Over one week at the end of May I got the opportunity to discover what it’s like to be a country, nominally at least. The @ireland Twitter account was set up by WorldIrish.com in March last year. It’s modelled on the @sweden account which has a different Swedish person curating the account each week, sharing their lives and their views to give a kaleidoscopic view of the people and ideas that go to make up a country. There are quite a few of these accounts now. Towns and cities all over the world have cottoned onto the fact that this format plays very well with public and commentators alike. It’s a low cost way to get the word out there about how cosmopolitan a place you are, how gorgeous the scenery is and how achingly cool your people are and lets face it, stuff like this is what Twitter was made for.
When my turn came up, to be honest, the gloss had gone off Twitter a little. I joined around the same time I set up this blog, and set up my Facebook page, back when my first book needed selling. I stayed when I stopped seeing it as a pressurised shop floor and simply as very, very large room full of people talking, rather like a massive party with no beginning and no end. After a while I realised that scattered through the crowds were the kind of people you end up having very interesting conversations with in the kitchen at a party like that. Like the song says, you really will always find me in the kitchen at parties. Lately though I’ve started looking around for my coat. I’ve already swapped phone numbers with the people I was talking to in the kitchen and a bus load of noisy new people have arrived just as the beer’s running low. Or something. Party analogies aside, it’s been a long time since I’ve been my normal, chatty, opinionated self on Twitter. Until I got to be a country.
I started bright and early on the Monday morning. I think the first thing I talked about was actually the weather. Within minutes I realised the difference between tweeting to a couple of thousand followers and tweeting to over 15 thousand.
There’s a lot more people.
I use Twitter mainly through my phone and it wasn’t long before the bloody thing was chirruping and vibrating as if it was trying to hatch. Conversations rattled by at breakneck speed and I soon realised that with this audience you couldn’t get away with casual throw away comments. People actually wanted to know what you had to say, then often contradict it. On my second morning I glibly mentioned that it was a grey day in Dublin and within seconds had half a dozen replies telling me they were looking at the sun right now.
I’ve been doing this author thing for almost five years now. I’ve done live appearances – those wonderful events when you look out into the audience and realise you’ve got the phone numbers of half the people there in your phone contacts and the other half have come to see the other people on the panel. Having that many people actually looking straight at you and waiting to see what you do next (even if they are online) is a bit of a culture shock!
I knew when I started my week that I didn’t want to pull my punches. I’ve grown more political as I’ve got older and less inclined to keep my opinions to myself. I’m frustrated on a daily basis by the conservatism in this little country and I didn’t want to shy away from that if it came up. To be fair I didn’t always wait to see if it came up. Equality matters to me and there’s far too much stuff in the news at the moment not to come back to the subject again and again.
So we ended up talking about religion, or rather my lack of it, feminism (no surprise there), racism, abortion and spirituality. The two subjects that kept coming back were the way society views women and the way Irish society can sometimes be a little less than the land of a thousand welcomes if you’re different. With both these subjects the thing that really hit home was the number of responses I got from people telling me it wasn’t a problem. I’m a reasonable woman. I’d much rather spend my time talking about books or old films and TV. It these things weren’t a problem, believe me, I wouldn’t keep banging on about them. As a woman in today’s society I think there’s still a long way to go before we gain a real, lasting form of equality. Too many women are treated purely as sexual objects or worse, lesser human beings, across the world not to be worried and angry about the fact that this persists even though, as a species we should surely have copped on by now.
It’s the same with the racism issue. When I started tweeting about the subject under the @ireland account it was in response to the racial attack on journalist Una Kavanagh. Una works of WorldIrish.com and manages the @ireland account so naturally I shared her initial tweets and commented. While the bulk of the response was the generous, warm, outraged response I’d expect from the Ireland I know and love there were a significant number of people who took exception with me tweeting about the incident from the account, since “Ireland doesn’t have a problem with racism”. This is a myth I’ve heard many times over the years and yet when I spoke to my non Irish friends during the week, everyone had their own story. A problem doesn’t have to be all engulfing to be a problem. It just has to be persistent and widespread, and like it or not racism is a form of bigotry that’s persistent and widespread in this country. When someone’s attacking you because of the colour of your skin or your accent you don’t stop to reassure yourself that this person is the exception. You might think that later but not immediately. Coming out of this conversation I found myself sharing my own experiences of xenophobia in Ireland for the first time online. A fair few people responded with similar stories, enough that it really brought home to me how important it is that this issue is talked about as often as possible. It needs to be stamped out, not ignored.
As important as it might have been to talk about racism the conversation I think I enjoyed most was on the Sunday, my last day. I’d been watching a documentary about Emily Wilding Davison to mark the centenary of her death after falling under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. I asked where were the monuments to the many extraordinary Irish women who’ve inspired over the years? Where were the heroine’s for young Irish feminists. Throwing that out there started a stream of suggestions. The conversation rumbled on for much of the day, throwing up many very inspiration names and stories. What did become clear though was that, in terms of public memorials, either statues or plaques, women are vastly under represented here. By the end of the day it was difficult not to see Constance Markievicz as almost an example of tokenism, being celebrated almost to the exclusion of all others. It was notable how hard everyone was racking their brains and how few names it was throwing up. It was a fact remarked upon by several Tweeters that the majority of women who appear in statues around Ireland are fictitious or mythological. This is something else that I’ve taken away. We need to do something to change that status quo, these things send powerful messages.
Of course it wasn’t all contentious. I talked to a lot of people about Sci-Fi – and even tweeted about my beloved dystopias, although I didn’t get to be a geeky as I’d like. I also had a great chat about nail polish, which involved my first ever picture of a manicure. I’ll be doing “selfies” next! I also got to be severely nerdy about the Four Courts and criminal Dublin. Right down my alley.
What I can take away from the week is a renewed appreciation of Twitter. I hadn’t realised how unique one of these country accounts is. At the risk of coming over all philosophical, they put you in an unusual position. You deal with the expectations of the world about a country that’s an expert at mythologizing itself. You deal with the nostalgia and protective homesickness of the Diaspora who are watching for a taste from home. You deal with the manic salesmanship of some of the country and the sharp-tongued cynicism of the rest. It’s an intense experience. A previous @ireland tweeter described it to me as like being plugged into the Matrix. I know exactly what he means. It can feel quite profound, if it’s late enough and you’re tired enough and it’s been a very long day. It’s addictive and it’s illuminating. Talking about racism, which eventually developed into a conversation about national identity, I thought about my own national identity. I’ve known for a long time that that while I can’t ignore my Englishness, I’ll always be a Londoner, I’m as Irish as they come now too. I can’t remember the point where I stopped feeling like a visitor. My nationality was remarked on to such an extent it was constantly underling the fact I didn’t belong. But at some point I accepted my place here. I don’t know if I’ll stay for ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop giving out about all the things that make me hop up onto my soap box, but I know that Ireland is in my heart and I’ve now got two homes rather than none, as I might have thought a long time ago.
Quite a few people asked me was I mad, when I told them I was going to curate the @ireland account. They worried it would be too intrusive, that I’d be too exposed and yes, I see that. You learn very quickly with an account like that you can’t steer every conversation and they will take you where they will – which can be a little disquieting at times. But here on the other side, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I count myself lucky to have had. It’s renewed my affection for Twitter and once again confirmed a lot of the things I love about this country. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people, many of whom have stuck around to continue those kitchen party chats. If I needed reminding that this social interaction 2.0 works better with total immersion I’ve got it now. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me. I’m glad to be back in my own little universe but I enjoyed the holiday and I’ve come back refreshed. If you’re curious to see exactly what happened you can see the tweets on my profile page on WorldIrish.com here.
Mick Philpott, who last week was sentenced to life in prison for setting a fire which resulted in the deaths of six of his 17 children, looks set to become the kind of legend that conservative mothers scare their children with when they won’t do their homework and eat their greens. His case has caused political ructions and spawned a slew of TV specials in numbers normally reserved for matters of grave national importance, like wars or epidemics. For a man who loves the limelight it must all be very gratifying, after all he’s no stranger to being cast as public enemy number one.
I’ve hesitated in posting on the case. After all, it’s only a couple of months since I swore my days of writing about sensational trials are over. But Mick Philpott fascinates me. I’ve seen his type before. Most of us have. While Philpott might be being cast as the product of Trash TV and The Benefit Culture, his story is sadly nothing new. Men like him have been making bogey men for centuries. There’s something about that particular blend of monomaniacal swagger and ruthless selfishness that stops those of us who consider ourselves law abiding, or god fearing or unassuming members of society, in our tracks. We baulk at such shameless profiteering, such casual cruelty. It’s natural. If society has too many Mick Philpott’s in it’s midst the whole thing will come crashing down.
Delivering her sentence, the trial judge in the Philpott case went into unusual detail in highlighting a particular part of the evidence, including matters which had not been put before the jury. Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s full sentencing speech makes interesting reading and it’s also worth reading Grace Dent’s analysis of it. Both make clear the fact that Philpott was a very specific type of abuser. Dent compares him to Fred West, which is a fair enough but I’ve been struck by another comparison , a case I wrote about at the time and which sparked a similar furore in Ireland after the sentence, that of wannabe ruler of the New World Order and friend of social workers and gardai, Ronnie Dunbar.
I sat next to Dunbar for pretty much every day of his trial. That was back before criminal trials moved out of the Four Courts into the new Criminal Courts of Justice and in the absence of press benches the press often found ourselves sitting beside the prisoner in the dock. As the only left handed hack in the pack I usually found myself shunted down to the end of the row by clashing elbows. As a consequence I’ve sat next to quite a few of Ireland’s most notorious murderers. Most of them are very polite.
Dunbar was a particularly chivalrous child killer. He would great me with a warm smile each morning and once or twice bent to pick up a dropped pen. It’s unusual for a defendant to be so outgoing with members of the press but in this case, no one was particularly surprised. We’d already been regaled with stories in the press room from a colleague who’d doorstepped him during the hunt for his victim Melissa Mahon, whose body was undiscovered for two years. This journo, who’d fully expected to have the door slammed in his face was amazed to be ushered into the house. Dunbar shared that with Philpott. He liked the attention.
That craving for attention tends to put us on the back foot. When someone is aggressively upfront and outgoing they illicit a conditioned response. We smile and comply and engage – even if every sense is screaming that this person is as dodgy as hell. Before the brain has a chance to step in the head nods and the mouth smiles politely. Men like Dunbar and Philpott thrive on this. They are not the kind of killers who will hang about on the fringes of a crime, drooling over their gory deeds like the villain in a TV cop show. They will be front and centre, helping in the search, appealing on TV, offering suggestions. Men like that are so obsessed with control that they will try to take it everywhere. They are flamboyant in their seeking, greedy, hungry. We are always put on the back foot.
One of the most horrifying things about these cases is their inevitability, an inevitability most visible in hindsight. Fred West got help to lay the cement in the garage that covered the grave of one of his victims years before he was caught, Ronnie Dunbar became the go to person for albeit reluctant social services trying to care for vulnerable teen Melissa Mahon, Mick Philpott of course, was a memorable guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s easy to say after the fact that surely someone should have known. Surely the final tragic events could have been avoided? But these cases remind us that real life isn’t that easy. The clues might all be there but the great detective isn’t called in until after the fact and everyone else will smile through gritted teeth until it’s all too late.
It’s not particularly surprising that cases like this become ciphers for other gripes. We seek justification, an easy ending. The idea that someone that blatant, that obviously dodgy, could go about with their swagger wreaking whatever havoc they may doesn’t sit well with an ordered society. So Ronnie Dunbar’s crime becomes a stick to beat the HSE with. Don’t get me wrong, there are massive failings in that area but the Dunbar case was the fault of one manipulative, narcissistic, sociopath not the social services in Sligo town. But it’s easier to think that it could have been prevented if the powers that be had been on their toes. It puts men like Philpott or Dunbar in a box, but that containment is an illusion.
Men like Philpott and Dunbar and Fred West fascinate because they are truly horrifying. They act with such disregard of societal norms that strikes against some very deep taboos. That’s why this particular type of robber baron takes the headlines, why they appear and reappear in fiction and legend. Take the case of Sawney Bean, illustrating this piece. It might have been a piece of anti Scottish propaganda but the tale of Sawney’s cannibal clan was used to terrorise generations of kids. The character crops up across popular culture too. Take Brian Blessed in Terry Nation’s original series of Survivors made in the 70s. His character Brod is a fictional take on much the same kind of character.
I’m not belittling the harm that Philpott, Dunbar and West have done. We are better off recognising this kind of abusive arrogance wherever it occurs rather than treating each new instance as an aberration and looking for somewhere else to lay the blame. Serial killers and cannibals might be outside the norm but narcissistic sociopaths who think the world owes them are two a penny and too many of them get what they want. Take the revelations about Jimmy Saville or the abuse detailed in the Ferns Report (and the rest) or pirate radio’s most notorious child abuser Eamonn Cooke. Abuse on this scale can only take place because an awful lot of blind eyes are turned. Philpott and Dunbar were both treated in the past as harmless clowns. Philpott got to make more TV. Staff walked out of Radio Dublin in the 70s when rumours were known but Cooke’s abuse continued for years. I’ve mentioned a disparate mix of cases in this post. They really only have one thing in common. The sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Arrogant men abuse. Arrogant men who are pandered to and allowed to continue. Sometimes they kill. All of the time they ruin lives.
I’m sick and tired of the constant surprise when these cases come to light. These men are predators. We should instinctively know how to spot them. It should be so deep rooted in us that we will run a mile but again and again those blind eyes are turned and nothing is done until it’s too late. The big, bad wolf is not cuddly. He’s a menace. He’s never a product of a society, however ill. He’s the thing we’re supposed to be keeping out. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant but it really does piss me off. As a journalist I watched some of the worst of these as they swaggered through their trials, acting the gentleman or even the victim. I’ve seen their victims tremble. But I’ve also known my own big, bad wolf and I’ve been staggered at the blindness of others. Can we stop trying to blame these men on societies that are groaning at the seams and take a little bit of responsibility ourselves? I’m not in any way advocating anyone burning out their local paediatrician but if you know a child or a woman or a man who is in actually in trouble and who you genuinely feel is in danger for god’s sake say something to someone. The big, bad wolf does what he likes only when he’s allowed to and we all allow him.
Growing up as a space-obsessed kids in the 70s and 80s I was used to the fact that, as a girl, I probably wouldn’t get to drive the TARDIS but if I happened to wander into the Federation, not only could I kick some serious fascist overlord ass but I could actually be that fascist overlord, if I so wished – and could put up with the feathers.
Recently I’ve been tweeting my way through the various box sets of the BBC’s seminal 1980s sci fi series Blakes 7. I’m currently halfway through the third series (where things start to get really silly) and most evenings I amuse myself sniping away at the frequently ridiculous costumes and somewhat hammy acting from certain members of the cast but fun as that might may be it’s got me thinking. I’ve been a fan of Blakes 7 since it first aired. I have a higher tolerance for the ludicrous plot twists of the third and fourth series because they were where I came in. When I was a little girl I thought Dana’s combination of cat suits with stilettos was seriously cool and I had a bit of a thing for Tarrant (both characters joined the show for the third series after the show lost two of it’s key characters including the eponymous Blake.) But with each adult viewing (we’ve the whole lot on DVD and it does tend to get yearly showings) I get a further appreciation of what a cracking show it is even at it’s weakest points. I’m increasingly glad that it was there when I was growing up, that it provided me with such strong role models and set the bar for all future space and future set viewing at an impressive height.
Blakes 7 inspired, at least partially, both Babylon 5 and Joss Whedon’s Firefly. It told the story of a motley crew of freedom fighters who were taking a stand against the repressive Federation led by the magnificent uber-bitch Servalan.
The original crew was lead by charismatic leader Roj Blake who ran around the galaxy righting wrongs dressed like a PVC -clad floppy sleeved Robin Hood (courtesy of the sometimes treacherous costume department). Blake had been a resistance leader on earth but had been stung with false pornography charges and sent to a penal colony (even though he never actually got there). Like Firefly our dynamic captain has a female second. Jenna Stannis was basically a female Han Solo minus the wookiee. She was a crack pilot, fearless fighter and a principled smuggler who had walked into her own brand of trouble when she refused to smuggle drugs for the mob. Kerr Avon is the somewhat self-serving hacker who’d got into trouble for a spot of bank robbing and was to spend the rest of the serious smouldering at Servalan and bristling at any rival alpha males including a computer. Olag Gan was the gentle strong man who had been fitted with a chip to help him with his anger management issues. Vila Restal was a super thief, known throughout the Federation and feared by anybody who had locks even though he seems to spend most of the later episodes playing the bumbling fool and token serf (back then the BBC future was very middle class indeed). After meeting on a prison ship this lot met up with alien empath Cally, who was basically a vigilante until she joined Blake’s crew. The seven were completed by the two ships computers – Zen, a Tetris light board with a rather stentorian attitude and everyone’s favourite neon perspex box of flashing lights, Orac. Orac was a computer with a personality problem who regularly refused to do what he was told, so not unlike some of today’s tech then.
Unfortunately after a very gritty, grimy start with hard hitting story lines and frequent industrial settings, the 80s and Margaret Thatcher arrived and everything got a little bit more neon and a lot more silly. Gareth Thomas famously left the part of Blake because he felt the show had become more Science Fantasy than Science Fiction. He was joined by Sally Knyvette who felt that the character of Jenna had been watered down in the second series. She talks about her concerns in this interview. The character of Dayna Mellanby who replaced her, certainly seemed to be more of a pleasure model, despite the character’s credentials as the best weapons manufacture the Federation had ever known. Tarrant, who attempted to slot into the green doublet left by Blake, was a rather petulant pretty boy who kept his silver spoon in his well pressed pocket. A rather unconvincing freedom fighter, since Avon had been providing the pouting arrogance since the start. The last female member of the crew Soolin, actually was a pleasure model with her fighting credentials tacked on as a bit of an after thought.
It’s perhaps odd that a show with such obvious flaws inspires such affection or perhaps it isn’t. Each evening, when I start tweeting the next episode I’m amazed at the response I get. I’m always relieved people get in 140s characters that while I’m sending it up I do so with absolute affection – but I doubt I’d get the same response if I was so rude about Star Wars or Star Trek and I know I don’t when I poke fun at Hammer Films or The Prisoner. Cult movies and TV do get some rather intense fans but with Blakes 7 I’ve yet to encounter any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a show that people love and love passionately. I loved it so much that when it came to an abrupt end in 1981 I was devastated. I started reading the Radio Times and watching Points of View just to scan for news of a reprieve. It was the first time I’d experienced the cancellation of a favourite show and I took it personally. Over the years, before either show was revived and we were all working purely on childhood memories, I’ve had rows with Doctor Who fans over which was better (I always liked both but you couldn’t say that in these rows). Blakes 7 was the one that people tended to forget back then, or to remember it dismissively as an also ran. Perhaps that’s why the affection for the show you encounter online is so warm. Despite the reliance on depressed industrial landscapes, despite the outrageous costumes, despite the sometimes dodgy portrayal of women and the utter campness of the whole thing, once you love it, you’ll love it for ever more.
When I was a kid I never noticed the fact that the women were styled to appeal to all the boys not to me. I loved the fact that Dayna was a crack shot with the large guns she’d built from scratch, not to mention the fact she could still aim straight while balancing in those strappy silver sandals with the three inch heels. Cally was my hero. I loved that she could calm situations without even raising her gun. Jenna I only discovered once I got the dvds so I can’t say she was a childhood rolemodel but to be honest the deepest impression was left by the series bad guy. Even though you weren’t supposed to like Servalan it was hard not to. The woman is a monster who destroys planets before sitting down to breakfast. She is so far over the top she’s coming down the other side and generally performs her tyranny in full evening dress with perfectly manicured nails and drag queen makeup. Jacqueline Pearce, who’d made various appearances in Hammer Films in the 60s as a wide eyed ingénue, gives the role her all and somehow, despite all the set chewing, flamboyant extravagance, is brilliant. With Servalan you knew she wasn’t wearing an outfit like this because she was a sexual object, she was wearing it because she wanted to and probably because it unsettled whoever was in the meeting with her. She is the embodiment of an assumption that I always remember seeing in British sci fi growing up that the future would be equal. There would be no barrier to getting the top job as a woman because that argument had already been had. I knew I couldn’t drive the TARDIS because I wasn’t a Timelord but there were no barriers in the Federation. These were women who frequently did the rescuing, who could be in charge, who could do what they wanted. It’s something I’ll go into in more detail in a later post but I remember growing up with no shortage of role models like these. I’m not sure you could say that these days things have got worse but I can’t help feeling that for every Katniss Everdeen or Zoe Washburne there’s a Bella Swan dragging the whole side down. Perhaps it’s because family shows back then couldn’t have cohabiting protagonists back then so strong female characters tended to be shown as single (although that opens up a whole other kettle of worms if you’re going to look at them from a feminist perspective). Like I said – we’ll leave that for another day. Back in my college days I wrote countless essays on feminist views of popular culture. Don’t get me started on the male gaze! But that’s not for today.
Today I just want to sing the praises of the women of Blakes 7 who helped to make the show one of the campest BBC shows outside Come Dancing. I’ll be back on the Twitter when we put on the next episode tweeting at the hashtag #blakes7. If you want to watch along and have the DVDs we’re on Series 3 episode 10. I’m there most evenings between 10 and 11 GMT.
Today I’m trying something a little bit different. Since I’ve stopped writing from the courts the blog has been in need of an injection of alternate subject matter. Since I’ve been spending most of my time up to my eyes in history books for the years pop culture didn’t really seem like a good fit. So instead, you lucky, lucky people, I give you this…
This is the first post in a series. Well, as you can tell that from the title. You can probably also tell that I’m not planning an exhaustive account of the social history of Dublin Town. This local history is going to be much more relaxed. Since I moved to Dublin over twenty years, I’ve loved living in a city with such a rich history. I want to tell some of my favourite Dublin stories. This isn’t a history of checks and balances, of historical facts and figures. I’m interested in the stories that have lived, that find their way into the fabric of the city itself, that have bent and flexed into the collective consciousness – in other words, the nitty gritty history of them might have gone lost in the telling. The Ireland’s Eye murder is one of these that but I’m not starting there. I’m starting my stories with a ghost in a castle. It’s one I know particularly well.
Back in the early 90s I was working as a tour guide in Drimnagh Castle. If you don’t know the area Drimnagh is a suburb in the south west of Dublin. The modern streets have crept right around the 12th century castle that stands on the Long Mile Road. It’s still got its moat and until the 50s it was the longest inhabited castle in Ireland. When the last family to own it, dairy farmers by the name of Hatch, died out the castle passed to the Christian brothers. They turned it into a school but as the school grew the pupils were moved into new buildings next door and the brothers moved out. Slowly but surely, over the next few decades, the castle began to decay. By the 70s it was a shell. Somewhere where local kids would sneak in to go drinking.
In the 80s, conservationist Peter Pearson started up the Drimnagh Castle Restoration project and FÁS were brought in to provide manpower for the restoration work. The work was all done using traditional methods. I used to draw visitors’ attention to the wooden pegs used to hold the roofing joists together and the fact that the figures of medieval workmen carved at the bottom of those joists had the faces of those involved in the restoration, some of whom still worked on the site. We were very proud of the work that had been done so far. The foreman Godfrey, in pride of place at the end of the hall, had been carved wearing a digital watch. Just to make the point. Legend had it that even our resident ghost knew Godfrey’s name. A few years later, when I’d started working in radio, I met someone who’d recorded a show out there, talking about ghosts for Halloween. I even heard the master. It could have been a woman’s voice. But then, standing next to Godfrey’s wooden form, you’d also be rather close to the window, and the chimney. They can be draughty places, medieval castles.
We all believed in the castle ghost, Eleanora. Supposedly one of the Norman Barnevale family who had built the place, Eleanora was reputed to slope around the castle sighing, as she looked at the mess her love life had ended up. She had been supposed to marry her cousin Edmund, we used to tell the tourists, but as is often the case in these kinds of tragic love stories her heart belonged to another. Unfortunately for all concerned the particular other in this case was Sean O’Byrne, the younger son of the Irish clan that had been making it their mission to make the Barnevale’s feel less than welcome in their chosen domain. The wedding day arrived and the wedding party made their way by carriage to St Patrick’s Cathedral. They never made it. After a savage battle both Sean and Edmund lay dead and Eleanora was somewhat persona non grata. Her uncle, you see, had an inkling of her fondness for the O’Byrne lad and blamed her for the whole fiasco. Eleanora was brought back to Drimnagh Castle and locked away but she made her escape and pined herself to death on her lover’s grave. We all knew the story of Eleanora off by heart – it was one of the chief selling points of the place after all. None of us ever heard any heartbroken sobs but our younger cleaner swore blind that one day as she was cleaning the Great Hall her dustpan stood up on its handle all by itself. Who knows, it might have.
The rest of us were more worried about the Man in Black who was supposed to haunt the 17th century tower. Back then the tower hadn’t been restored and was kept locked as it was still a building site. According to the story the Man in Black had been an alchemist who made a deal with the devil. Before I sat down to write this post I went looking for the notes I had kept from my tours. Unfortunately they’ve been lost somewhere across the intervening years so my remembrance of this particular story is a little hazy. I remember I used to have fun telling it. There was a crow involved and a mysterious disappearance. It used to scare young school children, that story, and that was the simplified version. Of course those of us working there had other details that were completely unverified so had never made it into the tour. We heard the local story that a tramp, finding the derelict tower in the 60s or 70s, had been found dead with an expression of abject fear on his face. One of the other tour guide claimed he had seen a dark figure there one night when he had been closing up after an event. Personally I never liked turning my back on that locked door whenever I was turning out the lights after a late night gig (the castle hosted TV shows and concerts even in those days).
Drimnagh Castle was a wonderful place to work on hot summers’ days. Sitting in the courtyard waiting for tours to arrive you could hear the bees in the herbs growing near the sun dial. There was a very irascible, balding peacock there too who would wander over to you and peck your ankles. He’d outlived three hens at this stage. We wondered if he was depressed at his habitual single status. I remember one Saturday in the old church on Andrews Street in the city centre helping to tear up the floor. The church was being turned into the tourist office it is today and they had donated the tiles to the castle. I have a tile from that floor and a couple left surplus from the Great Hall. They’ve come with me to various flats and houses over the years. A physical reminder of a memorable time. That year the sun always seemed to be shining although this being Ireland that simply can’t be true. I had wanted to write a proper account of the ghost stories to sell to visitors and one of the other other tour guides was an artist who was going to illustrate it. On the slow, hot days we spent more time sitting on benches avoiding the peacock. The artist sketched me, the only long haired female present and years later I visited and saw the Eleanora mural that now decorates the yard. Something in the eyes still looks like me, I think. I’d like to think I’d left a little something there.
The castle’s still open for tours though the restoration work’s stopped now. You can even hire it out for weddings or filming – even book launches. You can find them here. Though I presume the peacock’s long dead by now.
Do let me know in the comments if you like the piece. I’ve lots more in the pipeline
When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.
After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.
My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.
There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.
There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.
There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.
When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!
Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.
These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the woman I am today. There are many, many more. I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.
As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look. I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!
Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.
“Um no, not recently.”
I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.
But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.
So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.
After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?
The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.
Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.
But he is known for his strong female characters.
Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.
Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.
That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.
That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.
The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.
It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.
It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.
When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.
I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.
Every time I start a new book, once the idea’s solid and the characters are more than half formed, I work out the music that will accompany the writing. It’s one of my favourite parts of these beginnings, like buying new notebooks and a pencil case before the start of a new school year, a little ritual that makes all the work ahead a little less daunting. It’s my favourite tip about writing and one I tend to give at the drop of the hat, because I don’t know a better way to find the beating heart of a new book when you’re still at the tentative feeling around stage and the book hasn’t really started taking shape. While my characters are still getting themselves settled in having their own playlist seems to speed the process.
Music acts like a shorthand for the mood of whatever I’m writing. My desk is under the stairs in the middle of the house, equidistant from the front door and the kitchen. Even when I’m on my own in the house it’s not the quietest place to work. But once the music is playing I’m there. I start to feel a little of what my character must feel in the scene. It’s far easier to find that elusive zone where the words flow easily and it almost feels like you’re describing events unfolding before you. So far I’ve found that nonfiction works best with a single playlist for the whole book but for fiction character playlists are the only way to go.
The book I’m working on at the moment is broken up into several parts. Each part focuses on one central character and it’s their playlists I’ve been working on. Because this book is set in the 19th Century I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental pieces than I would normally. While I’m trying to keep the choice of music historically accurate I’m more interested in how each piece makes me feel and whether that emotional response suits the character I’m writing. So for my first chapters, set largely in the 1830s I ended up listening to a lot of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, including a particular favourite below.
Now that the story has moved on a pace and I’m in a place with a lot more drawing rooms. The music for this section is heavily piano based. I’ve been listening to some Bach, a little Chopin and a lot of John Field, like this nocturne.
As the story moves on the action will be travelling to America so I’ve a feeling I’ll be listening to a lot more Aaron Copeland even though once again the period’s off, although as always I’ll be open to suggestions.
By the time I’ve finished this book this music will have become the soundtrack, inexorably linked. When I get stuck and need to go for a walk to clear my head I can take the playlists with me and listen to them while I walk. Away from the page the music sometimes works its magic and cuts through a knot that has been confounding me all day. The only time the music isn’t useful is when I’m editing. I need to edit in silence, or with something familiar but incongruous playing in the background. Without the familiar soundtrack I can better tell if the emotion in a scene is real or hasn’t translated.
At the end of a book the playlists get relegated and I move onto the next thing and the next soundtrack. Finding them again is a little like finding a photograph of an old lover. Sitting in the music folder of my computer is the playlist named for the hero of my first book, the one that’s sitting in the filing cabinet in the next room and will almost certainly never see the light of day. Every now and then I revisit his playlist and toy with the idea of resurrecting him. I haven’t deleted the playlist after all these years so perhaps one day I will.
So if you’re reading this as a writer do you have any tricks that help you get into your characters’ heads? Any touchstones that you need to help you get into the writing zone? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.
The projector whirrs into action, throwing a shivering oblong onto the magnolia wall. At first all that’s visible is a few random pairs of feet, white walled tyres. tarmac with the sky below it. Eventually the picture settles down. I’m transfixed, staring, afraid to blink and miss a single frame. I’ve had this ribbon of tantalising history for weeks now but until this weekend I had no idea what was on it. It was among a random assortment of things that had belonged to my mother. There was nothing written on it to suggest what it could have been. All I had was the phrase “It’s from your father’s time.”
For weeks I’ve been looking at the round yellow Kodak case imagining it’s contents. There were no cine cameras in my childhood. My mum might have left a suitcase full of snapshots chronicling random moments of my childhood but there are no moving images. Growing up I had few pictures of my dad. They were too painful for my mum, I think. She carried a passport photo of him in her wallet and I had a miniature of him painted just before he left his Indian birthplace at seven to go to school in a cold, unfamiliar England. Neither of these pictures seemed to relate to the smiling young man with the movie star looks who stared out of the black frame propped against the wall in the dining room. I knew the picture as “Daddy with his hair on”. I knew it was him because his name was printed below it and underlined with a flourish, but this young man bore no relation to the balding, bespectacled teacher who held the baby me in photographs. That was the man whose hair oil had left a dark stain on the brown fabric of his chair, who had sat there every evening with a book in one hand and me sitting in the other. I knew he had met my mother in a theatre company, I knew that he used to act as well as stage manage, but these were abstract facts that didn’t fit with the man whose absence was a constant hole in my childhood.
When I was a child I used to dream that my father had come home. There would be a knock on the door one day and I would run to open it and there he would be looking tanned and relaxed. I knew it would never happen, I understood death, but it seemed extraordinary that the person whose presence I could still feel would have left life without leaving some living impression. My mum kept him alive for me so successfully I could never quite shake the feeling he was just beyond reach, just outside my touch. When I got that reel of film a part of me was triumphant. That child in me was crowing “See, I told you he wouldn’t have left us with nothing.”
So on Saturday I finally sat down to watch the film, more than half expecting to finally see him smiling back at me, found after all these years. Instead I was watching tourist snaps. Stretching away from the camera were rows and rows of rounded Deco windows. The camera panned away, past vivid bougainvillea to smiling black faces waving from a field and white ones waving from a beach. After only a couple of minutes the clicking came to a clacking stop as the film ran to it’s end. There were no familiar faces and after all that no sign of my father. But I knew that I had been seeing through his eyes as he excitedly recorded the sights and sounds lately come familiar, capturing them before they faded and he returned to cold, grey Southampton.
That movie star picture of my father that now hangs above my desk was once in the foyer of a theatre in Johannesburg. In 1955, at the age of 24, my father travelled to South Africa to work for the famous theatre impresario Brian Brooke. I had known about this as a child, because of the photo. I knew it was a pretty big deal. As an adult I found other proof, corroborating evidence existing outside family legend. Searching Ancestry.co.uk for a family paper trial I chanced upon his arrival in Southampton in April 1956. The trip survives independently of our idiosyncratic archiving.
Among the clutter I inherited earlier this year, as well as the picture and the Kodak reel, was the passport he brought with him on that trip. It was the same passport he had since school. His picture is gawky, a child I’ve never seen before. I had always assumed that the trip was merely something he had done in an a cosmopolitan life. He had spent his first few years in India. From my vantage point in a London suburb I couldn’t imagine how you could top that, I assumed that after a start like that travel would be something simply taken in one’s stride, something to be enjoyed but not viewed with the wide eyes of a little suburbanite like me. But watching the film I begin to see something different. A young man intoxicated by his surroundings, who never wanted to forget the sights and sounds that he was seeing. This was a young man striking out on his own for the first time. These were his experiences, his memories, not those of his family or his schoolmates. This was a year he would never forget.
I don’t know what happened that year. I don’t know what parts he played, if he fell in love, raised hell. All I know is that the gaze he turned on South Africa was an affectionate one. I can forgive him never turning the camera on himself. He showed me something that he would never forget. That’s precious in it’s own way.
Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.
I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.
Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.
It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers. Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.
So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.
So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next. I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.