now and gets down to why I’m striking. It might feel the same as those days hustling for a story but it’s not the same. Now I teach both history and journalism as a doctoral tutor and this is necessary because I’m doing my doctorate unfunded. It’s not how I planned it but funding is hard to get. That’s a subject for another day though. I rely on teaching around campus because fitting a doctorate around any other type of work is next to impossible.

I’m striking because I’m paid hourly and those hours aren’t the hours that I invoice for, those are the hours allotted. For each hour I teach I get paid three more. That sounds like a good deal but in those three extra hours, I’m supposed to give feedback to students, mark their work and, most importantly of all, prepare for my teaching. I am given one hour to prepare for teaching. This is actually a pretty good deal by academic standards. But I’m a latecomer to academia. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve even designed material for the purposes of teaching others in those environments. I would have got balled out of it if I’d taken an hour to prep. If you don’t believe me take a look at the rates recommended here. Now OK, that’s corporate tech training but still, for Instructor-Led Training – which includes design, lesson plans, handouts and Powerpoint slides – the recommended rate is 34:1. That’s 34 hours to every one taught.  I’d love to know if anyone outside very, very high-end corporate actually manages to get that ratio but even in the basic stuff I used to do the rule of thumb was 7 hours prep for one presenting. That’s not the reality in academia.

I’m also striking because this term by term merry-go-round is probably it for the foreseeable future. Fixed-term, fractional contracts are the norm for post-doctorate jobs and quite a bit post-doc at that. I’m also striking because this situation is absolutely head wrecking for those of us reliant on it. It’s also not fair on the students who are paying over £9,000 a year for their education. I’m striking because something has to change, for everyone’s sake.

I’ve had cause to think about my own time at college over the past week as well. Last week I learned that one of my old lecturers had died. I have fond memories of Muiris Mac Ghongail. He taught me when I was doing my degree at the Dublin Institute of Journalism in the late 1990s. Muiris was never boring, always inspiring. His classes were always well attended. We’ve got a Whatsapp group at the moment because it’s 20 years since we graduated next year. The news was shared on there and all day my phone was beeping with memories of Muiris. I was heading to the picket line that day, listening to stories of teaching now, of workloads, of lack of contact with students. Every now and then I checked the Whatsapp messages. The same memories kept coming up – that he was a great dissertation mentor and also that he used to take us down to the pub on occasion and hold forth. Now I don’t oversee dissertations at the moment but I know that my students complain about contact hours with teaching staff. They want more than drop-in office hours and I sympathise. I’ve seen student suggestions on our uni student app that they would like to spend more time with teaching staff. The pub has been suggested. I remember going to the pub with Muiris. He was always entertaining and those were definitely memorable evenings but I’m not sure I would be happy to see a revival of what was fairly normal in the mid-90s. Muiris was very generous with his time but other teachers would only ask certain students. There was a lot of resentment about a certain boys club we female members of the class could see back then. It’s all water under the bridge now but it’s another reason I’m not sure I’d be in favour of a return to that kind of completely relaxed interaction. It’s too easy for lines to blur, for favouritism, for things to get messy. But looking back on those days, on days when I didn’t graduate with a debt, when we only had 30 to a class when we could just drop in on teachers. Something has definitely been lost with student numbers climbing and we can feel its loss and so can our students.

So we strike and try to slay the neoliberal beast. It’s only taken 10 years to get to this, the removal of the cap on student numbers and the speeding up of the marketisation of education under Cameron and Gove. People have a choice in this election for change or more of the same with bells on.

 

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

An Exciting Couple of Days

GreyfriarsBobby

The Edinburgh statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who stayed by his owner’s grave for years, His nose has been rubbed bright by luck seeking tourists.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year. One of the biggest is that I’m finally starting to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the academic side of things. When I started working on the Kirwan case five years ago I was looking for the subject for the next book. I stumbled across the case doing a broad sweep of the National Library catalogue and knew instantly that there was something there. If William Kirwan came up in the courts list while I was on the beat there would be no question it’d be a case to follow. It’s got everything – middle class killer, attractive victim, sexual impropriety. I don’t think there was ever a period in history when that wouldn’t have made headlines.

So I told my agent that I’d found the next subject and started digging.

The one thing I could never have guessed is how much that case would take over my life. I usually get rather buried in my research but this was something else. Where ever I dug I kept discovering more. If I’d been in a certain type of film we would have been stumbling into a new hidden cavern filled with priceless golden artifacts every couple of days. Pretty soon it became clear that the research was too large for one book. There are so many angles to approach it from, so many side branches and interesting avenues to go down as my cast expanded and my timeline grew. This was no longer a single case to study – this was a field. Kirwan wasn’t an end in himself but a door into something so much bigger. I’m still finding stuff and I don’t intend to stop looking, it’s odd to look back these days and see that this whole change of direction came from one rather thin case (when you actually look at the evidence).

It became clear fairly early on that this research was more than just the book. The book will still get written (although it’s evolved rather from that early agent conversation) but things have grown quite a bit. I’m now hoping to start a PhD next year (more of that another time) and I’m working on proving myself academically. So that’s how I met little Greyfriar’s Bobby (in the picture) earlier this week. I was over at Edinburgh University delivering a paper on 19th century newspaper coverage of the Dublin Insolvency courts (and yes, Kirwan did get a mention). It was a fabulous conference. So much fun to get to meet so many people equally nerdy about 19th century newspapers and to so many expert views on a huge range of subjects. I learned that the paper I’ve often turned to for illustrative purposes, the Illustrated Police News, degenerated into a Victorian lads mag by the end, or that Harriet Martineau wrote extensively on the Irish Famine, or that Dicken’s speeches were his form of profile management. Here’s the programme of the full range of talks, with links to all the abstracts if you want to know more about each subject. Also here’s the Storify put together by organiser Dr David Finkelstein, to give a flavour of the couple of days.

I’m planning on putting my paper up on Academia.edu, or even looking into getting it published elsewhere but I’ll keep you posted. The Edinburgh trip was eye opening. Academic presenting is very different from anything I’ve done to date. It’s a specific skill that I want to grow but the experience – stimulating, intense and exhausting – was definitely one I want to get used to.

Voting for a better future

On May 7th in the UK and May 22nd in Ireland voters will get to make a momentous decision. In both cases the choice will be not simply one for a political party or even a Yes or No – the choice facing voters will be a fundamental one, what kind of world do you want to live in?

Both votes are divisive ones. In the UK, this General Election is likely to result in a second consecutive coalition government. With a historically fragmented electorate the choice for voters is far broader than usual. Do they swing to the left or the right. In Ireland the choice, ultimately is the same.  The Marriage Equality referendum which offers a democratically sanctioned equality for same sex marriage has been fought on the old ideological currents that run beneath the fragile veneer of modern Ireland. Ireland is familiar with referenda but it’s been a long time since there was a vote on a subject that went so close to the still beating heart of Holy Catholic Ireland. While it might appear on first glance that the two votes have nothing to do with one another, don’t be fooled. This month voters in both countries are being asked to vote for one of two futures – in very broad terms we are being asked to choose Star Trek or the Hunger Games.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. If we vote Star Trek in either May vote, we are not suddenly going to discover life on other planets. If we vote the Hunger Games we will not suddenly be divided into zones and forced to fight to the death but if you look behind all the campaign posters and the political point scoring the choice is equally stark. In both votes one result will bring positive change. It will say to a marginalised quarter of society that they are included, they are of value and they will not be left behind. It is saying that principles like equality and compassion are central to society and that the people themselves recognise the need to step forward together into a brighter, fairer future.

Or in either vote the choice could go the opposite way. In both cases a retrograde step. In both cases a closing of ranks, a lowering of heads and a clear message to those on the outside that they are not wanted, they are not cared about, they are not “one of us”.

This is a choice about the future you want for your children. Do you want to look forward or back? Democracy is not something that we can passively expect to happen, it is something we must push forward ourselves. This May we have a chance to make a difference. Don’t vote out of fear, vote to include. At least connect.

Rose and Crown

When I was little the Queen came to visit our school.  The teachers were ecstatic and the other pupils were pre-Christmas type excited. As the day got closer they jostled to be picked to be the one who would give the obligatory posy to her Majesty.  Even back then in those memory misted days I have no recollection of getting excited. 

The school was cleaned from roof to basement and we were handed little plastic union jacks to wave on the day.  I remember they had a hollow black stick with a red pointy button on top that was quite good for poking people in the back with.  I quite liked the plastic flag too. You could see the sky through it and the colours swirled with if you pulled at the plastic enough.  As a symbol of patriotism it meant little or nothing to my five year old sensibilities.  My mum had found  me a Welsh flag to wave instead, the flag of the land of her birth.  It had a wooden handle and was made of a strange shiny fabric that frayed nicely at the end – and it had a dragon on it. There was no comparison.

I remember getting told off when I brought my Welsh dragon into school.  It wasn’t the prescribed Union Jack, which was discarded in a messy corner of my bedroom, it’s red and blue pulled almost white and no longer capable of any satisfactory waving.  There was almost a row over that discarded Union Jack but in the end time was too short and young children had to be wrangled into lines on the side of the road to wave at the royal car.  I ended up standing at the front and waved my dragon like mad as the car drove down the road.  As it neared me it slowed down and a smiling grey haired lady looked out of the open window.  She caught sight of my dragon and waved right at me.  That was the last time I got excited about royalty.

I remember the silver jubilee.  We had a street party and I wore the Welsh national costume (Wales being a bit of a recurring theme in my childhood).  At one stage there was a fancy dress competition and once again I was dressed in my red check skirt and stove pipe hat.  I came second and was momentarily offended at being called a Welsh witch. 

These aren’t particularly unique memories if you grew up in England like I did and when I did.  Most people of my age and geographical upbringing would be able to tell you something similar.  It comes of growing up in a constitutional monarchy. Like most other people we gathered around the family TV set to watch Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles.  It was just another shared point of reference, a marker in the course of our lives.  But we were never particularly royalists.  I remember being taught how to curtsey (possibly for that school visit before the flag debacle) but could never do it without falling over.  There may have been the odd commemorative mug around but shoved in the back of cupboards rather than on display anywhere.

I’m writing this as background because today Queen Elizabeth II came to Ireland.  It’s a historic visit, the first in the history of the state.  There have been protests (small but noisy), a heightened garda presence (big, very big, but on the whole rather quiet) and more metal barriers than you could shake a St Patricks parade at.  There was a wreath laying and a visit to the Book of Kells and the Queen changed her outfit several times.  It’s all very portentous and historic.

This time round I wasn’t waving a Welsh dragon, I didn’t even have a stovepipe hat.  I spent most of the day wandering around a Dublin that looked like the set of a post apocalyptic British film made as a comment on Margaret Thatcher.  Yellow vested gardai were everywhere, as were disgruntled Dubs.  The royal cortege sped down a deserted O’Connell Street while the citizens of Dublin were kept at a very long arms length, at a sufficient distance so that projectiles couldn’t be lobbed, or anti monarchist chants heard, let alone republican banners read from a speeding car.

I’ve no sympathy for the idiots who staged a sit down outside the Conways pub on Parnell Street or the muppets attempting to burn flags down the road in Dorset Street.  They were the kind of rabble that come out of the woodwork any time something like this happens and they’re not representative of the prevailing attitude in Dublin.  I’ve seen enough of the trials that came out of the Love Ulster riots (which were sparked by an Orange March down O’Connell St – which was always going to  be a rather daft idea).  Most of the people charged weren’t republicans at all but unfortunates with no fixed abode who’d come across the placard waving protestors and seized the opportunity to sack and pillage the nearby sports shops.  There’ll probably be something similar over the next day or so.  That’s the way things tend to go in this city.  We have a highly excitable underclass.

What surprises me is how many closet royalists I’ve met in the last few weeks.  There’s been a genuine excitement about this visit that went beyond building bridges, and don’t get me started on the royal wedding hysteria we’ve only just got over.  I’m not expecting everyone to start singing A Nation Once Again but somewhere at the back of my mind was the assumption that the citizens of a republic would be less impressed by a family who gained their status through nothing more than an accident of birth, a life of privilege through a fluke of genetics.  When the Queen visited Trinity College this afternoon she was greeted with a labyrinthine line of people waiting to be presented to her.  It’ll be the same for those invited to the gala concert later this week. I’ve seen people with invites congratulated already on Twitter but I just don’t really get it.  She didn’t do anything to get to be queen.  What is the big deal about shaking her hand?  She can’t actually cure scrofula you know!

I’ve nothing particularly against the British royal family I just don’t really see the point of them.  I certainly don’t see the point of living in a temporary police state for four days while the glitterati of Dublin play high society with an elderly couple who lucked into figure head status across the Irish Sea.  Today’s wreath laying at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square may have been a significant moment in reconciliation between the two countries but the next three days are simply a junket that most of us don’t get to participate in.  There’ll be a lot written about how the acceptance of this visit shows a new maturity for the Irish people.  But wouldn’t it be even more mature to just take it all in our stride and not make such a fuss.  There’ve already been four bomb scares today.  The lockdown of the city is a reaction to a genuine threat from a few bigoted individuals.   Couldn’t these grand gestures have been made in a shorter visit?  One that wouldn’t require the city to be in a constant state of high alert for the best part of a week?  Do we really need to give the monarch of another country such a prolonged junket?  Can’t we just go back to appreciating our new found maturity in peace?

© 2020 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑