Writer and Author

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A Matter of Communication

When you’re on lockdown you just want to keep in touch with the outside world. Image from the Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr Commons

When I started blogging again the intention was to write a post a day. Especially now we’re in lockdown as the pandemic rages around us the idea was to give structure to the endless indoor days, to provide a record for myself and maybe others, to fall back on the comfortable stretching of well-worn technique. I’ve had this blog for 12 years now, I had been blogging anonymously before that. As a journalist, there’s an enjoyable discipline in writing seemingly unstructured musings to a pretty strict length. While I’m honest about what I say on the blog and would never lie, I don’t share every piece of myself. There is always a line. I’ve noticed that a lot of friends who’ve also earned their living from writing have also turned back to blogging or podcasting. Apart from the fact there is an undeniable urge to reach out for human contact right now, it is also intensely comforting to fall back into a familiar way of writing. It’s like flexing a muscle for familiar exercise, there’s even a similar endorphin rush when the words begin to flow. I’m not yet at that point with academic writing so the chapter I’m working on is going much slower these days.

So I blog partly to communicate, partly to keep in shape as I get stir crazy. As we move inexorably towards the peak of this virus communication is absolutely vital. Not just how we reach out to each other, but more official communication as well. Now is not a time for corporations or governments to be tone-deaf on anything. People are on edge, worried and scared. Anyone with pre-existing anxiety or depression have it particularly tough. We are living through a time that looks horribly like the end of world scenarios we catastrophise to. Now is a time for comfort, for the familiar, for reassurance. We know there’s a big bad world out there, there’s no escaping it at the moment. If ever there was a time to live by the mantra “don’t be a dick”, that time is now.

Which brings me to the reason why I haven’t been blogging for the last few days. Last Wednesday, an email was sent to budget holders at the University of Sussex advising a series of cost-cutting measures in the face of the financial uncertainty sparked by the current situation. So far, so pragmatic. Unfortunately, at least for management and the subsequently very overworked comms department, the document found it’s way out of its initial limited distribution and ended up being read by the people it was writing about. The problem was that, as well as calling for people to think before ordering expensive catering for meetings and to keep an eye on the stationery budget, the document also called for all casual, non-permanent and part-time staff roles to be evaluated and if possible, if they were not business-critical, to be terminated as soon as possible.

Even though the university issued a statement the following day, announcing to the world that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed because no-one was going to be sacked summarily, the rest of the week degenerated into a storm of stress and anxiety. This is my first example of poor communication. At no point did the statement say that casual staff, precarious staff, many of whom were working extremely hard delivering hastily prepared online teaching and supporting students, were valued members of the Sussex family. At no point did they offer reassurance or acknowledge that the past term had been difficult, not least because of four weeks of strike action partly about the working conditions of precarious and casual staff. At no point did they actually apologise for causing additional stress to vulnerable staff. This was a corporate statement from an institution whose most recent financial statement shows to be in the black and whose latest strategic policy framework puts kindness front and centre of the university’s corporate identity. I am doing this PhD without funding. I rely on teaching to support myself through this. Last week I was preparing for three days of teaching remotely as well as dealing with the emotional ups and downs of being in the middle of a lockdown caused by a global pandemic. The news about the financial planning document broke two days after the lockdown was announced. Nothing about this was good communication. But that’s the thing, surely right now, with everything that’s going on, it would be easy to be magnanimous? Surely there was some sweeping statement that wouldn’t actually cost anything but would win a lot of goodwill? Surely it’s not rocket science? I should add that the support from academic colleagues was the opposite, collegiate and supportive. That is what the university response should have been, but it wasn’t.

Which brings me neatly to the government response to the current pandemic. This is a government made up of people who were all over Facebook ads and punchy slogans when it came to Brexit. When it comes to saving peoples lives in the face of a predictable threat  (this is not the first global pandemic humanity has faced after all) they all seem to be learning on the job. Once again it’s the communication that’s been off. I’m not even talking about the daily press conferences here, but the public messaging. This is the country, after all, that has produced such gems as “dig for victory“, “careless talk costs lives” and “make do and mend“.  Even outside wartime, public information films like “Never talk to strangers” and “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water” were the first introduction of horror for many of my generation. But now, when Britain is facing a genuine health crisis, the public information has been confusing and rather lacklustre. Maybe I’m just more used to the way the Irish government talks to the people. The corresponding government advice page in Ireland preempts questions and answers them. Reading both lots of information the British advice gives the rules but very little detail while the Irish advice gives much of the same advice but has considered what further questions people might have. There’s a curious gap between the two. This public messaging and the reaction of the University of Sussex to the fallout from the financial planning document speak to the same failure and I wonder is it a particularly British one. A fixed mindset, that does not see the value of addressing the audience as human beings in all their messy and vulnerable reality. It’s a failure to connect, a failure to understand. At the moment in particular, surely that failure is a critical one?

The Way We Live Now Part 2

I seem to be more stressed than I had thought

Last night I slept fitfully and the dreams when they came were freaky. I dreamed of invasion, of violation and contagion. This pandemic has got under my skin. When my husband took the cat to the vet this morning I was convinced bad news was coming. I watch something on Netflix, hoping to lose myself for a while, I find myself wondering why they’re not observing social distancing. All those people rubbing shoulders with each other, dancing with each other, sleeping with each other.

That’s not the way we live now.

I catch the comings and goings from next door from the window behind my desk and wonder are they panic buying. Do the people walking past know that they should be 3 metres away from the nearest person. Probably not, government information about social distancing has been decidedly lacklustre, with little specific detail and the only recommended distance for how socially distant we’re all supposed to be being found in a note on a table. This is leading to confusion and disregard. Former Financial Times journalist turned teacher Lucy Kellaway tweeted a picture to her almost 60 thousand followers with the caption “Social Distancing Teacher Style”.

The picture Lucy Kellaway tweeted showing a closely packed crowd of colleagues

Some of those followers were quick to point out that this was not what was meant by the term. The tweet has now been deleted. Now in fairness, none of us had heard of the term social distancing a month ago. It is part of our new lexicon. When you consider that its purpose, and the reason we know the phrase now, is the urgent imperative to slow the spread of this pandemic so that national health services are not overwhelmed, it’s not hard to work out. We should all have an inkling of how not to catch a bug – but if the sudden rush on hand soap has been anything to go by our personal sanitation has got complacent, to say the least. Last night the pubs were full, acting as if there was no risk of contagion. These stories continue even as the situation gets more serious.

That’s the thing with this virus, with being in the middle of a global pandemic. We know what it looks like because we’ve read about them in the history books, watched the horror unfold in sci-fi and speculative fiction. We have all seen the images of mask-wearing nurses, of hundreds of beds stretching the length of huge wards. We know surely that a pandemic is to be feared, that viruses spread through crowds, but as news of the coronavirus spread through the first days of spring did we get distracted by the word “novel” in the virus’ description? Did we assume this one was different? It really doesn’t matter if other pandemics have been worse, it doesn’t matter that in entirely different circumstances we behaved differently. What matters is that there is a pandemic here and now, that is a threat to life and to the integrity of our health system. It really does seem at the moment that common sense has been a victim of our indulgence of lies and falsehoods. Conspiracy theories have gone mainstream and the stories we’ve all grown up with are no longer trusted.

As I wrote yesterday, the stress has been growing over the past few weeks. Today I got up and discovered I had vertigo. It’s fine, it happens sometimes when I get particularly stressed, but it does mean that the world feels even more unreal today. It’s very gently swaying. It’s only to be expected in days like these but it is a warning to take care. Outside of my window, I can see the garden starting to sprout again, I can see birds soaring in an almost cloudless sky. Spring is coming despite the pandemic, despite the increasing restrictions on our lives. The months will pass despite the sickness, despite the fear and panic. Yesterday was the spring equinox. From now on the days will get longer and before long the clocks will go forward. This year for those home working the missed hour will be perhaps a little less irksome. We will get through this.

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,

 

 

The real story at the root of MR James adaptation Night of the Demon

By David Buttery (<a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Loganberry&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Loganberry (page does not exist)">Loganberry</a> (<a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Loganberry" title="User talk:Loganberry">Talk</a>)) - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, Public Domain, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2010201">Link</a>

Graffiti on the Wychbury obelisk (photo by David Buttery)

‘Tis the season for all things spooky and one of my all-time favourite scary films is Jacque Torneur’s 1957 masterpiece Night of the Demon. Based on the M.R. James story Casting the Runes it’s still a genuinely unsettling watch. But did you know that this film might have a link to a real crime?

Back in 2015, I started a series of posts looking at the true cases that inspired various films. One of the first I explored was the strange goings on in Lower Quinton and the unanswered question of who put Bella in the Wychelm.  It’s a series I’d like to start up again so by way of a reintroduction here’s the story of strange goings on in Hagley Wood through original news reports at the time.

A Once in a Generation Vote: Why Ireland Should Repeal the 8th

Pro-choice marchers in Dublin.

On May 25th 2018, Ireland will vote on whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment to the Constitution, which gives an equal right to life to both the mother and the unborn. Like the Brexit referendum in the UK and the last US Presidential election, this is a vote that goes deep to the heart of a country. But, while it is true that the Irish vote has split the population along harsh lines of conservative populism and a more optimistic progressiveness, this is a very different fight.

In Britain and America, the results of those two votes could be described as reflecting a nostalgic wish for a rosy past that never existed, pushed by elites. In Ireland, the conservatives do have a rosy tinted view of the past, but they are remembering something that happened. They are seeking a return to a grey theocracy where women are demonised and moral transgressions are punished in dark and sinister ways. This is an Ireland that had Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Child homes, where being different was viewed with suspicion, where judgement was everywhere.

I moved to Ireland in the middle of the 1980s, a couple of years after the 8th amendment entered the constitution. Living in the rural north-west was a huge culture shock after a childhood spent in a leafy London suburb. I learned quickly that, as the Protestant English girl, my morals were immediately viewed as slightly dodgy. I was seen as a bad influence on school friends. I was asked if I had prayers in my religion.

But this post isn’t about that, I’m just giving a bit of context. I was in my teens when we moved. Old enough to be talking about stuff and understanding the subtext in overheard conversations. After leaving home, the 8th amendment was never far away. As my friends and I got used to young adulthood, trying to find a mate, making the occasional mistake, it hung over all our lives like a black cloud. It meant that every time a period was late there would be late night conversations about money, because having all the options to make a decision, even before one needed to be made involved working out how to leave the country if needs be.

I mentioned that earlier bit of context because being the English girl lead to several conversations that have been rolling around in my head since this referendum was called. I was assumed to be non judgemental and more open minded so sometimes people came to me for help. I was never a font of all knowledge but I always tried to be a sympathetic ear although I didn’t always have an answer.  That cultural gap that I had felt so keenly meant that I was probably privy to more people’s decision processes in stressful circumstances than I would have been under normal circumstances. I’m not virtue signalling in any way here, I’m just giving context.

I remember the knock on my door when a casual friend came to ask if any of the herbs I grew on my windowsill could get rid of a baby. I remember the discussions of which spirit would be best to drink and how hot the bath should be to bring on a late period (even though the pregnancy test had already shown positive). I remember calculating the costs to Liverpool for a friend of a friend who needed to travel. I remember sitting with male friends whose partners had gone to England without telling them. These were not unique conversations by any means, in fact they were pretty ordinary in their way.

We weren’t a wild crowd, not particularly hedonistic, all just wanted to find out where the hell we were headed and preferably with who. This was in the early 90s when the availability or not of contraception was very much in the news. I remember asking my GP if I could go on the pill. I told him it was because my periods were heavy and painful. He smirked as he handed me the prescription. Back then condoms could still only be bought from the chemist. The chemist back home in the northwest wanted my parent’s permission. I was 22. It wasn’t surprising when people got caught. Hell, some of my friends practised the withdrawal method. Once again, this was the 1990s, not the social upheaval of the 60s or the permissive society of the 70s. This was post AIDs. We knew the facts of life and we were careful, even when it was excruciatingly embarrassing to get the means to be so.

But sometimes things went wrong and someone would get caught. I’m talking about a wide extended group of friends here, friends of friends, people we knew. In those circumstances abortion was always on the table. It has always been a decision that needed to be made, an option that had to be ruled out or chosen. Adoption is always mooted as an alternative to abortion. But adoption in Ireland carries a lot of stigma to the extent that domestic adoption in the country exists mainly between close family and most couples wishing to adopt do so from abroad but that’s a whole other matter. Choosing to have the baby, especially if the father was not going to be in the picture was also a difficult choice. Despite what one might have heard recently from the No lobby in the current referendum campaign, single mothers have not, as a rule, been particularly cherished in Ireland. When it came to making a decision about whether or not to have an unplanned baby, abortion was only one difficult option to choose. Over the years I’ve had friends who’ve thought they were pregnant and those who were, I’ve had friends who kept the baby and those who didn’t. I’ve had friends who adopted and those who were adopted. I’ve had friends who’ve wanted a baby and those who didn’t. Just like anyone else would. The 8th amendment, I would pretty confidently say, did not really affect any of these decisions, not really. What it did do was complicate.

The 8th amendment politicised me. In 1992 I read about the 14-year-old girl who had been raped and wanted an abortion but was being stopped from travelling for one by the Attorney General. The X case marches in February and March 1992 were the first political marches I ever went on. 20 years later I stood outside the Dail trying not to get candle grease on my gloves at a vigil for Savita Halappanavar who had died in a hospital in Galway not long before. In the intervening years, there were many rallies, vigils and marches when a case came along which denied logic and humanity. These two demonstrations frame a period during which I met my husband, got married, tried for a family, tried to adopt. Anything that touches the consecrated unit of family in Ireland is problematic. Even the definition of family in the constitution (in the clause right after the one into which 8th amendment was inserted) does not recognise the messiness of human life with its insistence that this fundamental unit must be based upon marriage to be recognised and that the mother alone is named as having duties in the home.

Because this vote is about something much bigger than a line in the constitution. It’s about the division between the simple, pure but ultimately unrealistic view of life reflected by the No campaign and the current Irish constitution and the reality as it always has been and always will be – messy, unpredictable, joyous and tragic as it is. The 8th has never been fit for purpose but as long as it continues to exist, a shining trophy of conservatism, there is always an argument that this mythical Ireland, where no one has sex outside marriage and families are always solid and secure, is a viable option.  So that monolithic view needs to go. Maybe then we can start caring for the fallible, the vulnerable and the unlucky. Maybe then we can start building an inclusive, caring future that accepts the complexities of life.

A Wound that Never Heals

Daddy-and-Lenin

My father, Colin Rieley, being only mildly disrespectful to Lenin.

On December 8th 1973 my dad was heading home from work. He was a teacher at a prep school that fed children into the elite public school system and well loved by his pupils. Every year he would supervise the school skiing trip to Switzerland as he had a gift for languages and could speak French, German and even passable Italian. My mum went with him one year and never forgot the welcome the local people gave him.

My dad was an inspiring teacher who specialised in English and drama. He was a writer himself and had met my mum when he was working as a stage director in rep companies during the school holidays. In his younger days he had acted himself, including a spell in the Brian Brookes Company in South Africa. He had been working on a novel and it had been accepted by a publisher.,,but he never finished it. He had to pay back his advance.

He had gone back to college. He needed further qualifications to teach. He was studying to teach special needs students.

That spring my mum and dad, my great aunt and me went on a cruise on a Russian ship. It was the cheapest option. There were pictures of Lenin all over the ship and everyone commented that my dad was a dead ringer. One night my mum and dad snuck down to the corridor to take the picture at the top of this post. This was the only version of the shot on the roll that wasn’t blurred from my mum’s laughter. Every night they sat at the Captain’s table. He enjoyed my dad’s company.

Exactly 42 years ago tonight, my dad stopped off to buy a bottle of wine. At home my mum was writing Christmas cards. It was to be their first Christmas at home as a family. I was upstairs asleep in my cot. My dad stepped off the pavement to cross the road and that’s when everything changed. That’s the moment that clever, funny, kind man went away. All that possibility stopped.

A coach driver wasn’t looking where he was going. He swung into the road just as my dad was crossing. It couldn’t end any other way.

My dad was 42 years old.

My mum always hated writing Christmas cards after that. She was writing them when the doorbell rang. She told me she knew as soon as she heard it there was something wrong. There were two policemen there, a man and a woman. There are always two for things like this. I know the details of that night by heart, even though I was a sleeping baby. I used to have a recurring dream that the doorbell rang and my dad was standing there. Until I learnt he never would. Even so I still dream it sometimes, he’s tanned as if he’s been away. I’m not angry he’s been gone so long just happy he’s back. My tears usually wake me up.

My mum was a poet as well as an actress. She wrote about that night. She didn’t show me the poem until I was grown. I’ll share it here now.

Accident

1.

That your dear head should let out all your life

Seemed blasphemy.

Could so much given to such good purpose

Be wasted in one foolish streaming night?

What timeless disbelief

Between first knowledge and your final leaving

Could all that life have given

Be appraised and mourned in such brief stunned hours?

2.

When at last they let me see you

Your abstracted stillness

Made me conscious of intrusion.

I feared the worst but could not think it.

I remembered conversations on the privacy of death

You believed it was already beyond mortal love:

That each man must make his own death,

With his particular God,

Suffering no distraction.

Unable to accept

I willed you back to us

But you continued in your great silence

I lay that night

With my palm outstretched, laid upwards;

Unable to believe

That your warm grasp was loosed forever.

poem by Tani Bentis (all rights reserved)

December 8th has had other associations for years but it will always be the day my father died. Every year my mum would ring me around this time, just wanting to talk about him. This pain never goes away. I don’t remember my father but I still feel his loss, even after all this time.

That’s what careless driving does. Whether you drink and drive or you just don’t take care please think. Please take care. Don’t do this to someone.

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