Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Writing (page 1 of 12)

Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

A suitably blasted heath - or rainy cemetary

A suitably blasted heath – or rainy cemetary

I’ve always loved reading ghost stories at this time of year. Nothing else seems to hit quite the same spot the wind is roaring like a lost soul outside and the rain is battering against the windows in truly biblical fashion. As the nights draw in there’s always that primeval part of us that draws closer to the fire but is mindful of the fury outside. This is something that writers have always understood and those writing before homes were lit with the flick of a switch understood it by far the best. My favourite ghost stories always seem to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century, when the gothic imagination was at its height. I grew up reading M.R. James and E.F. Benson, first discovered in the volumes that made up part of my dad’s Everyman Library – hundreds of uniform cloth covered books with matching paper jackets that lived in special glass fronted bookcases in the dining room.

It was in those bookcases I discovered the Brontes and Dickens, Tacitus and Gidden’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Everyman mission was always to provide a world class library of classics accessible to the ordinary men and women. The Everyman collection taught me about the gothic imagination and it was from there I first discovered the pleasure of reading to be scared. There were other horror compendiums around the house, one Welsh Tales of Terror compiled by the great Chetwynd Hayes left a particular impression with a story of man eating rats, but there was something about the heft of the Everyman books that was special.

Back then, happy in my reading nook, I never really noticed that all the stories I read were written by men. When I started to collect my own horror compilations I found a few female writers – Edith Nesbitt and Edith Wharton for example – but I suppose I just assumed it was a genre that women didn’t write – even though, as a little girl who would grow up into a writer, I devoured horror stories and tales with a twist in the tale more voraciously than almost any other genre. As I grew up I kept an eye out for female writers in this area, and particularly in my favourite period. It was only last year when I really started to make headway, largely thanks to my husband’s discovery that Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, included several volumes of stories by female writers. Some are well known names, others should be and I’m going to run through some of them, in case you have been on a similar quest.

Marjorie Bowen

For me, the stand out discovery. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to discover her. I’d heard her name before as a novelist but had no idea about her ghost stories. She’s a fascinating character. A writer from necessity, she supported her family, including her absolute liability of a mother who was an aspiring writer herself. Bowen received no formal education but taught herself French, Italian and a little Latin. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms – in fact Marjorie Bowen was one of them, her real name was Gabrielle Campbell – many of them male. Her writing style is fluid and lyrical and her stories should be among the best known in the genre. My favourite of her stories is the extraordinary Florence Flannery, a wonderfully dark Wandering Jew type story. The collection I have is The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories  and Florence is in that in all her glory.

Edith Nesbit

I grew up reading E. Nesbit’s children’s stories but it was only as an adult I discovered her ghost stories, again in the Wordsworth edition. It’s well worth reading the introduction to that edition actually. It gives a great insight into Edith’s unconventional life, her unusual home life and founding membership of the Fabian Society. The story that really stayed with me was From the Dead , a tragic story of love, betrayal and forgiveness, but I don’t want to say any more, I don’t want to spoil the story. Nesbit’s stories are good, old fashioned shockers. She uses physical horror particularly effectively, her stories are told more bluntly than Bowen’s, though that doesn’t limit their effectiveness. Track them down – the collection is called The Power of Darkness.

May Sinclair

Another formidable woman as well as an excellent writer. May Sinclair, or Mary Amelia St Clair, was an active member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (now there’s an organisation to resurrect). She also wrote a fine line in chillers with a distinctively Freudian edge. The Flaw in the Crystal  is more of a novella than a short story, telling the story of a female telepath who must live with the consequences of her benevolently meant actions, while Where Their Fire is not Quenched  is a deceptively simple tale of lovers locked in an endlessly repeating, ever unfulfilling affair. Sinclair is writing a bit later than Nesbit and Bowen so her stories inhabit a less obviously gothic world. She is firmly 20th Century in her writing and her subject matter. The collection I have is Uncanny Stories and you will find both stories I’ve mentioned in there.

D.K. Broster

Dorothy Broster was a best-selling historical novelist, like Marjorie Bowen. She was a nurse during the First World War and afterwards worked as secretary for the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, where she had studied herself. Her stories are also somewhat later than the first two examples but Couching at the Door which gives the collection I have it’s name, is as good a creeping menace story as any devised by M.R. James. I can’t help but note that it says a lot that Broster, despite her literary success, was a mere secretary, while James was famously a career academic. Would more doors be open to her these days? It’s hard to know if she would have ventured through though, since she was a very private individual and little is known about her – although I’d be happy to be corrected on that, if you know of anything, let me know in the comments.

Lucy M. Boston

Another favourite author from childhood, I only discovered that Lucy M. Boston wrote ghost stories in the last couple of years. I loved the Green Knowe books, and you can see a lot of the same author in her stories Curfew and The Tiger Skinned Rug, possibly because both these stories feature young protagonists and indeed, both appeared in children’s anthologies. While I’ll let you track down copies of the other collections yourself, Wordsworth editions are relatively easy to track down in bricks and mortar bookshops as well as online, I’ll link to the stunning edition of Curfew and Other Eerie Stories  from Dublin based Swan River Press, as it might be more difficult to track down. Boston is the latest of the writers I’m writing about today, and one of the things I love about her story is that she was a late starter. Her first book was published in her 60s which gives hope to anyone out there still trying to make it as a writer. She wrote ghost stories throughout her life and it’s obvious from reading those published that like me, she was someone who had always loved the genre and had grown up reading M.R. James and the rest. You can see echoes of these in her stories but they more than stand up on their own.

One thing that’s struck me, reading all these female writers take on the ghost story is that there is a difference from the stories I read growing up. I hesitate to say there’s a male type of writer and a female type as we all know where that kind of thinking can lead (pink covers anyone) but on a very personal level I’ve noticed that these writers tend to give their characters more depth. Maybe it’s because I’m reading them as an adult, and as a writer myself, whereas I would have read all the others from childhood but I don’t remember feeling that before. The stories I remember tend to have very few female characters. Protagonists are invariably male and women only appear as wives, sisters or mothers. Now a lot of that could be because I’m thinking particularly of M.R. James who wrote the world he knew and consequently writes a lot about solitary, male academics. In the stories written by women the protagonists are often female, or children, but even when the story revolves around a man they tend to be less secure, more aware of the world and the relationships around them.

Most of male protagonists I remember reading about growing up were academics, or ex army or naval men. They work in the city or meet someone on a journey. I suppose that’s because that is the male experience. Just as female writers are sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the domestic, so male writers take their protagonists out into the impersonal world. Since so many of these uncanny stories focus on something that disrupts the ordinary, that disruption is going to occur in vary different places depending on the life experience of the writer. Personally I can’t help feeling that the stereotypical male life in this context, with it’s day to day work in an office of some kind, the home, a distant beacon rather than a natural focus, can put the horror at a remove. It doesn’t make me love these stories any less but when you read stories that bring that horror right into the home, into the safest of safe harbours, then that gives the story a totally different impact. I wonder if the female experience actually opens up the world more. Maybe we should be looking at all those male writers as the limited ones…

But that’s just an idea I’ve been playing with, not one I’ve any major thesis about. I hope these suggestions give you some ideas if you’re on the lookout for something spooky this Halloween. I’m planning another round coming up to Christmas, because that to my mind is an even better time for ghost stories. Do let me know what you think in the comments.

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

A Swiftpost Answer to Procrastination?

expedit2

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.

Abbi-Bordux1

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.

The Power of a Good Story

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.

Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.

I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.

This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated.  How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.

As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.

Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.

We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Sound of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dublin Stories 1: The Haunted Dustpan

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.

Drymnagh_castle_Dublin_1820

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.

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

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

Gateways into Other Lives

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

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.

Seeing Through his Eyes

 

My dad's front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

My dad’s front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

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.

We Need to Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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