Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: About Me (page 2 of 4)

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.

How to be a Good Wife

 

A 1950s housewife

Every day we’re bombarded with advice on how to be perfect.  Whether it’s the magic cream that will keep you young or the latest newspaper column on how to garden, how to cook, what gadgets will elevate your life onto a plane of Zen-like calm as the minutiae of life are sifted into ever smaller boxes, there are always voices feeding our insecurities with the promise that if you could only follow these three simple rules life will flow like it does on the movies.  With money tight and time even tighter it’s hardly surprising we feel like we’re floundering, but take heart.  We’re not the first generation to feel swamped by the image of the perfect home, perfect life.  It didn’t kick off in the 50s either whatever you might think from watching Mad Men. It goes much, much further than that!

At the climax of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew Kate instructs her sister and step-mother with her newly hard won wisdom.  “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled” she scolds “muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; and while it is so none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.”  She could almost be selling the latest anti aging miracle potion.

Next week an 18th Century guide to how to cut it in the modern world will go under the hammer.  The Lady’s Companion  with the snappy subtitle An Infallible Guide to the Fairer Sex,  was pitched as essential reading for “virgins, wives or widows”.  So dogmatic, so L’Oreal.

My own interest in the impossible dream started when aspirations to domestic nirvana were limited to singing along to Somewhere That’s Green from The Little Shop of Horrors.  It was the early 1990s and I was living in a bedsit in Rathmines that was straight out of Rising Damp.  The wiring was certainly straight out of the 70s – ah the heady days before landlord registration! So the 70s edition Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopaedia seemed like an essential reference when I found it on the dusty lower shelf of a second hand bookshop.  It was only when I got it home I discovered the wealth of information about stain removal and household budgets.  In those days I tended to skip the bits about how to cater dinner parties and look your most alluring with a gin & tonic when your husband came home from a hard day at the office.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s surrounded by strong women, many of whom were going it alone I never doubted that I would build a career.  There was never any suggestion that happiness was in any way contingent on a well appointed kitchen or, come to that, a man.  By the time I reached my teens and my 20s I saw the perfectly rouged, high-heeled beauties in the “House Wife” manual as nothing more than Stepford Wives, enemies almost, who were very definitely letting the side down.

My stance softened when I met The Husband.  I seized the idea of building a warm and inviting nest with both hands, consumed with the urge to build a glowing, sweet-smelling home just for just us two.  I bought an apron and matching saucepans.  I learnt to make cupcakes and bread.  I was never going to be a kitchen goddess – the keyboard will always have more of a lure than the kitchen – but suddenly I could kind of see the point.  It was in the euphoria of early married life that my little collection of “Good Wife” manuals took shape.  Even when newsroom shifts meant I was living off M&S microwave meals for one I would look at the colour plates in these books and marvel at the spotless kitchens and gargantuan cleaning schedules.

The earliest book I have is the didactically titled Book of Good Housekeeping published by the Good Housekeeping sometime in the 1950s.   “The modern housewife”, the introduction informs, “has to combine many functions with those of mistress of her house; she will almost certainly do her own shopping and cooking, and probably a good part of the household washing and cleaning; more and more she is her own interior decorator, handywoman and often gardener…Even with the willing help of the “man about the house”, the average housewife today leads a very full life.”  The book covers everything from balancing the household budget to plumbing and beauty (all vanishing cream and makeup that looks it’s best from the other side of the room).

The schedule for housework alone provides a full working week and the requirement for table linen (2-3 table cloths, 2-3 breakfast cloths AND 2-3 afternoon tea cloths) means life would be a never ending cycle of table laying.  But despite the frankly terrifying standards you’re supposed to aspire to there’s something comforting about the photographs of primary coloured kitchens and living rooms.  For all the fish knives and grapefruit spoons, the book makes ideal home perfection look attainable – even if it is a full time job.

Then there’s Frankly Feminine published in England in 1972.  Times have changed and it’s no longer enough to match your lipstick to your suit colour (or to dress up when doing the housework for that matter).  The book starts off with a list of the calories in everyday foodstuff and many pictures of a very supple blonde girl in a red leotard but the housework plan is as strenuous as ever.  As the foreword says “This book has been compiled for today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and her friends.”  “Today’s complete woman” is still going to be spending a hell of a lot of time with table cloths and dinner parties even if the fish knives have now been superseded by fondue sets.

These were the books bought by and bought for brides.  I can all too easily imagine how their calm, dogmatic tone could be tinged with the mother-in-law’s hectoring tones. They set the bar pretty high and, when not viewed as social history, must have seemed like the Stepford rule book.  But I read them from a different world.  I might not come close to their exacting standards but I don’t have to.  I find it comforting not nagging that they break down domesticity into a simple set of rules.  With their diagrams for everything from changing nappies to laying out a kitchen to putting on eye shadow they break down the esoteric secrets of grown up life into a few easy steps.

Generally speaking I restrict my domestic goddess tendencies to Christmas and the very occasional dinner party and you’re a million times more likely to find me sitting at my desk with birds nest hair and ratty pyjamas than turning the mattresses and laying the table for breakfast.  But if I had the spare cash I’d love to bid for the Lady’s Companion…how fascinating to see how the mother-in-laws of the 1740s would given their instructions.

The Sinister Life of The Ciotog

I sprained my thumb recently.  After a couple of weeks with it immobilised I’ve gained a new appreciation of the opposable thumb.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about left handedness.  The injured thumb is firmly attached to my left hand and suddenly I’m back to the level of awkwardness I remember all too well from childhood when I was first learning how to negotiate a world that had been built for the right handed.

Like many left handed people I’m so used to the fact that life is the wrong way round to the extent that I’ve developed a degree of ambidextrosity.  I can use right handed scissors, corkscrews and tin openers with my right hand – even if it will always feel a little bit “wrong”.  But my left hand will always be the dominant one so it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.  Not being able to hold a pen is head wrecking and my poor little Esterbrook SJs have been sitting on the shelf drying out.  Holding a book and turning the pages became a ridiculous struggle and even using the remote control for the TV meant the bloody thing kept leaping out of my hand onto the floor – much to the Husband’s amusement.  Even the things I’m used to doing with my right hand seemed more awkward without the left hand to steady everything. 

So I’ve spent a lot of time dropping things, complaining and pondering the plight of the left handed.  In fairness the left handed thing isn’t a new preoccupation.  It’s a fact of life that comes up on an almost daily basis.  When I’m working in the courts for example, being the only regular left handed court reporter for a long time meant that I was always the one who would get to sit next to the accused when we reporters used to share a bench with them in the Four Courts.  If I didn’t sit on the left end of the row I’d always end up getting elbowed as I tried to take my notes. Then if the case took place in one of the smaller courts on the upper floors, with their cursed seats with the fold out table…I really hate those little flaps, if it’s not me twisting into knots to get my notebook on them and try to write, it was the one beside me grazing my elbow every time I lifted my pen.

The only time being left handed was a positive advantage was when I used to fence.  Sparring with right handed people I had a slight edge as it was harder for them to block me across the body while at the same time I was naturally better covered.  It doesn’t help much when whoever you’re fencing is better than you granted and it’s damned confusing when you come up against another lefty but on the whole it was a plus. 

Statistically left handed people are more likely to be accident prone (I can definitely attest to that one) and we even have a shorter life expectancy than the right handed.  We’re not the ones to ask for directions either as a lot of us have difficulty telling right from left after years of confusion. I could go on ad nauseum but I’ll leave other examples to this excellent site from Dr M.K. Holder of Indiana University.

An estimated 10% of the population are left handed and it can be hard for everyone else to understand what the fuss is about.  We don’t think about the hand we pick things up with or the hand we use to button our clothes.  It’s one of those things that we do instinctively and that’s what makes it so awkward to be programmed to go the other way.  Even social greetings slip easily into farce when the majority lean one way for that air kiss and you dip in the opposite direction.

It’s awkward and all too often the left handed lack of right handed coordination is dismissed as clumsiness, stupidity or even something darker.  The word “sinister” for example means left on the one hand, on the other it’s all Halloween.  The Irish word “ciotóg” meaning left handed person, is all too similar to the Irish word “ciotach” meaning clumsy, but also has echoes of something far wilder – the strange one, touched, perhaps, by the Devil himself.  Certainly when someone calls you a “ciotóg” (pronounced kitogue) it certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment.

Evil spirits were supposed to loiter behind the left shoulder – which is why salt is supposed to be thrown in that direction when it’s spilt and the French believed that witches greeted the Devil with their left hand. Even wearing the wedding ring on the left hand comes from the Greek and Roman practice of wearing rings on that finger to ward off evil spirits.  And it’s not just Europe.  Apparently in Kenya the Meru people believe that the left hand of their holy man is so evil he must keep it hidden.  There’s a lot more in that vein here, from the UK site of Anything Left Handed, who used to have a magical shop in Soho, in London that was my first introduction to things like left handed scissors.

I was lucky though.  At least I was left to be left handed.  So many people, in so many countries were forced to learn to write with their right hand.  Many were left mentally scarred, with speech and even with learning difficulties because of it.  Left handed people were for a long time believed to be rules by the right side of the brain – the intuitive side that’s good at the lateral, creative stuff.  It’s since been found that it’s not quite that simple but there do seem to be quite a few left handed people in the arts – based on my own completely un scientific observations.

I’ve learnt to negotiate the world just fine but the very fact that it’s always my left side that gets injured probably puts the lie to that. Over the years I’ve had a broken arm, broken ankle, sprained wrist, sprained shoulder and the most recent sprained thumb – always on the left. It’s just an extra level of annoyance in day to day life.  Walking down the street with a right handed person there’s always that introductory waltz as I try to walk on their left while they would prefer me on their right for  easy conversation.  Even my all consuming stationary fixation is necessarily tempered by practicality – school years spent with ink stains all up the side of my hand have left me with a preoccupation about quick drying inks and flat opening notebooks.  It’s such a pervasive kink it’s impossible to ignore – even if it’s something I rarely discuss because for 90% of the population these things just aren’t a problem.  That’s just the way it is.

But before I stop I’d like to mention a new entrant to the world of the sinister.  Irish company On the Other Hand have recently launched an Irish left handed shop so if you’re based here in Ireland you can still buy Irish and get left handed scissors and tin openers galore – and the rest.  I’m not connected to them in any way but it’s always nice to see people who understand how irritating the right orientation can be – even if you’re used to it and deal with it just as you’ve always done.

The thumb is now almost better and I’m sure I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days but I’m not going to stop being left handed. We all move through life in our own groove – I’m just more likely to bump into others because I will invariably go the wrong way!

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

In Praise of Luddites

I’m in the Irish Times magazine today. For once I’m not on about murders and mayhem, this time I’m bringing my low tech fixation to a wider audience.  Anna Carey’s piece is looking at the pervasive use of obsolete equipment in the modern world.  Radio star Ryan Tubridy still uses pencils, author Charlie Connelly prefers to let his fingers do the walking with phone books and I’m there extolling the many virtues of my beloved Esterbrooks.

I’ve written about these great little pens before on this blog and, apart from smart phone and netbook, they are the tools I rely on most on a day to day basis.  Using a fountain pen has made my shorthand faster (handy for long legal digressions) and when I’m not court reporting the way the pen glides across the paper does seem to allow the ideas to flow more freely when the writing isn’t flowing as it should.

Mind you, if the truth be told, I’m a closet luddite in more than just my choice of writing equipment.  While I love technology and everything it enables us to do, there are some times when making the switch from digital back to mechanical just seems the obvious thing to do. Apart from my little Esties I also collect old Russian film cameras.  There’s something about working around their many eccentricities to take a decent photograph that can seem so much more rewarding than the cocksure precision of digital photography. Don’t get me wrong.  Digital cameras are great and if I want to make sure I get the shot I want I’ll use one, but the alchemy of the film process seems to infuse the whole photograph with a kind of magic – or maybe that’s just what I say to myself to explain the stripes of the light leaks and the fuzz of my less than accurate manual focusing. 

Using these old film cameras is a completely different experience to digital photography.  When I bring out my 1953 Zorki 3M, people stop and ask about it.  They don’t mind if I point it at them (I’m a purely amateur snapper I hasn’t to add but I’ve always enjoyed street photography) and the whole expedition turns into more of an adventure – even if the shots aren’t as good as the one’s I might bring back from digital outings.

Maybe my clinging to the manual and awkward has a little something to do with my 70s childhood.  Some of my earliest memories revolve around brown outs and power cuts that swept across England in the mid 70s.  It always seemed like a good idea to have access to equipment that didn’t require a power supply and could work in any environment.  Apart from my cameras and my pens I have always kept a manual typewriter handy…well you never know!

Whether the attraction comes from paranoia or nostalgia or just plain practicality I’m not about to upgrade my old school equipment any time soon.  There’s a time and place for technology and then there’s time to do things the old fashioned way. Quite frankly I wouldn’t want it any other way!

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?

Sad news…

I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living.  When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words.  I still have one of those little books.  It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover.  I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.

I had started to write my first novel when I was 11.  I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out.  There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters!  Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me.  Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.

I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about.  I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day. 

Back in 2008 my first book was published.  A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer.  Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations.  Devil in the Red Dress  is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen.  But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author.  I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.

I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again.  I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true.  The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream.  I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life.  I decided to try and get an agent.  That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.

I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years.  She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching.  I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work.  When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel.  It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon.  After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.

Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future.  She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism.  I’ve never had any illusions about this business.  I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am.  I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.

Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill.  I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.

Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again.  Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support.  I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book.  I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita.  She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer.  I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am.  She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming. 

She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it.  But instead there was a bomb shell.  After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent.  I don’t blame her in the slightest.  I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset.  Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally.  I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other.  I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way.  Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.  The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone.  It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment.  Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable.  I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life.  I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.

The Right to Believe in Nothing

According to yesterday’s Irish Times some census enumerators are advising people to fill in their religion as the one they were raised in rather than the beliefs they currently hold.  On the Antiroom blog today author and journalist Anna Carey called for those with no formal religious beliefs to make their voices heard – it’s a call echoed by Atheist Ireland who, back in January, launched their Be Honest About Religion campaign asking for all those not practising a religion to tick the No Religion box on the census to give an accurate suggestion of how secular Irish society has become.

This is an issue I feel strongly about.  It would never occur to me to answer anything other than No Religion.  That’s been the case for as long as I can remember, apart from a brief flirtation with God when I was about ten.  I grew up in a very secular environment – it was my choice to start going to church and my decision to get baptised then confirmed.  I remember being shown a lovely silver goblet given to me for my christening when I was a baby, that had sat in it’s green leather box slowly tarnishing as the day never arrived.  It seemed as if this elegant, shiny thing was never really mine because I’d never signed on the dotted line.  I can’t say for certain whether this had any influence on my decision to start attending church but  it never was engraved even when I finally did get baptised – about twenty minutes before I was confirmed at the age of 11. 

For a few years I really got into it.  I loved the ritual, the flowers and the way the light shone down through the stained glass windows in our modern church.  I also liked the way it made me feel, virtuous and special.  But it was always play acting for me.  I loved the music of the hymns, the rhythm of the words of the prayers we recited each week, the cadence of the sung parts of the eucharist, but at no stage did I really have a concept of some superior being.  When I heard the words Our Father I vaguely associated it with My Father, dead when I was a baby but always, so I was told, looking down on me.

So the issue of religion has never been a big one for me.  I’ve tried, over the years, to believe in a variety of things but deep down I know that for me it would always be play acting.  In England it was never a big deal.  I didn’t know what religion most of my friends were and it never came up.  But when we moved to Ireland all that changed.  Religion runs through this country like veins of silica through rock and is just as impenetrable.  I know that for my Irish friends the decision to say they have no religion usually means turning their backs on a deeply held faith that would have been followed unquestioningly before the doubts began.

Since I’ve moved here I’ve come to see how important belief can be but also how vital it is to respect the views of others.  This is something that, on even on an official level, is not always done here. 

A few years ago, in a different life, I was working as a consultant’s PA in a Dublin hospital.  One day I was helping a patient with his hospital admission.  The man had just been told he had terminal cancer and would probably not be leaving the hospital alive.  I had got to know him over the months he had been coming to the hospital for tests.  He was a lovely man, always quick with a joke and would always stop by my desk for a chat when he was leaving.  This day he was quiet as we worked through the form and I filled in the necessary details.  Towards the end of the form was a question on religion.  Without missing a beat he answered None.  This wasn’t an option so I left the section blank and moved on.

Leaving him sitting beside my desk I walked down the corridor to the admissions office, wanting to make the process as simple and painless as possible.  The woman sitting at the admissions desk glanced at the form I handed her before handing it back.  “You didn’t fill in the religion”.  “He doesn’t have one” I answered, not thinking twice about it.  “Take it back and get him to put something down – it has to be filled in before we can admit him.”

So I went back down the corridor clutching the form feeling slightly sick.  I had to tell this terribly sick man that his beliefs, obviously strongly felt, weren’t good enough for the hospital administrators.  I sat down beside him and explained it as lightly as I could but knew immediately I should have stayed and argued the toss at the admissions desk.  The poor man was angry and upset.  He was crying as he began to justify his decision to me, something he should never have felt he  had to do.

I stopped him and said that I would sort it and eventually I did.  It took a stand up row before they would admit him without a religion but eventually I was able to go back and tell him he could go up to the ward.  The whole incident left me shaking with anger.  That this lovely man should have been questioned like that, that I had to be the one to question him.  For weeks after I argued that the option should be added to the admissions form, but I was only a temp and the hospital administration staff were on a work to rule over a benchmarking dispute.  The issue wasn’t high on the agenda.  Eventually I persuaded the IT guy to add an extra box to the form and started reading all the options to everyone coming to admission.  Nobody else ticked the No Religion box but I would hope that next time they did it was accepted as an option.

I left the hospital not long after, a little bit more militant on a number of issues.  But it was that day that has stuck with me ever since and the anger still rises when I think of it.  I know that religion is part of the fabric of the State here but that has to change.  Things might have improved since I was working in the hospital but as long as there is the assumption that everyone is the same, everyone has the same background, the same values if you scratch the civilised veneer with a sharp enough point, then that complacency will make some people feel like aliens in their own home.  When that complacency strikes when people are at their most vulnerable then it becomes a cruelty.

I know there is pressure to conform.  When I took the stand last week down in Dungarvan I felt embarrassed when I asked to affirm, even though any other oath would be a lie.  I went to church for long enough as a child to feel awkward when everyone gets up for communion and I stay seated at the family milestones we gather to celebrate, all of them taking place in a Church.

The No Religion box on the current census form didn’t need to be asked for.  But if those who don’t believe don’t tick it then it’s too easy to assume it’s not a problem.  That not believing is just an aberration, a blip in the religious hegemony.  It’s the times when we’re at our most vulnerable that feeling like  an individual can be most important. But in those same times you shouldn’t be made to feel like an outsider.

Sitting in the Wrong Seat

I’m always open to new experiences but there are some that I’d much rather leave on the shelf.  I’ve been covering the courts for a long time now.  I’m used to walking into a courtroom and finding somewhere to sit where I have good sight lines and can hear what’s going on.  If there’s a table or a ledge to rest my notebook, so much the better.

I’ve often wondered idly what it would be like to sit on a jury – although it probably wouldn’t be much in the interests of justice for me to sit on one. You get a wee bit cynical in this gig – I can be a little harsh in my judgements.  But, like many of my colleagues, I’ve often wondered what goes on behind that closed door.

Also in common with my colleagues I’ve cringed in sympathy when one of our number has had to take the stand during a trial.  We’re used to covering the story, not being part of it.  The witness box is one seat I’ve never had a particular urge to sit in.

In the courts everything has it’s place.  The judges, barristers, court staff, gardai, prison officers and the press all have their roles just as surely as the jury, the witnesses and the accused.  We all sit in set parts of the courtroom, are generally on nodding terms and are all there to do a job.  I’ve been working there for almost five years and I’m very familiar with my place in all of it.

So it was disconcerting this week to find myself sitting in that seat I’ve never really had an urge to sit in before.  On Thursday I was a witness in the civil case taken by Sasha Keating, daughter of murdered Meg Walsh, against Meg’s husband John O’Brien, the man sensationally cleared of her murder after a lengthy trial back in the spring of 2008.

I had been called because I covered that trial and had written about what Mr O’Brien said when he gave evidence in his own defence.  The case was about whether Sasha, as Meg Walsh’s next of kin, had a claim on the house her mother had owned with John O’Brien.  Since Meg’s death, the house had reverted to the sole ownership of John O’Brien and had not been treated as part of the estate.  I had been asked to use my shorthand notes of the trial to confirm whether Mr O’Brien had mentioned the fact that his wife had started a process of moving the house into her name on the stand.  The process had begun after a violent argument a few weeks before Meg Walsh disappeared.  She had consulted a doctor, a garda, a solicitor and a banker and a letter had been sent to John O’Brien telling how serious the consequences of the matter could be.

O’Brien had indeed mentioned this under cross examination.  He had said he had agreed to sign the house over to prove the attack would never happen again.  He denied that it formed a motive to murder his wife.

That was my evidence.  A sentence.  A couple of squiggles in an old notebook.  Half a quote.  But last Thursday I found myself in Dungarvan steeling myself to walk across the faded carpet and climb the step to the seat that would have everyone’s attention on me.

Standing outside the courtroom that morning was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in a working day.  I knew most of the journalists who’d travelled to cover the case and since I’d covered the original trial they all assumed I was there like them to cover an interesting post script to one of the most high profile trials of the last few years.  At first we just chatted but all too quickly the interest shifted from fellow coverer of the news to a potential fragment of it.  Standing outside the door of the courtroom I was glad I had dressed with more care than I do to slip into my customary place on the press bench.  I’d taken care with my makeup and had actually worn a dress, and just as well because it wasn’t long before the TV3 camera turned it’s lens in my direction as I stood chatting with my colleagues.  How good was that going to look on the evening news?

When we went into the court they all went and sat at the end of the barristers table, leaning their heads together and glancing around the room to check the demeanour of the key players as John O’Brien and Sasha Keating took their seats with friends and family, a few rows away from each other.  I took a seat in the body of the court feeling horribly conspicuous.  Even though I was well aware that my evidence was unlikely to feature in any headlines unless I made a complete tit of myself on the stand and got relegated to colour.

I wasn’t called till after lunch and once I’d given my evidence all the lawyers left the room with a speed that is enough to give a girl a serious complex.  As predicted I didn’t in fact make the evening news and I doubt if my evidence will sway the judge one way or another but it’s an experience I wouldn’t be eager to repeat.

I cover the courts.  I’m used to observing what goes on impartially, being free to comment, to tell the unfolding story.  Being a witness is different.  I am always careful to be accurate in my accounts (I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise) but it’s a strange thing to actually take an oath to do it.  I’m used to hearing those words a dozen times a day but when it was my turn to affirm I stumbled, becoming one of those witnesses I’ve smirked at as an airhead for being unable to remember to the end of a sentence.  I know when I was answering the questions being put to me I wasn’t concerned about how fast I was talking and probably gabbled my way through the little bit of evidence I had.  I also forgot that when all the barristers left  the room and I wandered down from the witness box that I was still under oath until I had been released and had to catch my tongue before wandering over to one of my colleagues and starting to chat about how things were going.

Something that should have been so familiar and so simple to do was actually nerve wracking and downright weird.  I felt like a fish out of water and followed my instructions with a rabbit in the headlines automation that I’ve seen on so many faces as they clutched the testament in sweaty fingers to say words that have suddenly developed a whole lot of meaning.

It was only five minutes and it wouldn’t have made my court report if I’d been sitting with the press but from where I was sitting it felt like the world had flipped on it’s access for a day and was all hopelessly unfamiliar.  The next day I was back in the press benches and back in Dublin.  It felt damned good.

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