Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: About Me (page 1 of 4)

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.

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.

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet. Pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

I’ve always known that the Internet was a bit like the Wild West, that if you turned the wrong corner there’s be the aggressive stall holder tugging at your sleeve to sell you some over-priced piece of knock-off junk while simultaneously picking your pockets while his dodgy looking mates beckon you towards a manky shed where you can hear the faked pants of the live sex show taking place on a filthy mattress inside. I’m not naive about the lawless side of things – I did some fairly comprehensive research that side of things when I was researching Devil, my first book, and I’m well aware of how out of date that research is now. But even so I didn’t see it coming. I thought this blog was a pretty safe place to hang out, a little bastion where I could whether the storm quite happily for as long as I wanted to.

Now that was naive.

It happened on my wedding anniversary. I only noticed that once I had saw the damage a few days later. They hadn’t known of course – but that coincidence made it feel like an utterly personal attack, a violation. My blog, this site, which I’ve been building since 2008 despite the fact I haven’t been posting as often as I should for quite a while now, had been hacked. It was a particularly nasty kind of hack known as the Pharma hack – or at least a variation of that hack. It works by highjacking your site as it appears in Google search results so that your site advertises whatever they happen to be selling – as the name suggests it’s often pharmaceuticals, in my case it was games. It’s a particularly annoying hack because it’s hard to detect. It only shows up in Google searches, everything looks fine on Yahoo or Bing and if you go directly to the site it’s absolutely fine. It usually effects the most popular links to your site – so in a way it’s the most backhanded of backhanded compliments. You only get affected if you’re doing something right.

So I was stuck with a website that, as far as anyone looking on Google was concerned, did a very good line in Fifa games in Polish. I changed every password I could think of and got onto my hosting company to ask for assistance but was told it was down to me to clean up. One of the staff might be willing to do it as a nixer – for a price. So I started doing my own research. It seemed the hack was quite common. It also seemed that getting rid of the hackers was not the easiest thing in the world. But there was good advice out there – in particular this WordPress forum and this excellent post. I started looking for the code the hackers had added to my site – but while I managed to find the files modified on the day I knew they got in, I couldn’t find the (hidden) code.

So I decided to take drastic action. If the hackers were going to squat on seven years of hard work because I’d managed to get some kind of Google Rank then I’d make sure it wasn’t worth their while. I’d whip the rug from under them. I’d burn the place down.

Ok there were probably better ways of doing it. Ways that wouldn’t have trashed my own ranking, especially since Google seemed blissfully unaware that I hadn’t just switched my line of work. But I’d had enough. Like I said, it felt personal. I suppose that’s what I get for having a self-named website – it’s all going to be ego in the end.

So I blew the whole thing up. I deleted the database and uninstalled the WordPress installation. Then I started deleting everything else I could find – except a load of folders that I didn’t have access to – where the backdoor actually was. It was actually rather liberating – in a decidedly destructive way. I’d backed up all my posts from WordPress (and thought I had all the images and sound files I’d uploaded over the years). What could possibly go wrong? At this stage my faith in the Internet was somewhat restored when Good Samaritan came forward on Twitter and offered to give me a temporary place to call home – without which I seriously doubt I’d have got things restored to the stage they are at the moment.

It took a while to sort out but I changed hosts and transferred my domain to the new guys. I wasn’t happy with the way my old hosts had dealt with things. OK I had been naive about the level of security needed but there should have been a bit more by way of support there. I had always felt with them that there was an attitude that if I didn’t know how to do something I shouldn’t really be managing my own website. I might not be madly techy but I’m independent. If you bother to explain how something works, or at least point me in the direction where I can learn more, I will read up. I’m learning as I go – and the past six weeks has been a very steep learning curve.

So for the past week I’ve been putting everything back in it’s place, here in it’s new home. I’m far happier with the new hosts  – they’ve been absolutely brilliant as I’ve been getting set up, no matter how trivial the question. The damage has been done with Google but I’ve been working on the SEO.  It doesn’t help that I’ve sort of changed address – there’s now a /wordpress/ missing in every link – so I’ve been setting up redirects left right and centre and doing a bit of firefighting. Hopefully everything will settle down eventually. What all this has done is meant that I’ve had to go back over all my old posts. It’s made me remember why I started this blog and why I kept it going. Over the past few years I’ve let things slide. Well from now on I can’t promise that I’ll post as much as I did when I had a book to sell but I’ll make more of an effort. I’ve already been tweaking the look of the thing – this will be an ongoing process – I have a very clear idea of what I want – but I’ll need to learn a bit of CSS first.

And if I do things right and make another tempting proposition for the hackers I’ll be ready for them next time. I’m not going to get caught out like that twice – next time I’ll go all Charles Bronson on them!

A Bleak Choice

Empty cradle by dannysoar on Flickr

Empty cradle by dannysoar on Flickr

Saturday should have been a good day. It was a chance to meet up with friends, so many of whom were busy being inspiring as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in Dublin. It was mild out and not raining, the beginnings of spring, a pleasant Saturday to spend doing not very much. But the day started with an article written by a good friend of mine. I’ve known Rosita Boland for a good few years now. I count myself fortunate to have her as a friend. I’ve known for most of our friendship that we shared an unfortunate situation that has caused both of us a lot of heartache over the years. Yesterday Rosita wrote about that unhealing wound and I hope that by sharing something so deeply personal her piece will start a dialogue that has been absent for far too long. But reading her piece coloured my day with grey. It will always be a painful subject.

If you find yourself having to look at alternative routes to starting a family here in Ireland you will quickly find that this is a silent, lonely place to be. It’s a subject that’s still not widely talked about, apart from with friends in the same boat. People who haven’t dealt with it tend not to bring it up. It feels like a shameful little secret, some retribution being visited for some unknown mistake. Then there’s the fear that you will be judged wanting, that this desperate last ditch attempt will be in vain. I really wouldn’t wish this position on anyone.

I’ve written here before about being childless. It’s something I have very complex feelings about. When I was first married I assumed children would be in the mix at some point. I looked forward to the eventuality. When the reality dawned that it was not going to be that simple I went through so many emotions. There was grief, anger, eventually resignation. At first it felt like a physical punch whenever another friend told me they were pregnant. Later I learnt to value my independence especially as it seemed a slimmer and slimmer possibility that we would ever be able to adopt in Ireland. A couple of years ago, after my mother died, we decided to step out of the adoption process as there didn’t seem to be any point of adding to the stress with something that seemed hopeless anyway. Lately we’ve started to talk about it again but only in the light of the realisation that for us ever to hope of being parents we’re going to have to move to another country. Friends in England applied to adopt a little over a year ago. They received their declaration in under a year. It’s often only when you see how things are done elsewhere that you realise just how chaotic things can be here in Ireland.

I know there are reasons why adoption is still something of a taboo subject here. The dark spectre of the babies forcibly taken from “undeserving” single mothers by religious orders still looms large and it’s a scandal that simply isn’t going away. It’s one reason given on an anecdotal basis for the scarcity of domestic adoptions outside the family. Add to that the various scandals in recent years concerning intercountry adoptions and it’s hardly surprising that some appear to think that adoption bodies in Ireland, not to mention prospective adoptive parents, are somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher and Cruella Devil.

There’s also a longstanding institutional blindness towards those who don’t fit into an extremely narrow definition of family. There is a violently vocal minority who think that the only family that should be recognised by the Irish State is one that conforms to a strictly Catholic ethos. According to these idiots my marriage isn’t valid because it didn’t take place in a church but that’s a whole other story. We’re used to the rabid prolifers and the anti gay marriage mob but surely it’s the exact same ethos that looks down on any couple who can’t have children within a properly sanctified union. It’s surely no coincidence that the Irish State has long ignored regulating the fertility treatment industry and that the ratification of the Hague Convention was allowed to go through without finalised bilateral agreements with compliant countries. You only have to look at the length of time it took the government to legislate on abortion (the laws only came into effect at the start of this year) to see how much of a stranglehold the Catholic church still has on all areas of reproductive policy. This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to drag on for as long.

But there’s a bigger problem here in Ireland, one that means these issues aren’t even raised most of the time. It’s another reason why trying to remedy your childlessness in Ireland can be an excruciatingly isolating experience and one that’s fundamentally unfair. Ireland might be ostensibly a classless country but it’s one that is brutally divided into the Haves and the Have Nots. All too often the Haves, who are all prosperous enough to be able to throw money at the inconveniences of Irish life, control policy and populate the media. Those who Have Not are left voiceless. They’re not even recognised by the Haves who won’t even look beyond their front door. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing The Red Flag, but the fact that expensive solutions exist for so many problems here, including in the area of reproductive healthcare, and the fact that so many of the people who have the power to change things have the money for these solutions means that no change happens. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of quarters that money in some way equates virtue. When it comes to adoption and fertility treatment it can often feel that if you baulk at the cost you are showing yourself to be unfit parent material.

Researching this post I came across this article for the Mayo News by Michael Commins that absolutely underlines my point. The article describes a public meeting last year, so since the ratification of Hague, with representatives from the only country left open for adoption, Bulgaria, and ARC, at the time the only accredited Irish adoption agency under the new laws. It describes how the meeting descended into chaos after ARC announced a tripling of the cost – with fees at their end of over €16,000. Now I know that the adoption process is a complicated one but that’s a hell of a lot for administrative fees. The change in fees, according to the article, had been agreed with the regulatory board, the Adoption Authority shortly before the meeting. Maybe I’m being naive but how could fees jump by that much? I was shocked by the fees when we first investigated adoption.  We heard many stories of unscrupulous agencies hiking fees at the last minute, leaving couples with an extra bill of tens of thousands of euro. One name in particular kept coming up, I’m not going to share it here without proof but I’ve no reason to doubt the people who told me this. The changes in the law were expected to change all the cowboy behaviour but one has to wonder if they have.

It’s not good enough to just shrug and say well you shouldn’t consider adoption if you can’t afford to raise a child (as someone once said to me). I’d genuinely like to know many parents could afford to have a child if the upfront costs were up to €50,000 – and that’s before you even get to the costs of raising a child. How can placing this burden on new parents be in the best interests of the child? Why have no questions been asked about the costs of adoptions? It really isn’t good enough to say “that’s just what it costs” when those costs are surely causing a major problem to all but the most affluent section of this society.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in favour of what Hague was set up to ensure. Of course adoption should be carried out in the best interests of the child. We are talking about the most vulnerable children across the world. Of course they should be protected. But that’s what adoptive parents want to do – provide a loving, safe home for a child that desperately needs one. We’re not looking for a fashion accessory, something to go with the new living room curtains. Surely those who cannot conceive naturally deserve the right to try for a family just as anyone else does? It will be more difficult, it does touch on a myriad of sensitive issues but it shouldn’t be something that’s restricted on the grounds of affluence. Here in Ireland we’re in danger of assuming that a happy home can’t exist without affluence and that is a dangerous road to go down. We need to start talking about the problems with adoption. The current situation simply does not reflect well on Ireland as a civilised country.

I’m resigned to the fact that if I want to be a mother I will have to leave. I know the clock is ticking on that. It saddens me greatly that the country that I love is forcing me to make this decision but in matters like this Ireland can be a harsh place to live.

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

We Need to Talk

Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.

I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.

Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.

It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers.  Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.

So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.

So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next.  I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.

It Really Isn’t the End of the World

It’s that time of year again. Tomorrow the Leaving Cert results will be out and the media attention will turn to the horrors of teenage drinking. It’ll be a great day for some, for those who get confirmation that all that hard work was worth it, who can properly start looking forward to starting college. Some of them will even get their pictures in the paper, brandishing the results that will get them where they want to go. Well done them – but they’re not the ones I’ve been thinking of today, and who I’ll be thinking of tomorrow.

If study comes easy to you congratulations! If school was somewhere you enjoyed, I’m happy for you. If life goes smoothly for you for each step along the way, then you live a blessed life indeed. But for those who look at their results tomorrow and don’t see the grades they hoped for, hang in there. It really, truly isn’t the end of the world.

I remember the day my Leaving results came out vividly. I was working on a genealogy project in Sligo that summer. It was a FAS course run out of the local museum. There were three of us due to get our results that day. None of us particularly wanted to get them. We were given a half day and at lunchtime we all set off together, splitting up to walk down to our own schools. This was in the days before Internet so there was no soft landing. I remember going and picking up that ominous brown envelope and not opening it. All my school friends were in little huddles, jumping up and down and shrieking, passing the printout with the results around and screaming their delight.

I had a slightly more than sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t going to see the letters that would get me into my first choice of college course. I had hated school and hadn’t yet learnt how to block out all that extraneous shit that tends to clutter up a teenage life to focus on the task in hand. I blamed myself for getting flustered, blamed myself for forgetting details I’d repeated until they lost all meaning. I blamed myself for not having a life I could sail through peacefully, that wouldn’t get in the way. I knew that, by my standards I’d let myself down, my family, the hopes my father would have had for me when he was alive. I knew that I’d messed up and I didn’t know how to deal with it. There had never really been anything to mess up before.

All that ran through my mind before I even opened my results. When I found somewhere quiet and actually opened the envelope the results weren’t actually as bad as I’d feared, but there was no escaping the truth. What I had got was unlikely to get me into any of the courses I’d applied to. It was back to the drawing board. I’d always been brought up to think that college was the natural next step after secondary school. I hadn’t had a Plan B.

Over the next days and weeks I tried to ignore the situation. When the CAO offers came out, what I already knew was confirmed. I didn’t have the points to go anywhere I had applied. I had always assumed I was a bright kid. I had never imagined being in this situation.

It put rather a crimp on the rest of the summer. Most of my class were moving away to go to college around the country. I was going to be left behind. Thank god for that FAS course! Most of the others on the course were a few years past Leaving Cert. They helped me find the perspective that life would eventually settle down to continue just as it had before. That this devastating news was not the end of the world. In those days I used to hitch to and from work (yes, it was a different world back in the early 90s). There was one guy who used to give me a lift on a regular basis who really talked sense. He was from Manchester and ran his own haulage company. He told me how he’d left school at 16 and had never looked back. I had no wish to start a haulage company, I couldn’t even drive, but again here was someone showing me that exams aren’t the be all and end all that we are told they are at school.

All I had ever wanted was to be a writer. I assumed that the only way I could do that was by doing a degree in English literature, or my first choice – joint honours in theatre studies and the classics in Trinity (my choices hadn’t been madly practical). Over the next month or so after a hell of a lot of repetition it finally began to sink in. There are other ways to go about things.

Eventually I realised that I still had control over my own future. I moved to Dublin and looked for an alternative way in. My first flat was above Brogan’s pub on Dame Street. I could see Trinity College if I leaned out of my bedroom window far enough. It still felt like a rebuke.  No one else in the building was in college. A lot of them were either drop outs or had been in the same situation as me. We used to laugh at the students – but I always envied them more than a bit.

Bit by bit I found alternative ways in. I did volunteered in community radio stations, wrote for strange short lived magazines, talked about what I was going to do an awful lot. For a long time it seemed like nothing was going anywhere and I was stuck with the consequences of a mistake I hadn’t fully understood I was making. But eventually another opportunity did arise. I won a place on an NVQ in Journalism in the Belfast of Further and Higher Education. That NVQ eventually got me onto a degree course in Journalism at the DIT. I graduated in 2000. Ten years after those disappointing Leaving Cert results.

It might have taken a long time, there were plenty of times when it seemed like an impossible task but in the end I’m glad things happened the way they did. Those lost years between my stints in education taught me so much. I learned not to give up. I learned to look for a way round. I learned that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to get where you want. I get frustrated sometimes about the late start but I also know that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without those experiences. Over the years I’ve got to know many people who had an interrupted education. There was a good reason in every case and in every case it wasn’t the end of the world. Two of them are now studying for PhDs, others have successful businesses, happy families. A couple of us have written books.

So if you get your Leaving results tomorrow and they aren’t what you hoped, or if you know someone who’s in that situation, IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. Take time to let the dust settle, take a deep breath and look for the other way round. It’ll be there somewhere.

It’s All In A Scent

Smell is the most evocative of the senses. It can transport us through time, take us to another place, make us feel, touch something outside our current reality. When I smell rosemary on a hot summer’s day I’m five years old again stopping by a wall to rub the needle leaves together on the way up to visit the ruins of Bramber Castle in Sussex. The smell of yellowing paper and brittle glue you get when you open a paperback of a certain vintage takes me back to school holidays long ago, curled in a corduroy beanbag while the rain pattered off the windows. We know a lover by their scent, it can sometimes linger longer than the echo of their voice. Scent is important. It’s at the heart of who we are.

When I was a little girl I would caress the soft trail of Opium my mother would leave as she wafted into my room to kiss me goodnight before going out for the evening. It felt expensive, yet somehow untouchable, as if, when she smelt like that she wasn’t wholly my mother, but some expensive, elusive creature I couldn’t catch and couldn’t quite understand. I loved the confidence of the scent but preferred it the following morning when it clung in muffled form to the arms that lifted me and set me about my day. My mother was an actress. She wore perfume well, understood the impact that a signature scent could make, understood it was an important part of the costume with which we face the world.

When I was in my teens my mother introduced me to the grownup art of scent. It came before the more prosaic lessons in makeup (less is more and don’t stick yourself in the eye with the mascara) and felt like far more of a rite of passage. The first proper perfume she gave me, after the simple fluorescent pink synthetic strawberry liquids that we played with, that matched the smell of the stationary we used in school, was Ma Griffe by Carvan. The plain glass bottle, the first I had ever had that wasn’t pink, with it’s gold plastic cap and green and white striped box, was quintessential ‘80s minimalism but the scent was far older. Created in 1946, it’s still available today. At the time I loved the freshness of it, the light summeriness that still had some depth as the perfume wore on the warmth of my skin.

I wore Ma Griffe throughout my teens, right through until my early 20s. It was my going-out scent, but a far more innocent and simple incarnation than the exotic oriental musk of my mum’s Opium. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Ma Griffe was what is known as a floral chypre. One of a group of scents defined by their mossy base notes and citrusy top notes. More specifically a classic chypre tends to have oakmoss in the base notes, that linger longest on the skin, and bergamot in the lightest, most ephemeral, quickly disappearing top notes. Ma Griffe, which translates as My Signature, has oakmoss in it’s base, along with cinnamon, sandalwood and musk, and, instead of bergamot, has lemony and green vegetal top notes, mixed with floral scents like lily of the valley, rose and jasmine.

Ma Griffe sparked a fascination with perfume that’s continued all my life. When in my 20s, I decided the time had come to find a more adult grown-up perfume, I spent months looking for a replacement. I tried to approach the decision the way I would any other, by weighing up the various options, looking at the pros and cons. I learnt about essential oils, about the ingredients of the different perfume families, who wore what. None of it helped. Our sense of smell isn’t one that responds well to logic, it taps directly into the oldest, reptilian part of our brains. It’s an emotional thing.

In the end the replacement was found by an ex boyfriend, who decided I had a passing resemblance to Paloma Picasso and bought me her signature scent. Coincidentally, Paloma Picasso, the perfume, is actually another floral chypre. But Paloma is a little like the slightly slutty older sister of the more innocent Ma Griffe. It’s still got the musty root of oakmoss and the citrusy top note of bergamot but when it’s on your skin it’s all about the musk and the so called animalic edge of civet, not to mention the sinuous sensuality of ylang ylang, tuberose and amber. I had great fun wearing Paloma throughout my 20s and 30s. It’s got that brash 80s confidence to it that sashays into a room and expects to be the centre of attention. There was a makeup range that I experimented in but soon discovered that the perceived similarity to Ms Picasso herself did not even extend skin deep. Blue-red lips and black kohl tend to make my pale skin look anaemic and ever so slightly undead. Whatever fashion trends I might have dabbled in back then, Goth was never one of them!

I still love wearing Mon Perfum (as it’s properly known) but for various reasons over the past few months I’ve been feeling that the time has come once again to change the signature. Perhaps it was the death of my mother at the end of last year, perhaps the looming of a new decade, the swagger and grab-you-by-the-throat impact of Paloma just didn’t feel like me any more. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I’m twelve years married this year and my hunting days feel like a lifetime away, maybe it’s because this is a time for retrospection and taking stock. When I was younger I would wear Mon Parfum like armour. When I was feeling insecure it would give me a boost as surely as a reassuring hand or a cloak of invisibility. It was a costume in itself and even now when I wear it I feel like I’m stepping back into an old dress. It might still fit but it’s not necessarily who I am now.

When I discovered, earlier this year, that Mon Perfum had been reformulated (an unfortunate fact of life for perfumes that coincides with changes in the availability of ingredients, not to mention public tastes) it was the final straw. The new perfume, changed when oakmoss was restricted as an ingredient, is a sad shadow of it’s former self. I’ve still enough to last me well into the future any time I want to try on that old dress again but I won’t be buying the style new.

So the hunt was on. The tendency for retrospection led me straight to the Yves St Laurent counter in Brown Thomas but Opium wasn’t the way to go. While I have no problem wearing my mum’s clothes or jewellery (she had far too good taste not to) wearing her perfume just seemed creepy in a rather Norman Bates kind of way. I can incorporate a coat or a skirt or a top into an outfit that suits my taste but a perfume is a different kind of statement. In the past I’ve worn a bit of my mum’s Opium when I was visiting home and hadn’t brought my own perfume just as she more than once borrowed some of my Paloma Picasso but we always knew that we were wearing the other’s scent. We had quite different personalities and perfumes reacted differently on our skins. In my mind I always linked this random fact to my mother’s attraction to the midges that would fly past me to feast on her. Whatever the reason, when it comes to signature scents, we were two very different women.

In the end I stuck with my faithful chypres. Even though the restricted oakmoss means that any chypre you buy today is not really the classic scent, I found myself drawn to one of the grand dames of the family. Created in 1919 Guerlian’s Mitsouko was named after a popular literary heroine and was a favourite of stars as varied as Jean Harlow and Charlie Chaplin. This is a proper old school chypre, not floral, not fruity or any other qualification. It came two years after the original scent that gave the family a name. Made by Coty, Chypre was an avant-garde masterpiece. Mitsouko built on this reputation, coming at the end of the first world war and heralding the flappers of the roaring twenties. What we have today might only be an evocation of the original but it’s a lovely scent nonetheless.

When I first smelt it I knew it was the one. It’s got a quieter confidence than Mon Parfum, it’s mustier and more complex than Ma Griffe. But most of all it was familiar. When I was in primary school we had to paint a glass bottle. I came home from school and asked my mum for something that would work for the project. She thought about it for a while and then rooted in one of the drawers of the Welsh dresser that lived against the wall of the breakfast room. She gave me an empty bottle made of heavy facetted glass with a metallic cap. The bottle was empty but the smell lingered. It was Mitsouko. I don’t remember my mum ever wearing the scent but she must have since the bottle was empty and she had kept it, for sentiment or to know it again I haven’t a clue. The modern scent is still recognisable and had that shock of recognition I had been looking for.

I know that I’ll be wearing Mitsouko for years to come. As time moves on I won’t need the crutch of the familiarity. By then it’ll just be part of the costume, part of who I am. It’ll fit as snugly as a favourite pair of shoes or the perfect all-purpose black dress. It’ll give me a flourish when I need one, an extra line of dialogue I don’t need to say. I’m looking forward to laying down all the new memories that it’ll trigger. It’s always exciting to be at the beginning of a new relationship.

Getting Back into the Swing

I haven’t posted here for several months – in fact I haven’t written anything anywhere much since November. There’s a reason for that. In mid-November I got word that my mother was terminally ill. By the end of the month she was dead.

I’ve wandered through the past two months in a bit of a daze. When a parent dies suddenly it blows everything sky high. Every day for the past month and a half I’ve feeling around on the floor for the shattered pieces and trying to put everything back as it was. It’s not done yet, still the same bomb site, but at least now things are ordered enough to start to write them down.

As long as I can remember I’ve dealt with the world by turning it into words on a page. I’ve kept diaries, written stories, blogged about the way I see the world. When something hurts, even when something shatters, I’ll start thinking of ways to turn it into words. This happens with the good things two but I mainly write about pretty dark subjects so it’s the dark stuff that tends to get used first. The problem is that when it’s not dark, when it’s just red raw and seeping pain, then the words won’t come.  That’s the way it’s been. That’s finally the way it’s not any more.

My mother was a complicated woman.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved her deeply, but she could be a hard woman to live up to. She was an actress.  The kind of woman who could light up a room with her entrance. She was larger than life, funny, fiercely loyal and ever so slightly crazy. Talking to family over Christmas there were stories of late night dinners, dramatic flourishes and lots of laughter. Looking over old photos I see a vibrant woman, demonstrative and striking, commanding the centre of every photograph.

I remember her singing Summertime to me at bedtime, or reading me The Hobbit and having me in stitches doing Bilbo with a cold being invited to parties – “Thangk you very buch!”  I remember the dolls house she made me out of a cardboard box with the double bed in the master bedroom made out of a moulded piece of polystyrene packing with a lilac Kleenex valance. I remember her sticking up for me when I was being bullied at school.

If my mother had a defining fault it was probably that she loved too fiercely.  It was her love that made me the person I am today but I think in a way it also broke her.  When my dad died suddenly when I was a baby it hit her so deeply I don’t think she ever really recovered. Every year in mid December, around the anniversary of that dreadful day when she opened the door to two policemen, she would feel all the world’s sharp edges. Even though she had a second marriage, another chance at a love of her life, I don’t think the pain ever really went away.

In the days and months after that awful day. When life slowly got back to normal and the family home was emptier than it should have been, she did what she could to numb the pain. But over time the crutch fused and became an extra limb.

My mum was an actress of a certain generation. Gregarious socialising goes with the territory.  It’s much the same with journalism and writing too for that matter.  But alcohol can be a treacherous friend and will all too easily lead you into trouble.  If you start to trust it it will trip you up. And my poor mother fell.

I wouldn’t wish liver failure on anyone. It’s a brutal way to go. But that’s what happened to the beautiful, warm, daft, clever, woman I remember so well. The last time I saw her, just before the end, I could see that dear nutcase in her still luminous brown eyes. By that stage she was hearing Welsh in a Leitrim hospital ward, and seeing the mountains of her North Wales childhood out of the window but as she squeezed my hand she knew me and lamented the fact we didn’t share books the way we used to.

So that’s why I haven’t been writing much recently. But slowly it’s coming back. Life continues and the world keeps turning and there are stories still to be told.

 

Tani Bentis

My mother Tani Bentis

Tani Bentis RIP  1941 – 2011

The Right to Vote

Today Ireland is going to the polls.  By the weekend we’ll have a new President, a new West Dublin TD and, possibly, two changes to the constitution. Since I don’t live in West Dublin, I got to vote in three ballots.  Five years ago I wouldn’t have got to vote in any.

I became an Irish citizen in 2006. One of the reasons I decided to finally take the plunge was because I was sick of feeling like an observer in the country I am happy and proud to call my home.  We have a lot of referendums in Ireland.  It’s something of a national sport.  Since I hit voting age there have been 18 ballots, on both national and European matters that can have a direct bearing on life in this country.  Today’s vote makes it 20.  I remember the feeling of frustration not being able to have a say in votes on divorce, abortion (twice), the death penalty or the right to citizenship. Subjects that were hotly debated every time friends met for a pint or colleagues stopped for a cuppa.  To have thrashed through the issues, teased out the pros and cons, argued the toss, then watched as all my friends headed for the ballot boxes.

Not every referendum is on a “sexy” subject of course.  Not every one will get pulses raised and beer slopped on tables in excited pub conversations.  Some of them are overdue housekeeping, others are labyrinthine pieces of European legislation, but here in Ireland you can usually find someone willing to argue the toss.  Failing any other argument, there will usually be some vociferous contingent who fear that X or Y change will sneak abortion in by the back door.  Not all of them will have a direct bearing on the way you or I personally lead our lives but all of them are important.  It’s not much of a democracy if people are denied a voice but it’s even worse if those that have a voice refuse to use it.

Take today’s votes.  For most of the month long lead in to this vote the focus has been on the circus that was the campaign for our next president.  It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that attention has shifted to the two referendums we also have a say in.  On the face of it these are two of the not-so-sexy subjects, it’ll be interesting to see the voter turn out.  But these are important votes.  One of them is concerned with whether or not judges can have pay cuts.  In these straightened times it sounds like a no brainer.  The Yes Campaign would argue that anyway.  Under the current constitution a judge’s pay cannot be cut while he or she is in office.  The amendment will allow for cuts to be made in line with other public servants.  The problem I have with it personally is that the new wording is as vague as hell.  The third section of the amendment should be punished for crimes against language. But it’s late in the day for arguments – I’ll leave that to Dearbhail McDonald of the Irish Independent.

The problem with both the ballots today is that people are likely to vote with a jerk of the knee towards crooked bankers and ivory tower fat cats.  Fair targets perhaps but there’s a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.  I’m pretty sure the government were just as eager to see wrongs righted when they drew up these amendments but slinging a load of legalese into the mix, giving it a quick stir by way of debate and tossing it towards the populous for deliberation is all a bit slapdash.  The problem with slapdash is that it can have unforeseen consequences.  I’ve seen the effects of the unforeseen consequence in the day job.  I doubt very much whether those who drew up the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act in 2009 to deal with the threat of criminal gangs foresee that the Act would get one of it’s first airings in court at the collapse of a trial of four men accused of killing a young mother and burning her body.  The trial of those accused of killing Rebecca French collapsed because of confusion over wording. This might be an extreme consequence but it’s a stark reminder why clear wording matters. Legal language might look vague but that’s frequently because it’s over precise.  Too much space for interpretation means years getting clarification through case law and is too open to abuse.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt strongly about the result of a referendum but it’s the first time I’ve been able to act on that conviction. I incorrectly said on Twitter earlier that these were my first referendums. I’ve voted twice before, both for the same thing (Irish governments have had a tendency to keep asking questions until they got the answer they were looking for) but the Lisbon Treaty, important as Europe is, felt like a far more academic exercise.  Today is about having a say in Ireland, not Europe.  This is about having a say in the constitution that grew out of de Valera’s 1937 Bunreacht na hEireann, the document that crystallised the idea of a new sovereign state into a set of rules and guidelines. 

The Divorce Referendum in 1995 was the last time the vote went over 60%.  That means that more than 40% of the voting public couldn’t be bothered to have a say in their country.  That makes me angry. It’s always a yes/no answer, do you or don’t you?  This is why there should be debate, why there should be full and detailed explanations on ALL the arguments.  It’s no longer up to the Referendum Commission to provide the arguments but it should be a civic responsibility to find out as well.  It doesn’t matter how disenchanted you feel with the way things are or who’s running the show, things will never change unless people use their voice.  I waited long enough to get mine. I will always use it.

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