Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Blogging (page 1 of 5)

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comprehensive research that side of things when I was researching Devil, my first book, and I’m well aware of how out of date that research is now.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!

The Sound of Silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately. I think a lot of people have, if Twitter is a barometer of anything at all. This past Sunday the hashtag #twittersilence was impossible to ignore. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on whether the protest which led many prominent and not so prominent tweeters, led by feminist writer and commentator Caitlin Moran, to boycott the site for the day, was a good or bad idea. The debate is still raging as you’ll see from the link to the hashtag above.

I took part in the protest, even though I’ve reservations about silent protests in general. I’ve taken part in several similar protests in the real world but there’s a huge difference between showing your silent condemnation for something in person and absenting yourself from the roar that is Twitter even on a quiet day. In this case #twittersilence certainly provoked it’s desired reaction. Even just talking about whether it was right or wrong meant that the issue that had spurred it, that of the aggressive trolling that blights so many online forums, was and still is being talked about. I’d say most Twitter users have had their own spontaneous twittersilence from time to time. There are times when the frank exchange of views can get a little too full on. I know that I’ve often retreated into lurking on the sidelines on the site. It’s not that I’m afraid to put my views out there, it’s just that sometimes the constant ranting becomes too much.

It comes with the territory with most social networking sites of course. No matter how social we tell ourselves it is our engagement is normally a solitary practise alone at our computer or hunched over our phone. No matter how much you engage, from the beginning you’re standing on your soapbox shouting out into the darkness. The fact that those on nearby soapboxes can hear you and respond or the fact that familiar faces from the real world pop up on your timeline, doesn’t change the fact that what you are doing is a solitary thing. It’s particularly true of Twitter where everyone has something to sell, even if it’s just themselves. That’s what you sign up for and that’s what you get.

But this post isn’t really about Twitter. I’ve been thinking about silence because sometimes my own is deafening. That might seem an odd thing to say when I’m writing this at a domain name that is my own name and I’ll be broadcasting these words on all the networks I subscribe to, with my photo as an avatar and the whole thing in part to maintain a public image that I’ve worked hard to build. That’s part of the job of being a writer these days and thank god for the Internet because it allows us introverts to shout just as loudly as everyone else without actually having to get out there and mingle. I’ve written about difficult subjects here and there, I’ve written about personal stuff, I’ve flaunted myself as outspoken, blunt, unafraid to say what needs to be said. That’s the shtick and that’s what I’ll always keep on doing. But that’s not the whole truth. There are subjects that I skirt around, that I never write about and seldom talk about because when I look towards them to drag them out the silence roars. Some things I don’t talk about because they’re private and no one’s business but some things I can’t talk about even though I want to.

Not writing about these things kills me. Writing is what I do and in a huge way it’s how I deal with things. When something big has affected me I know it’s contained and beyond hurt when I can dissect it and cannibalise it to inform what I write. I approach writing the way my mum used to tell me to approach acting, using past experience to provide an emotional truth in what I’m describing. I can understand a subject from an intellectual point of view but if I can’t feel it I feel I can’t write it. This, of course, is why writers research and why so many will never say no to a new experience. It’s why they say “write what you know” even if it sounds a bit out there when I describe it like that. You’re probably thinking I’m stating the bleeding obvious but it’s my name at the top of the page so I’ll say it anyway.

It’s the nature of being a writer that everything is fair game in one way or another, so when something comes surrounded with a barbed wire fence it’s unsettling to say the least. The prohibition is caustic, it eats away at consciousness and the silence of avoiding a subject that should be talked about is loudest of all. In my case that barbed wire fence was erected by someone else. It was put down so long ago that I’ve absorbed it into my system and it’s going to take a long time to dismantle it. That’s one thing that bugged me particularly about the twitter silence campaign. The trolls that triggered it want nothing more than to shut up all the outspoken women that offend them so. They are standard issue bullies, nothing new, nothing special and nothing remarkable but what they are trying to do is what abusers have done to their victims for time immemorial. Abuse exists within a silence. It’s dependent on the silence of the victim to continue. The moment the victim calls it out and takes steps to bring it into the bright light of day in many cases the abuser will retreat back into the shadows. They might not go quietly and they might not retreat without a fight but abuse doesn’t survive very well in the sun. It’s something that roars in the shadows behind closed doors.

I learnt this from the person who put up the barbed wire. I learnt to be quiet in public, to smile when people were looking. I might have eventually learnt to stay out of the shadows but I never shone a light in there. I let the silence grow inside me until it felt like it was squeezing my heart and stopping me breath. Like avoiding a cobweb because you’re afraid of a spider that’s never going to solve the problem. The spider will just get fatter and hairier and the cobweb will grow. In the end you’ll have to move house or at the very least put a curtain over the manky corner that you wouldn’t go within six feet of now. Well I’m not the type to run and I’m in the mood for a spring clean. I’ve got a long handled brush and a scarf to cover my hair (even in this analogy my scalp is itching thinking of eight-legged, dive-bombing assassins lying in wait). In fairness this is probably going to be a job for professional exterminators so we’ll be sticking with the spider metaphor for the time being.

I know that because of that arachnid freak I’m left with a roaring silence that threatens to swamp me from time to time. I know that years of lying and pretending everything was fine have made grappling that silence all the harder. I know that once it’s broken I’ve no control over what noise takes its place. I know that I’m left with the relics of it’s construction to deal with on a daily basis – the belief that friends and family are not to be trusted, the belief that people laugh at me behind my back, the belief that the barbed wire is somehow there because of me, the paradoxical lure of the dark. I recognise these for what they are now, just crap left over that has nothing to do with anything, but every now and then I forget they’re there and I trip.

I’m skirting round the edges now, making half hearted feints with my long handled broom, but Spider’s days are numbered. I’m coming for it. I’ve had enough of silence. It’s too damned loud. I’m all for speaking out, for dragging the darkness out into the light. Silence can be powerful but it’s too easy for it to envelop you. The ground around me is crisscrossed with lines in the sand but I’m drawing another one and I’m writing about it because that’s where I need it to end up. Just another thing that I can dismember and use. That’s all it’s good for after all.

New Year, Same Old Codswallop

So today I’m tentatively sticking my nose into the real world – after making absolutely sure that the dispiriting mess that was 2012 has definitely left the building. I’ve been taking a break from all things internet related for most of the festive period…well apart from standing on the shore with a megaphone trumpeting Christmas wishes to anyone who’d listen and occasionally checking IMDB while on our annual compendium horror movie marathon…but for the most part it’s been drawbridge up, hatches well and truly battened down and it’s been lovely.

Much as I love the sprawling badlands that are the Interwebs they do hold an awful lot of silliness within their ragged borders. While the Net holds the kind of boundless possibilities Captain James T. Kirk was chasing (and still does apparently) it also gets snagged with all the pettiness of mankind. It opens up the world and you get the good with the bad. I’ve spent much of the past two years researching my new book. Thanks to a truly connected global Internet I was able to access the collections of libraries across the planet without ever leaving my desk. Thanks to the Google Books Project I was able to access printed sources that haven’t even survived in the collection of the National Library of Ireland.  I’d go so far as to say that I wouldn’t even have been able to find this story if it wasn’t for that interconnectedness. It’s a small story, an intimate and subtle one that was scattered far and wide in the intervening years. Without digital copies and the ability to conduct keyword searches I wouldn’t have been able to pull the strands of the story together. I’d be left with a thin sliver of purely linear narrative running through a haystack bristling with needles I would have had no hope of finding.

Technology has utterly revolutionised the way I research – my smartphone has become as essential a bit of kit as the ubiquitous tricorder, to return to that StarTrek analogy for a second. As a journalist and writer my work suddenly reaches a global audience. When I’m between freelance gigs I can still reach out to that audience through this blog. If I want to find something out I have access to a vast source of information, bigger than the greatest libraries in the world, connected to any reference work, any expert with a few strokes of the keyboard. It really is extraordinary. In less than 10 years we’ve wandered into science fiction.

I think that’s part of the problem.

The Internet, just by being it’s enormous sprawling self, tends to magnify both good and bad. Moving from our analogue pre digital existence to one connected to the Net all day every day is like moving from a small village to a city. There might be better shops, theatres and sporting stadiums but you can bet there’ll also be higher crime and higher prices. The bright lights just cast darker shadows and those shadows tend to be very busy places indeed. What else would you expect when moving to a community that isn’t bound by city limits or country borders? This is totally global. That’s big.

Now city living doesn’t suit everyone. With the bricks and mortar variety we can choose to leave, to turn our backs on the bright lights and frenetic life of the city for something a little less intense. So it is with the Internet. At the moment there seems to be a settlement sprouting up at the edge of our Internet City, a forest of lean-to shelters for the most part, although there are signs that some of the residents have actually started laying down foundations to stake a more permanent claim. They refuse to accept that the land they have built on is still part of the city and gather outside their dwellings several times a day to shout and throw stones. Sometimes they even travel into the city centre to better tell the city inhabitants what a sinful life they’re leading. They say that the city is destroying the countryside they would have chosen to live in and they have no choice but to sit outside their shanty town at night and throw stones and the occasional bucket of excrement at the outer fringes of the city. It’s the city’s fault for being too close.

Over the past weeks and months in Ireland a lot of shit has been slung. The Internet is blamed for for all the ills of mankind it seems. It’s denizens are cast as an unruly mob waiting in the bushes to jump out at unsuspecting innocents. Whether it’s the amount of confusing facts and non facts floating around online that can lure unsuspecting journalists into making career-ending mistakes (the first of which would surely have been the old one of checking ones sources), or anonymous bullying from so called trolls (a genuine problem but not one that should be hidden behind by politicians and public figures who put themselves up for scrutiny and then decide they don’t like criticism) these are problems that revolve around responsibility. Yes perhaps their should be more civic mindedness online and yes perhaps there need to be consequences for some of the irresponsible acts but surely there’s also a responsibility to those on the other end to be aware of what they are dealing with. I’m often reminded these days of the advice I got from friends before moving from Sligo to Dublin in my late teens.  They would have had me afraid to leave my flat if I’d listened to all the stories of rapes and murders in broad daylight on Grafton Street. When I’d moved to Sligo from London I was more freaked out by the way everyone said hello to everyone else and houses and cars were left unlocked. But if you weren’t looking out for it, sure Dublin was a wee bit dodgy but then, it is a city.

The latest missile is that old chestnut copyright. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of copyright – I’m a writer. My words are my trade. But the body representing the bulk of Irish newspapers has taken a stance on linking that is, to my mind, plain daft. Here’s the initial post from the solicitors representing charity Woman’s Aid, who received a bill for linking to coverage of their own fundraising efforts and here’s the National Newspaper of Ireland response.  As any regular reader of this blog will know I use links a lot. I use them to explain the background of stories I’m writing about and choose sources I respect. I’ve always linked rather than quoted because I wouldn’t want to steal the work of another journalist (although I’ve often linked to my own coverage of stories in old media sources). As far as I’m concerned it’s the most ethical way of doing things, it drives traffic to the source (though not much from here) and I’m not taking credit for something I’ve not done. I’ve been dealing with copyright a lot over the past few years as I’ve gathered together copies of all my research. I’ve lost count of the number of copyright release forms I’ve signed before taking my camera out and before using the composite image in this post I had to get permission from the National Library who hold the images I wanted to use. I was using the images on my blog though. I wasn’t linking to the library website to show the images (though actually I don’t think those three are up there yet). If I had linked through I wouldn’t have asked for permission. All I was doing was pointing the way after all.

In fairness the NNI aren’t the only ones to come up with this kind of lunacy. President Hollande of France is having a scrap with Google over much the same thing (and yes I know I could be incurring the wrath of the NNI by linking to a piece from one of their members to illustrate that point). I can understand the NNI point and even more the French point but I think they’re both going about it the wrong way. Anyone who makes their living producing unique content should have an issue with copyright. It’s one of the biggest issues of our time and if it’s not watched carefully then people like me will and any other writer, journalist, artist or photographer will find themselves unable to make a living. Once again we’re back to finding a balance between that “civic” responsibility and a sense of reality on the other side. Surely it’s about time people stopped acting like rubes up in the big smoke for the first time and took responsibility for their new home.

Like any community it’s up to the inhabitants what shape it takes. You can watch it from down the road, occasionally shouting warning at it’s wayward ways and throwing buckets of shit; you can live in it passively, allowing a monarchy, a church or big business to run it for you; or you can take responsibility and mould something really worthwhile. Lets hope the Internet lives up to its own possibilities and doesn’t get swamped by the mass of humanity that inhabits it.

All a Bit Billy Goats Gruff

 

Billy Goats Gruff by Roger_AO

Like any ecosystem the Internet has it’s own distinct flora and fauna. You don’t even have to go on a prolonged safari to encounter some of the wilder indigenous species, they will sneak right into your living room if you don’t keep your wits about you. In fact some of these ferocious beasties have such prodigious bites that national governments have attempted to muzzle them for the public safety. But this post isn’t really about trolls. Not really.

I’m not here to talk about online defamation or cyber bullying. Those are the kind of trollish activities carried out by the big diamond-encrusted trolls with the massive clubs that block out the sun when they’re raised high – or a nasty bully hiding under a rock. The people I’m talking about would probably never think of themselves as a large silicon-based creature who beats the defenceless with a big stick. They probably don’t even realise that words can have the same effect as a big stick. Sure ,they’re not saying anything personal. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion after all.

Opinion is king in the Internet. Everyone’s got one and no-one’s afraid to use it – and yes, I know that I’m also shouting my ha’penny’s worth into the ether with this post. But I’m talking about a creature that existed long before it could crawl into the cyberspace. Anyone who’s edited the letters page on almost any kind of publication will recognise that green-inked plumage. Those who’ve worked the late shift on a news desk will flinch at the raucous cry. The rest of us them know this almost mythical beast by many names, many faces. There is “Man in Pub”, or “Dublin Taxi Driver”. In these more straightened times there have been increasing sightings of the progenitor of this species, “Man on the Street”.

But I don’t want to give the impression of a sterile single sex organism. There is a female of the species, although it’s not always necessary for procreation.  Males do seem to outnumber their female counterparts but in the dim lighting of the Internet it can be hard to tell them apart. The species is most easily recognised by highly developed speaking apparatus, which is frequently not attached to the actual brain, and tiny ears that have great difficulty in hearing anything apart from their own booming voice. Here in Ireland there’s something of an infestation, although there are marauding bands roaming through most of the planet.

It’s easy to poke fun but the relentless booming and pontificating can get wearing. I’ve seen it time and again on message boards and forums and in the comments on news sites and blogs, even once or twice on this one. A point is made, a discussion gets going and then someone comes along booming their point of view and drowning out everything else. Often people get so distracted correcting wilful ignorance or blatant bigotry that the discussion often doesn’t really get going again. I know we’re back to the silicate beasties but these are usually a lesser species with a softer shell and a less devastating bite. The standard advice of not feeding the trolls doesn’t always apply. They don’t always come looking for food, sometimes they’re just hanging onto the underside of the bridge grabbing at your hooves.

Of course if you walk over bridges that have trolls hanging on the underside the very least they’re going to do is grab at your legs. We all know where we’re headed when we go online. But increasingly it’s not an optional expedition. Life is moving online. We’re constantly connected these days, from the computer we sit in front of all day to the smart phone that’s a constant companion for so many of us. As we interact more often and more widely in an increasingly social world we encounter the Internet’s wildlife with rather depressing monotony. As a woman, it’s a bit like having a time machine sitting on your desk or in your pocket that will take you back to the 1970s whether you want to go or not, and as tends to happen with malfunctioning time portals, some of that dystopian 70s stuff is finding it’s way back here.

To all those young women who think they don’t need to be a feminist any more or guys who think we’re just making a fuss when we have it so easy now, read this story from the UK and this one from our own fair Dublin. Yesterday Women’s Aid, the domestic violence charity here in Ireland announced their figures for 2011 – they make depressing reading. But when The Journal, the on-line Irish news site, wrote about the 20% rise in child abuse detailed in the report the first comment was one of our booming friends. They often come out for stories on the site that deal with women’s issues or matters of race and it makes depressing reading. Which is rather my point. I refer to the Journal, by the way, simply because they had an example in the last 24 hours or so but this kind of browbeating is all too common. Whereas once you could simply sidestep “Man in Pub” or cross the road to avoid “Man in the Street” online they come to you.

I know that there’s not much you can do about these indigenous species, they will find a corner to breed even if you put down traps, but merely putting up Don’t Feed the Trolls signs doesn’t strike me as enough. Zoos put up those notices for animals they are keeping safe. Most of the time I wear thick boots when I’ve a bridge to cross so I can stamp on clinging claws but that’s not much good either in the long run. The problem with trolls, whether they’re bullies or single issue head-the-balls who insist that if we’re having a discussion on artichokes we should actually be joining them in a discussion on aardvarks, is that it’s easier to turn away than engage. But that doesn’t shift them in the long run. The only way to get rid of trolls on the bridge who are threatening to eat you is to lower your horns and run at them them.

So I’ve ended up talking about trolls after all. But honestly it’s not really these soft little under-rock dwellers that are the problem. It’s the fact we don’t always charge them off the bridge without a second thought. I’m all for a zero tolerance broken windows theory approach (with thanks to Caitlin Moran and Rudi Giuliani). The Guardian newspaper yesterday asked Why Women Have No Opinions and here in Ireland Margaret E. Ward and her team of Women on Air have been championing more female voices on the Irish airwaves for some time now. There have definitely been some results but there’s a lot more to do. It would be very nice to say, as it says in the story.

Snip, snap snout

This tale’s told out”

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

What’s in a Name?

So Ireland has a new president.  Last Thursday the public hit the polling booths and resoundingly voted for Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins.  When the news broke journalists and bloggers alike tried to find a nice handy soundbite to stick our president elect into.  “Veteran politician”, “humanitarian”, “short”, “elderly”, many labels were bandied about.  The one that seems to have raised most eyebrows however is “poet”.

Now for those not familiar with President Michael D’s literary back catalogue, he’s well known in the west of Ireland, where he’s from, as something of a poet.  He’s not one of Ireland’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and he’s unarguably kept the day job as an academic and politician, but he has also published several collections of poetry with a couple of different publishers.  No one is making anything up when they say the guy is a poet. He’s even done poetry readings.

A couple of days ago The Guardian published an opinion piece by British poet Carol Rumens.  In the piece titled “Michael D. Higgins is No Poet” she dissects a poem of his the Guardian had printed as being apt on the day the result of the vote was announced.  It’s quite a hatchet job and it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, as you might expect.  A couple of people have asked me what I think of the soon to be presidential verse.  And that’s the thing, the one thing that’s probably most extraordinary about the Guardian piece.

I could understand it if the man had been elected poet laureate or had won some big literary prize but he hasn’t.  His presidency will be memorable or damp squib depending on his political skills rather than his skills with a pen.  Even if he was the poetic peer of the kind of little old lady who rings up a certain kind of radio show to share a certain type of topical doggerel it wouldn’t really affect whether or not he’s any good at the job he’s just been elected to.  The question of whether or not Winston Churchill was a good journalist or writer or whether Ronald Reagan could actually act is only ever going to be of mild academic interest.  Their reputations will rest on something different.

But it’s not just whether or not he’s a good poet.  The headline of the article suggests that because his metaphors are clumsy and his lines don’t flow he is not worthy of the word poet at all.  And that’s not fair.  I’m not writing this to bang the Michael D. drum, it goes beyond whether we’ve elected a bard or a bullshitter.  That phrase sticks in my head because it moves the goal posts. It taps into something that I have a sneaking suspicion goes beyond what convenient soundbite can be applied to a certain politician.

Titles matter.  There are some you win, some you’re appointed, and others you earn after a long grind.  The title of poet falls into this last category, like writer or artist or author or even, perhaps pushing it a bit, journalist.  It’s the kind of title that you only feel comfortable calling yourself when you’ve got to a certain stage. It could be getting that first paid gig as a journalist, a first book for an author, an independent exhibition for an artist.  Everyone has their own level but the bar tends to settle at a fairly average height. To use myself as an example.  I’ve written stories as long as I can remember, even used to make little miniature books as a kid to bind them, but I would never call myself a writer.  I would say I liked writing, or I wanted to be a writer.  When I started work as a journalist I still hesitated to call myself a writer.  Apart from anything else I was working in radio.

Despite the fact that in my weekends and at night I was working on a novel, I would only describe myself as a journalist.  I’m even happy to call myself a hack – I’ve worked to pay the bills rather than serve the art – but, despite the fact the novel was eventually finished and I’d even started on a sequel, the title of writer and especially author just didn’t seem to fit.

These days I’ll call myself a writer and even author, quite happily.  I’ve written two books that were published and sold in bookshops all over the country and all over the web.  I know that whatever I do now I’ve passed that point.  The title is earned. 

There’s a lot of debate these days with the explosion of “independently” published books – covering everything self published down and including what would once have been firmly termed vanity publishing.  It’s so easy for anyone who chooses to publish their work and sell it through Amazon onto Kindles across the planet. A bit more work and expense can produce an actual book that can be ordered online or even stocked in real bricks and mortar bookshops.  The industry is changing and so a lot more people are probably entitled to call themselves author or writer. 

I wonder if this is where the viciousness of the Guardian article comes from.  A poet feeling encroached by any Tom, Dick or Harry hanging their hats on her hatstand and claiming a muse because they wrote a haiku once and published it on their blog.  If that’s the case I’d like to send sympathetic thoughts to Carol Rumens. The market has recently got a lot more crowded and it’s harder than ever to get your voice heard.  Even if you take the route of traditional publishing with it’s long apprenticeship in furtive adolescent notebooks, building the confident to submit to publishers, the eventual dizzying acceptance, even if you take that well travelled route, these days it’s damned crowded when you get there.

That’s why titles matter.  We hit the milestones and want the rewards.  When I was growing up the child of actors I was told that you couldn’t call yourself a pro unless someone not related to you was willing to pay.  If you could get paid for your art you had passed the most important milestone. A certain level of ability and experience was assumed because otherwise you wouldn’t get the gig.  By the time I had hit my 20s I’d worked out that talent and experience weren’t necessarily the only things that could get you paid for acting but that’s another post entirely!  The long and the short of it was that amateurs just aspired to it.  They weren’t willing to put everything on the line to earn a living at it.  Only when you took that step could you earn the title of fully fledged artist…usually with the realisation that the living would be extremely hard won.

Of course it’s not always so black and white.  Over the years there have been plenty of writers who’ve kept the day job.  Chekhov was a doctor, Flann O’Brien a civil servant, the list goes on and on and on.  Of course Michael D. was and is a politician.  It’s easy to be churlish about those who have clung onto the security of a day job don’t have the temperament to be an artist.  We all need to eat. The old milestones are still there.  The bar you have to touch to win the right to call yourself the title.  The president elect published his first collection of poems in 1970.  He’s not part of the internet chatter where everyone you meet online seems to be working on a book.  

It’s easy to assume that this is a new phenomenon brought about by the ubiquity of schemes like NaNoWriMo.  But I’m not convinced in the sudden explosion of wannabe literary activity. In my teens and 20s in Dublin it seemed like everyone I met was writing a book. That might just be an Irish thing but I doubt it somehow.  The only thing that’s changed now is all those people hunched over their bedroom notebooks can see all the other people and wave and talk about their hope and plans for world domination. The thing is that regardless of how someone takes those first few steps to that first and most important milestone, it’s not really changed.  It might be easier than ever before to publish your words and more people might call themselves writers and poets than have necessarily earned the right, but the bar is in the same place.  Whether it’s the self published author who’s sold enough ebooks on Kindle to give up the day job, or the literary effete who’s built a solid reputation through publication in a respected small press and enthusiastic readings there’s still a certain line to cross. We all instinctively know where it is.  It’s not the size of the cheque, it’s the respect it’s given with.

All this has nothing to do ability.  It’s more about a solid commitment to your craft (at the risk of sounding hopelessly pretentious).  I don’t know Michael D. Higgins as a poet. I do remember him as a Minister for the Arts.  Back then he showed his commitment to the arts and was damn good at his job.  I’m delighted that, for once, the person we’ve elected President is going to champion Ireland’s artistic heritage.  For that alone I wouldn’t fling pot shots at his own literary endeavours. I’m sure the debate about whether or not Michael D. is a good or bad poet will continue for years to come. I hope though that no one else will be silly enough to question whether he’s a poet at all.  That’s a goalpost that doesn’t need to be moved.

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!

The Baser Appetites

I watch the search terms people use to arrive at this blog with interest.  Every blogger gets some weird ones but I get more than most. It kind of goes with the territory when you spend most of your time writing about murder, rape, abuse, death and the media.

I write on a fairly niche subject so I end up high in the results for searches for Irish legal or criminal matters.  There’s a couple of weird ones – I get a LOT of hits from Japan for naked caricatures since I posted on the paintings of our esteemed Taoiseach in the nip that appeared in a couple of galleries in Dublin a while back using a full frontal image from Galway cartoonist Allan Cavanagh. And recently I seem to have become a go to place for those looking for the recipe for ricin (though since I’ve written extensively on that very subject I brought that one on myself).

Today I got an unusual one, a sentence that took me aback when I read it in the list of Google searches.  Someone had found my blog looking for the phrase “Abigail Rieley is scum”.  I know that people sometimes have very strong views about what I write here and that’s why I have comments enabled on every post.  Blogging is a social form of writing and I believe people should have the freedom to express their views.  I won’t allow comments that will cause unnecessary offence or break the law but if someone has a rational case to make they can make it freely.

But it got me thinking.  I write, for the most part, about death.  I earn my living following the stories of some of the most violent deaths we have in this country and I comment on them.  I’m aware that I can’t please everyone if I come down on one side or another in a trial but I will always try to be as fair as I possibly can.  But however fair I am there is always the risk of upsetting someone.

That’s the problem with this line of work.  As a court reporter specialising in criminal trials I am feeding one of the oldest appetites for news.  It’s the same public hunger that demands public executions and fights to the death for sport.  It’s the side of humanity that watches the pain of others with a bright glint in the eye.  Before you recoil in disgust stop a minute – it’s a lot more common than you think. 

It’s the same side of us that laps up crime fiction and violent movies.  Just because it’s make believe doesn’t mean it’s a different urge.  It’s the same sneering little voice that laughs at the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent, willing dreams to be dashed and hopes crushed and will continue to watch even though psychologist have warned of the dangers to the more vulnerable auditionees.  But what I write about doesn’t have the sanitised gloss of entertainment.  It’s real life, real death.  The raw explosion of emotion that leads one ordinary person to take another’s life. You realise very quickly when you work down in the courts that the average person on trial for murder is not a psychopath or evil or depraved.  They’re just like you and me.

With every trial there are people who have lost, families who must listen to their loved ones reduced to an echo, a cipher who was at the centre of a storm and is now in front of the court as a a series of figments; forensic samples, perhaps a few photographs taken after death and the inevitable post mortem.  It’s shocking in it’s mundanity.

I’ve seen the looks the family of both the accused and the deceased give us journalists as we file in to the front of the court.  We’re usually seen as vultures, vermin scrabbling for the juicy titbits left over from a tragedy.  I know how it looks, we all do.  But the reality of the situation is that we are there to do a job and to feed an appetite for this kind of news.  It’s easier to cover a trial when you aren’t emotionally involved and that distance tends to show itself as an increased cynicism and an outward callousness.  We’re there to tell a story and allow the audience that same remove.  We’re feeding an interest, crime and politics have been filling newspapers since they were just a bill pasted on a wall…at least we don’t write ballads about the more infamous trials these days.

I would argue though that court reporting’s not all base emotions.  We’re witness to the carrying out of justice, one of the basic pillars of society.  Without the courts we’d have anarchy, or something similar.  When we write about murders we’re giving a voice to the dead and seeing their killers brought to justice – most of the time.  Maybe the reason why there’s such an interest in crime stories is just that, because it puts the bad guys in their place and makes the world less scary.  There will always be those that just see the sleaze and think what I do is sordid and perhaps even exploitative but all I can do is try to show them otherwise.

To Defame or Not to Defame

On Monday Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced that comments posted on social networking sites could be defamatory.  The papers the following day were full of headlines that warned users of Facebook and Twitter to be careful what they said because they could now be guilty of libel.

This is all fine and dandy but for one thing. They always could be.  Libel covers any defamatory material that is written, printed or otherwise permanently represented. Surely any first year journalism student could work out that just as letters, emails, blogs or graffiti can be defamatory so can tweets or Facebook updates.

We should all be aware that what we write online is no different from something written in a newspaper or set down permanently in any other way.  I have to be aware that anything I write online about the trials I cover is not going to land me in contempt of court just as I have to be careful with any copy I write for newspapers, magazines or books.  Defamation is no different.

I understand that there are millions of people now writing stuff online who have not been taught a basic primer in defamation law that the average journalist receives in college but surely most people have a rough idea of what libel is?

The minister’s comments at the second annual report of the Press Ombudsman on Monday evening were indicative of a widespread assumption that online words somehow exist in a special alternative reality that needs special laws and special rules.  The defamation laws are not suddenly applying to stuff that has been blissfully unregulated since it came into being, they always did.  If online material is permanent then surely it is covered by the standard libel definition, just as letters to a third party have always been, just as graffiti has always been and just as blogs and emails are and have been proved to be in recent cases here in Ireland.

Yes the spectacular growth of social networking has given a lot of new ways to libel people but it beats me why this should come as a shock to anyone.  The idea that online communities are in some way private, or at least give that impression, is often bandied around as as reason for why people are so cavalier about basic common sense online but this doesn’t really wash.  You can commit libel in a letter to your mum…if you’re talking about a third party and the letter is put lovingly away in a box.  It’s the making of defamatory comments to a third party that breaks the law.  That could be over the counter in your local shop (talking the old offence of slander), over a pint in your local pub or standing with semaphore flags on your roof. 

We should all be familiar with the basic idea of defamation.  Now we all spend so much time writing down our defamatory thoughts, rather than cheerfully slandering people with gay abandon, we all need to be more aware of libel.

It’s something that internet forums have long needed to deal with, as has anyone who has to monitor comments on a website or blog and it’s not something that only journalists need to understand.

I remember being taught media law in college.  Our lecturer came from the assumption that there was a lot we would already know.  When did people stop assuming that? When did people start thinking that new rules applied?  There are a lot of things that do need to be looked at afresh in light of modern technological changes, things that will have to be decided in the courts at some stage because they’ve never existed before.  Defamation isn’t one of them.

Maybe it’s about time that social media sites or blogging platforms started to give people signing up a primer on the legal issues they’ll be facing.  It could be something you had to work through before you could finish signing up…like reading the Terms and Conditions always is. 

Commentators are fond of saying that we’re all journalists now.  No we’re not, but we will all need to learn how not to defame people.  It’s something we should all already know.  It’s hardly rocket science.  The penny is going to have to drop sometime that social networks are not some magic special case where the normal rules do not apply.  It’s common sense.  It shouldn’t be such a big shock that it makes headlines.

A New Year and a New Decade

2010 has arrived and I’m feeling optimistic.  It’s been an incredible roller coaster of a decade but I’m ready for something new.

As we went into the new millennium I wasn’t married and I hadn’t graduated college. Both those happened in 2000 and I’m hoping 2010 will be just as exciting.  Over the past ten years there have been ups and downs but I’m happy with where I am now – it’s all to play for.

In the last few years I’ve started working in the courts and had my first book published.  My first novel is with my agent and I’ve high hopes that 2010 will be the year it finds a publisher.  Looking back on where I’ve come from I’m proud of where I am and confident of where I can get…one day.

So I’m sharing my New Years Resolutions in the hope that, once they’re out in the world I won’t be able to back out of them.

First on the list is a commitment to write.  Quite apart from the freelancing I already do I want to get more disciplined about fiction writing.  I’ve been talking for ages about posting short stories on this blog to give you readers an idea of the non court reporting stuff I do so that’s resolution number 1.  At least one story to be up on the blog each month.

Next I have to look to my next fiction project.  If Book 1 finds a publisher I’ll probably have to start work on the sequel (it’s the first of a trilogy) but these things can take time so I’ve another book to be working on in the meantime.  I know my characters and have a strong plot outline…what I need to do now is start seriously drafting it.

With all this fiction to be written, on top of the day job, I think resolution 3 ought to be to do with the blog.  I’ve ideas to expand it, including podcasting and possibly themed posts but at the moment all I’m committing to is at least three posts a week – I’ll be aiming for daily but if deadlines loom I’m afraid the paying gigs get priority!

Finally one of those grandiose resolutions that really don’t have any major bearing on day to day living.  I’m resolving to have faith that all this will work.  That even on the slack days when I’ve no commissions and the fiction looks like nothing more than a pipe dream, I will trust that this is all going somewhere and I’m not wasting my time.  It’s so easy to have doubts but I’m going to try to keep them to a minimum this year.

I’ll try and keep all of these resolutions and a few more I’m not sharing.  It’s a good time for promises and this year anything seems possible.

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