Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Off the Point (page 1 of 4)

A Swiftpost Answer to Procrastination?

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The grotto to Ste Expedit in the church of St Pierre’s in Bordeaux. Each on of the marble plaques is a prayer answered.

Since the hack, I’ve been been going through this site from the very beginning. I had to reconstruct everything because I ended up taking a fairly nuclear approach with getting rid of the pesky hacker and not everything had been backed up. It’s been fascinating going back over my old posts. So much has happened in the past 7 years.

Then I upgraded to Windows 10 so I’ve been putting my laptop back together as well. Well not literally, obviously, but it always takes a while to get everything back the way I like it after a clean install. Just as I was looking over old posts I ended up looking over old photos and found the one at the start of this article. I started writing this blog on a holiday in Bordeaux, just after I’d delivered the manuscript for Devil. I’d spent a semester there in college and got engaged to the husband while I was there. That return trip was 10 years later. Even though it was supposed to be a romantic occasion I had a book coming out so every day I sat down at the laptop and tried to work out this blogging thing.

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Me, probably writing the first post on Ste Expedit. Looking very young.

One day, wandering around the city we came across the church of Ste Pierre. I forget why we went in, it was either raining or too hot or possibly we liked the architecture, it doesn’t really matter. Inside the church, the only thing I remember about it now, was a grotto to Ste Expedit.

Ah Ste Expedit. I’d never heard of his before that day but he’s remained one of my favourite saints (although it’s not really a long list). He’s the saint of getting help in a hurry, of hackers, of procrastination (or rather deliverance from). Seriously, what’s not to like when you spend your time trying to earn a living through writing and the Internet? He’s big in New Orleans apparently. According to legend St Expedite was a young Roman legionary who was thinking about converting to Christianity. As happens all too often in these circumstances a crow came to him to try to convince him not to. “Leave it till tomorrow” said the crow – yes it was a talking crow. But young Ste Expedite was having none of it. “Today” he insisted and, bearing in mind this is the saint you turn to if you want to kill procrastination, he did do it today. This is the reason why the very pretty young legionary you see in statues has a speech bubble that says “Hodie” or today and there’s a crow hanging around somewhere who’s saying “cras” or tomorrow. I approve of puns when you’re talking saints and Ste Expedite is all about puns. Starting with the crow who’s “cras” could be tomorrow or “cras, cras” or “caw, caw”.

But the puns don’t stop there. Ste Expedit got his super power of being there in an emergency from a pun. He sounded like that’s what he could do. So he did it. The plaques behind the statue in St Pierre’s church show decades of desperate prayers. “Thank you for saving my little girl” reads one. “Thank you, 1914-1918” reads another. Each one is a moment where time stood still for someone. Where they sent up a desperate prayer for themselves, for someone they loved, and were thankful when they felt it answered. I’m not religious but there was something so poignant about those little plaques. Ste Expedit isn’t one for Lotto wins or massive gestures. He’s there in a frightened moment, when you need him. Hardly surprising that he’s also the patron saint of students at exam time.

You can find websites dedicated to St Expedite, and voodoo potions (the New Orleans connection I’m presuming) but what I like about him is beyond any of that stuff. Because you see Ste Expedit probably didn’t exist. The Armenian centurion who talked to crows doesn’t have a name. Expeditus, is apparently Latin for a soldier marching with no pack so poor old Expedit was a nameless individual identified by his job. A body in a field perhaps, identified only by his breast plate. He’s not one of those saints with a complicated back story, just a conversion and a crow.

But that’s not all. Perhaps he wasn’t even a Roman soldier. Another story makes him the Saint of Swiftpost. A travelling priest was buying up relics and posted them back to the nuns back home in France. He wanted his purchases to get home before he did so he made sure the box was marked “Quickly”…”Expedite”. The nuns, being of a sheltered disposition and obviously not familiar with the finer points of the postal system assumed that the word was a name and that name belonged to the bones. So Ste Expedit was born.

I love the layers of the story of Expedit. From the relative detail of the original legend – the talking crow, the centurion – the story unravels and dissolves in layers. For his believers it doesn’t matter if Ste Expedit spoke to a crow, it doesn’t matter that he might have been an unknown soldier, it doesn’t matter that he might have been more than that, just random bones. For them, Expedit will save you in a tight spot. Those prayers are heartfelt, those plaques would have cost money. In the end does it matter if he existed, the logic seems to go, it works. There’s something in there that’s probably quite profound. It appeals to the writer in me.

I’ve thought about that little church many times over the years. Perhaps I need Ste Expedit myself. I was supposed to be researching a paper rather than writing here. Procrastination – I’m extremely good at it.

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!

Extracting the Michael

I’ve had a lot of fairly random jobs over the years. I’ve done the bar work, the secretarial, worked on market stalls and, of course, have plied my trade as a freelance journalist. Most of these jobs were the kind you do for the money, rather than in any hope of a lasting, fulfilling career. In my younger days I firmly subscribed to the philosophy that a job was something to pay the rent but it would never take the place of what I saw as a vocation – the pursuit of art. This pursuit, I told myself should be kept pure, unsullied by pecuniary concerns (I must have been pretty insufferable in my teens and twenties).

Back then – this would have been in the days before tiger economies, back when most people probably thought that prosecco was some kind of weird fungus – my friends and I would joke about the wage slaves we saw droning away around us. We were living la belle vie bohemiene. To take a job that would tie you to an office for the next forty years was anathema. When someone started talking about sitting the civil service exam we would shake our heads sadly. It could only ever be selling out.

One by one we grew up. The guys cut their hair, the girls started to wear high heels and skirt suits. A few did sit that exam. Some were accepted. The rest of us discovered that a vocation really needs to earn its way in the real world. We made compromises, discovered that coffee could be served many different ways and that prosecco was cheap enough to celebrate life’s smaller victories. Those of us who never sat those exams grumbled about not getting time off when we needed it, the cost of work clothes and pensions, how being on your feet all day was ruinously hard on shoes. At one stage or another we lost jobs suddenly, without warning, or had to hold down two or three different gigs to see all the bills paid. We lamented toothless or nonexistent unions. Looked on mortgages as an impossible dream.

Back in my temping days I worked in both the public and the private sector. I’ve seen how it works in banks and stockbrokers and I’ve seen how it works in government committees, semi states and hospitals. It was very illuminating. It was common knowledge that if you wanted the cushy life you held out for a public sector job. It was worth it for the holidays and the allowances alone. As the years went by I stopped looking at those who’d sat the exams as sell outs but as cute hoors who’d jumped onto the gravy train before the door was slammed.

Over the past week or so there’s been a lot of talk about public service allowances. When Brendan Howlin, the minister with responsibility for public service reform, announced that he had been unable to make the necessary cuts in these allowances people started looking at exactly what was being talked about. If you’re interested the full list is here. I’ve worked in private companies that have won awards for how they treat their staff but none of them offered to buy me lingerie. There might have been massages laid on on a Friday (at €5 for 15 minutes) but you didn’t get paid any extra for answering the phone. In fact, reception gigs were ones I used to pass on since the hourly rate was usually less than I’d earn standing in for a PA. I’ve spent days binding, photocopying and filing and no one upped my wages – it was what I was being paid for in the first place.

Whenever there’s a discussion about the Croke Park agreement or public sector pay, someone will wave the flag of the poor put-upon gardai, or teachers or nurses. This means there’s never a proper discussion about the culture of entitlement that exists across the board in the public service. I had the dubious fortune of starting to work in a hospital while the private clerical staff were on a go-slow over some problem with benchmarking. It was hard to tell they were on a go slow though because there were so many of us temps covering lengthy holidays that things were stuck at a pretty slow pace anyway. But every coffee break  there would be talk of unions and hard line tactics if the government didn’t play ball. I pointed out one day that the pay we were on was above anything I’d got working at a similar level in the corporate world. I got looked at with blank incomprehension and was told to shut up.

I get that the workplace benefits in a lot of these public sector jobs are the result of lengthy wrangling from the unions and those victories were keenly felt and seen as totally justifiable but that’s the view from inside the bubble. The cold hard fact is that those of us in the private sector might dream of those kind of workplace perks but we’d be laughed out of it if we suggested anything similar to bosses. The sad fact is that private sector workers, where the jobs are less certain and the wages are lower, do not even have the protection of strong unions to fight their corner. The unions are strong in the public sector. Hence the wonderful hard-won allowances.

I’m simplifying things a little. There are hard, badly paid public sector jobs and there are very comfortable, well paid private sector ones but there’s a reason why we used to be told to get a public service job if we could. It’s a job for life with damned good perks and that’s what it’s always been about. The workplace might be scruffier and the computers might be older but for time off, work life balance, a job for life that’ll make getting a mortgage a hell of a lot easier than any freelance proposition, the gravy train is still chugging on. I’ll concede that some of those contentious allowances date from a time long before benchmarking when every penny needed to be fought for just as hard as we are familiar with in the private sector but those dark days have come again and it’s time to be realistic.

We still view the world here in Ireland through the tinted lenses of the long dead tiger. Too many people still think that having to get their fizz from Lidl rather than Fallon & Byrnes is the bottom line. The standard of living is still pretty good. If you’re old, enough think back to the 80s or even the early 90s. It was all a lot more seat of the pants. There’s a hell of a lot further we could fall if the going gets tough enough. Many people have already found that out. It simply isn’t fair if one section of society is enjoying a security that no one else can hope for. It’s even worse that they take it so much for granted that they deny it’s the case at all. It’s going to have to change and when it does it won’t be an attack on the poor beleaguered public servants, it’ll be yet another of these horrible cuts we’ve seen so many of. It’ll be a sad thing that future generations won’t have the chance of an exam that can give a lifetime of security even if the job might not be the most fascinating. It’ll be one of those things that get consigned to history and mourned. One of the casualties of this modern messed up world. But denying there needs to be a change, and hanging on for grim death is taking the rest of us for idiots and it’s going to have to stop.

It Really Isn’t the End of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages of Dreams

I remember getting my first copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook back in the mid 90s. At that stage I hadn’t completed a book. I’d started several, in notebooks after notebook. Writing was something I’d always done. I was by this stage, in my own estimation, pretty damn good at beginnings and was definitely getting the hang of middles.  The endings would follow when they were ready. So one day, in an optimistic frame of mind, I went into Hodges & Figgis next time I was in town and got a copy of the Yearbook.

I read it from cover to cover. All the articles, all the addresses, lapping up all the nuggets of proper professional advice that used to be harder to come by in those pre-web days. Then I put it on the shelf and got back to not finishing my book.

Since then I’ve learnt how to write endings. But I still have the Writers’ and Artists’ on the shelf. Actually the collection has grown somewhat. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to collect old copies as I’ve found them. They don’t turn up very often these volumes of obsolete information, but I’ve managed to find four.

 

Writers and Artists Yearbook

My collection of Writers and Artists Yearbooks

The first one I found was an American Writers’ Market from 1969. It was sitting under a pile of books in the St Vincent de Paul charity shop in Phibsboro. On the inside of the cover, censored by one of the volunteers wielding a black marker pen, it says “To Lauren, from Uncle Charlie”. Marking a page of poetry publishers is a book mark advertising the Valley Symphony in Los Angeles, season of 1980 into ‘81. I’ve always liked to think that Lauren made it as a writer and this book ended up in a charity shop after a long and happy life, ending in a contented retirement in Ireland. Opposite the inscription, Lauren has made notes in pencil. Page references to how to lay out a manuscript, an article on book length and, on page 483 her chosen publisher The American West Publishing Company. This seems to be the only publisher she was aiming for. She’s also marked the magazines that take submissions on animals and history and those with more general subject matter. She was obviously young, her other interest is the magazine’s aimed at teens.

Or take the rather tatty copy of the W & A from 1964 I found most recently. It’s not in the photo as it didn’t come with a dust jacket and it’s certainly well thumbed. There’s no name on this one but I have a feeling it’s owner was male. He’s been through it with a biro, marking his targets with enthusiastic strokes. There is a particularly bold line, appropriately enough, by Blackfriars magazine, the publication for the English Dominican order. The listing says they pay 2 and six for articles that would fit into “a critical review, surveying the field of theology, philosophy, sociology and the arts, from a standpoint of Christian principles and their application to the problems of the modern world. Length 2000 –3000 words.” He’s also marked The Dubliner, Encounter, a London based magazine that paid £8 per 1000 words of reportage, stories or poems, and Poetry Review. Casting his net wider he’s also expressed his interest in Clubs magazine which looked at “all aspects of the work and development of youth clubs” and Service Station, the monthly trade magazine of the service station industry.

The earliest book I have is the 1953 UK edition of the Writer’s Market. It’s the blue one in the picture. A neat, blue inked signature inside the cover proclaims the book the property of M.C. Watson. Miss Watson (and I’ll explain how I know it’s Miss in a minute) was not one for drawing on her books. Even the blank pages the publishers have thoughtfully left for notes are pristine. However nestled inside the pages is a letter from Chambers’s Journal thanking Miss Watson (there you go) for her story A Power of Mushrooms. “We were glad to see this story from you, but on the whole it did not seem quite so suitable for our purpose as usual.” Actually, as rejection letters go it’s rather a sweet one but I can’t help but wonder about it’s place between the pages and the pristine state of the rest of the book. I know it’s being sentimental but it was the rejection letter that made me buy the book, thus creating a collection of two. Miss Watson’s writing was obviously rather more than aspirational. If by some fluke anyone’s reading this who knows, knew her. I’d love to find out what became of her. I know from the letter she was from Bray in County Wicklow in 1954 if that helps to job anyone’s memory.

The fourth book is the 1955 Writers’ & Artists’ sitting on the top in the picture. This is the only one that doesn’t really give a clue about it’s previous owner. There’s a tightness about the binding that suggests it’s never really been opened and the front and back of the dust jacket still have the slight nap they would have had when new, unlike the edges of the spine, which have developed a shine from being sandwiched between more popular books. There’s something rather melancholy about a book like this that appears never to have been opened. A dream that never really got off the ground. I bought it principally from the ads. Free-lance Report is inside the front cover “published entirely in the interests of free-lances” Among the glowing testimonies is one from “a vicar in the north” “I am writing in haste…but I desire to say how much I have gained from the F-L R. It has put many pounds in my pocket.” I’d love to know what he was rushing off to but the F-L R does not divulge. It’s fascinating looking at publishing in days gone by. The familiar names, the legendary ones and those lost to history like Browne & Nolan ltd, the academic publishers on Nassau Street in Dublin. There’s a whole other post in then and now but that can wait.

As with most of the things I collect (including fountain pens and housewife manuals) I’m interested most in the story behind the object. Who owned them before. What were their hopes, dreams and fears? With the writer’s manuals these dreams are laid bare and are at once unique and familiar. I’ll keep collecting as long as I keep finding them. And I’ll always wonder about how they came to be given away.

It’s All In A Scent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Box Do You Tick?

So France is doing away with the mademoiselle, officially at least. It begs the question should we in the English speaking world follow suit. Of course, for the French there’s no middle ground. They don’t have that truncated, rather weighted alternative “Ms”. Women who do not warrant a Dr or similarly specific honorific are stuck with describing themselves by which side of the matrimonial fence they happen to occupy.  It’s not a position men ever have to clarify – even historically, when there may have been a world of difference between the Masters, Misters and Esquires in the room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by whether there was a doting wife waiting for them at home simply by a formal introduction. It’s funny how some things linger.

Of course, back then, it all came down to worth, how much respect the person you were addressing was due. A man who was addressed as Esquire, for example, was generally a man of means, landed but not titled. By the same logic, since a woman gained a firmer footing in society once she had been passed from her father to her husband, it made sense to distinguish between those who’d hooked their ticket out and those still waiting on the shelf. The omission of that identifying middle letter was a radical step – assuming a woman’s worth was not simply dependent on her husbands. It took a while to catch on.

I’ve always assumed that “Ms” was a construct of the feminist movement in the 60s or 70s and certainly it wasn’t until then that those radical little letters got some traction. I’m neither a philologist nor a linguist so I’m not getting into etymology here but it seems logical that “Ms” was a compromise that occurred to several forward thinking minds over the years, certainly this New York Times article from 2009 places it as far back as 1901. Given the meaning of the word, it’s hardly surprising it’s gathered a bit of baggage knocking around for over a century.

I was very small when I first heard the word Ms and even then I knew it was quite a powerful little word, certainly a lot more combustible than “Mr”. It was a word you didn’t call someone unless invited and when a woman described herself using it then you knew she was doing it for a reason. I formed the idea that a Ms was a independent, strong, glamorous creature in a whole different league to the fluffy Misses and frumpy Mrses. Now I was making these assumptions in London in the 70s and 80s, and the women I was making them about were all actresses or journalists or writers so my views could have been a little slanted. But early assumptions tend to stick and it never occurred to me, once I reached form-filling age, to use any other honorific but “Ms”. I also might have been a little influenced in my career choice.

Even when I got married I didn’t drop the Ms. I didn’t change my name either but that’s a whole different post. It just never seemed relevant.  I love my husband but he doesn’t define me. I don’t consider my worth any different because he’s around. I’m me and that’s all there is to it. I’m always surprised when anyone suggests the word has negative connotations – I just assume we’ve moved past all that. Of course the very fact that I’m writing this post and asking this question goes to prove that we haven’t but what can I say? I’m an optimist. I’m also happy to describe myself as a feminist and don’t qualify my use of the term by specifying whether the first letter is upper or lower case. But I know there are plenty who disagree.

I’ve been corrected on several occasions when I’ve automatically used Ms when naming a witness in a trial. In each case they would have preferred “Mrs” and have tended to be of an older generation but when I could I’ve always made the change. I use “Ms” when I’m writing to be neutral, but ultimately it’s up to each of us how we choose to be addressed.

So what does “Ms” conjure up for for you? Do you picture boiler-suited man haters or dour killjoys? Does it matter? Is officialdom so out of touch anyway that it doesn’t matter a damn what bleeding box you tick? Do you revel in “Miss” or “Mrs”? Do you care?

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.

All in A Good Cause…

I frequently bang on about Twitter on this blog.  I wasn’t one of the early adopters, those hardcore few in Ireland who wandered around the large empty virtual room of Twitter chatting amongst themselves.  I joined just before my first book came out, in November 2008, ostensibly for marketing purposes but it wasn’t long before I was hooked.

The thing about Twitter is that it’s a nice place to hang out.  Whatever reason you poke your nose round the door, if you get the whole virtual cocktail party thing, you’ll soon find yourself sliding round the door  to join in one of the fascinating, or silly, conversations going on around you.  Over the past three years I’ve made friends, found a new way to do my job and found out about more about the city where I live, all through Twitter.  I’ve live tweeted my way through several trials, found new opportunities and many new connections, not to mention some great nights out.

I could wax somewhat evangelical about that little blue bird for the rest of this post but this post has a purpose.  One of the things Twitter is best at is bringing people together.  It underpins how the whole thing works after all.  One of the best examples of this I’ve seen jumped out of the Twittersphere this week into a bookshop near you.

Tweet Treats

About 18 months ago Jane Travers came up with the idea of putting together a Twitter cookbook in aid of charity.  It started gently, almost like a game.  Every day or so Jane would send out a challenge.  In 140 characters using the hashtag #tweettreats she asked for recipes for pasta dishes, or sweets treats, or quick and easy dinners.  The Twitter enthusiastically complied – hashtag games are a very popular way to pass a long evening and everyone knows the Twitter fixation with lunch plates (heavy sarcasm there before someone picks me up on that old cliche!) But this was more than your run of the mill hashtag game.  This was for charity – and a damn good charity at that.  Jane announced that proceeds would go to Médecins Sans Frontieres.

This was something everyone could get behind and it’s great to see that so many did.  There are recipes there from writers Like Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris, TV personalities and actors like Dara O’Briain, Richard Madeley, Lou Diamond Philips and Paula Adbul.  The recipes range from the severely mouthwatering-sounding Cthulhu Crumble from award winning author Neil Gaiman, to the jokier Mrs Fry’s Saucy Surprise (“Smear lovingly and beat feverishly until fully hardened. Whip to a frenzy then drizzle before taking a cold shower & preparing your meal”) from “Edna Fry”, the much put upon “wife” of  broadcaster & global national treasure Stephen Fry and author of Mrs Fry’s Diary.

There are over a thousand recipes and 140 celebrities not to mention cooking advice and cooking tips from chef Marco Pierre White, who also provides the foreword. There seriously is something here for everyone with recipes to suit every pocket, every mood and every occasion – and did I mention it’s all for charity?

Full disclosure here, I do have a recipe in there (a very nice and easy pasta dish, if I do say so myself), and Jane has very kindly put a celebrity star by my Twitter name. Also the book is published by the O’Brien Press who published my most recent book Death on the Hill but don’t let that stop you rushing out to grab a copy.  In all honesty it’s a great little book with some truly mouthwatering recipes that I’m itching to try. I don’t usually do book reviews or plugs here but Tweet Treats is a worthy exception.  It’s an example of the best Twitter can bring and deserves to do extremely well.  So what are you waiting for?…

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.

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