We’re all glued to the news these days. Image from the State Library of New South Wales, photographer unknown.
We’re all news junkies these days. Not that you learn much from the nightly government press conferences, apart from how many have died and how few respirators are arriving. I’ve actually been trying to avoid the news lately. It’s hard, as my first instinct for years has been to keep up with developing news and it’s one that dies hard. I still hear news of a murder and automatically assess it’s newsworthiness as if I was going to pitch it. At a time like this it’s comforting to fall back on these instincts as they provide a little bit of distance, but following the latest developments is also wearing and at the moment I instinctively want a different kind of distance.
I’ve been trying to get back into thesis work this week as I’ve a chapter due and that’s providing a release that is welcome. I’ve been feeling at the end of my tether for most of the last month (as I explained in my last post) but at the same time, stopping isn’t really an option. The options available for PhDs to take a break don’t really work that well if you’re self-funded and reliant on teaching work. To be honest, working with my students has been one of the best experiences of this dark time. I love teaching and the material I’m covering at the moment is stuff very close to my heart so it’s fun introducing them to subjects I love. If I took a break from my thesis I wouldn’t be able to teach as I am now and the lack of any kind of focus would make a break counter productive. There’s a lot of talk about extensions to the PhD and that too has limited appeal. Apart from the fact that I’ve no funding to be extended I don’t particularly want to be at this any longer than I have to. I’m part time as it is, so a three year PhD is going to take me six. So it’s going to be hard to stop this particular juggernaut and so I carry on working.
Having said that it’s hard to just dive in these days. All I want to do is hibernate, do physical things like painting furniture or sanding down the garden bench. I want to lie on the floor with a book like I did when I was a kid and I want to bake sweet delights so the house smells like somebody else’s home. While I could technically get to work on the bench or the painting I’m not sure I’ve enough supplies and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get what I need in the shops that are open. I would lie on the floor with a book but that’s where the concentration thing is a problem and these days I sit on the floor for more than five minutes and I can’t guarantee I’ll get up again. So I work. I’ve some housekeeping and technical bits to do before I start on the writing proper and there’s a satisfaction in repetitive tasks at the moment. There’s also the possibility of enjoyable rabbit holes and a search for early 19th century punctuation guides this morning proved a perfect diversion. I’m working on a 19th century newspaper and their news is a welcome break from the present.
As I’ve said before there are good days and bad days in this and I know I’m not anything unusual in that. Today was a productive day but I can’t help wishing there was flour enough to bake a cake instead.
Rural cooking pot repaired with Kintsugi technique, Georgia, 19th century. As good a metaphor as any. Image by Gugger on WikiCommons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Kintsugi.jpg
March has been a mad month for me. It has been for us all. Today though I’m not talking about the universal truths of lockdown; I’m not chronicling this extraordinary pause to life as we know it; today I’m talking personally. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been falling back on lists and well-remembered things. I’ve been trying to put things in perspective, as much as you ever can when global uncertainty and fear hits. But today I needed to mark it’s passing. Before I moved to Ireland I had never heard of a month’s mind, a Catholic ritual to gather the mourners one month after a bereavement. Technically, a month ago I was bereaved. Alongside the eternities that have filled this month, the collective baking and new-found virtual lives, I have trying to settle that loss in my head. To “lay the fetch”. To still the ghosts.
I am the woman I am because of many experiences, many people, but there is one who shaped me in ways I wasn’t meant to be shaped, who left me fundamentally changed. I’ve written about this on here before but I’ve always been circumscribed by the risk of defamation. I’ve never had a doubt I could argue the truth if I had to but I just didn’t want to know he was capable of that level of vindictiveness. I already knew he was, I just never needed the extra proof. All that is no longer a consideration. The dead can’t sue. A fraudulent reputation died with him 31 days ago in a hospice in the west of Ireland. I will never mourn the man, but I mourn the chaos he caused, the relationships he broke, the time he stole, the home and security he stole.
He is the reason I have been oscillating wildly between preternatural calmness and fight or flight reflexes straight out of a zombie apocalypse for most of the last month. Lockdown has added a surreal edge to it all as it feels like everyone has gatecrashed my own private hell. That sounds more dramatic than it actually is though. I’m so used to my reality that it’s normal, even sometimes welcomed. Most of the time it’s not a thing, I move through the world just like everyone else. Then the fucker dies and it all bubbles up and everyone around me is in meltdown too. I’ve been jumping to the end of the world for many years now, it’s a very Covid-19 thing to realise that my private beauty spot is suddenly full of camper vans.
I can list the ways I am changed because of him. As a child, before he was on the scene, I was a quiet, bookish child but born of actor parents so always ready to perform – but I didn’t have this anger burning in my heart. It’s a cold fire but fierce and it never goes out. We’ve come to an accommodation over the years though, my anger and I – I don’t trouble it and it doesn’t trouble me. Sometimes though I let it peep out and it keeps me as warm as it’s cold flames can. I came from a close if messy, family who were always there to help. Now I keep things to myself or I overshare (exhibit one you are currently reading). It’s true what they say, and I don’t, in this case, know who they are (but will use an unattributable quote anyway) that those who have been abused can spot one another. It’s as if we transmit on a slightly different wavelength. To people without this experience, this fracture and refracture, we can crackle with uncomfortable loudness. But to those emitting the same frequency, there’s an ease, a recognition, a mountain of stuff that never has to be explained. On the day of his funeral, I ended up watching series two of the ITV series Unforgotten on Netflix. The plot centres on the damage abuse does. It’s one of the best portrayals of it I’ve seen. An oddly serendipitous Netflix suggestion. So I watched and recognised the ways that I had been changed knowing that he was being eulogised in another country, that he had never changed, always been hail fellow well met.
A lot goes on behind the doors of seemingly happy families, as this lockdown is, unfortunately, going to demonstrate for some oblivious communities. I know a lot of people will be dealing with a pandemic on top of whatever other stuff they are dealing with so all I do is share something that was bursting to come out anyway. Because this stuff never fully goes away. It’s just there. Always. A pandemic really stirs things up and for me, it was just the tin lid on a terrible month. If you are reading this and feeling a jolt of recognition I found this post useful for naming what I was feeling.
Despite what I’ve written here I did not mourn the man. I didn’t even think much of him. I disentangled myself from him many years ago. I know the truth of it. I saw the rages, received the threats, seen the mask slip more times than I could count. I have a letter that he wrote my mother many years ago, the draft of a love letter with an asterisked reminder to show genuine remorse that my father, his rival, had died. I keep it because to me it is truth, a documentary truth I trust. If I was writing a fully referenced account of him, his life, his truth, I would piece together the evidence and I would point out the gaps in knowledge, the gaps in the evidence. I do not have evidence of what he did to me but then I don’t need it. I lived it and survived it. The fact that I do not have photographs or a detailed diary of his or mine or the GPS coordinates of the point around the Northern Ireland border where he tried to throw me out of a moving car, none of this matters any more. There is only one truth left and it is mine. So today I am writing in memory of what happened, the damage caused, the cracks that still intrude into my daily life at times like these.
I haven’t named him yet. I haven’t forgotten to. I have always believed that it is the voice of the victim we should listen to instead of glorifying the killer or the abuser. I always tried to tell their stories when I was writing in the courts and I will give myself the same respect – but it is important to name him all the same, even to speak ill of the dead, the truth is important. Des Braiden was his name. He was an actor. You may know him from such luminary parts as the B&B owner in that Kerrygold butter ad, the judge in both the Ireland and Northern Ireland road safety ads. He was a monk who died in the first episode of Vikings (I never have been able to watch that show). He was a bit part actor but a tremendous spoofer. He was a legend in his own lunchtime. I will not link to his IMDB listing, I will not post his picture. But I write this post because the truth should out, he doesn’t deserve the reputation of a decent man, even in death. He was a bully and an abuser, as simple as that – and it wasn’t just me.
This has coloured my March and it was something that got louder in the silence of the lockdown so I’m sharing it. While it’s as personal a post as you could get, I hope it’s also a reminder that some of us carried a lot of extra baggage into this lockdown and things seem louder in the quiet of solitude and stress. I’ve named my demon but there are many who won’t be able to or don’t want to. That is totally fine. But be gentle with each other and be mindful of the cracks that everything has, repaired over and over again. Let’s hope April is slightly less eventful.
The UK is now closed. Photo by Yogesh Pedamkar on Unsplash
What a difference 24 hours makes. Three days ago people were still going for a grand day out at the beach, queuing for the chipper and enjoying the sun. As if to rebuke the Guardian report this morning that the government had passed on advice to set up an emergency alert system, a text message was sent to phones around the country today, telling everyone to stay at home. As if things couldn’t get more end-of-days-ish.
One must just hope they didn’t have to pay for every text message. It is already surreal sharing this experience with friends on the other side of the planet. Universal text messages telling us to save lives take us into a weird Black Mirror world. It might be one we’ve been sliding into for a few weeks now but we have finally well and truly arrived.
Mind you, it really doesn’t seem like a brave new world out there. My desk is beside a window and I can see people passing by at both ends of the day. I can hear the main road from here too and the traffic has not stopped. Considering this is an unprecedented lockdown I had rather expected it to sound as quiet as it does on Christmas Day. We must have a lot of workers living locally – or possibly the new rules are taking a while to sink in. One can’t help wondering if a strict lockdown is possible in a country which has championed individualism for decades, with an I’m-all-right-Jack, attitude that leads us to obsess about sovereignty and independence. It was rather shocking last night to hear Boris Johnson actually sound like a credible leader, albeit a tightly scripted and pre-recorded one.
I haven’t blogged on a daily basis for years but now it seems a natural thing to do. I know I’m adding to the chatter, the cacophony of analysis and navel-gazing but I can’t look away. We are living through history. I want to record this time so that I remember it. Keep a record of the things I notice, things I feel. This is important.
After weeks of rain, the sun came out just as the country started to really take note of the virus. Today, the first day of lockdown the weather is absolutely gorgeous. I’m used to watching the sun through the window while I work though. I wrote both my books during summer recesses from the courts to tight deadlines. But the sky seems higher in Sussex than it was in Dublin. This is going to be a long and very quiet spring.
We all know the scene, the deserted cottage on the Moors/up the mountain. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
We’re all familiar with the scenario. When pestilence sweeps through the land or the zombie apocalypse hits, our heroes head out of town and try to find somewhere to batten down the hatches. In John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes husband and wife reporter Mike and Phyllis Watson try to make it to their remote cottage in Cornwall as all other hope fails. Similarly in Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids sanctuary is found and hope of a normal life are found in a rural location. In Terry Nation’s 1975 series Survivors, sanctuary is found outside the cities away from infection. The first series shows the main characters searching for somewhere remote to hole up and subsequent series see them forming a community and getting back to nature. This is what one is supposed to do in a pandemic. I’ve had many a conversation with friends about the perfect blot hole for when society finally came crashing down (what can I say – I belong to Generation X), what it would look like, where would it be. But that was all fantasy, the reality is very different.
This weekend scenic spots all over the British Isles saw heavy traffic as people ignored the warnings about gatherings. The government has issued specific guidance for the owners of holiday homes and second homes that heading for the hills does not count as essential travel. The problem is that, while this might be the course of action that characters take in fiction, in reality, going to that isolated cottage is going to put extra strain on communities that really don’t have the resources to cope. All over the weekend community leaders and police forces have been warning out-of-towners away. It turns out that, in reality, if you are going from an area with a high rate of infection, to somewhere isolated with less infection, all you’re doing is potentially bringing infection with you. Actually, this salient fact is in the fiction. In Survivors, for example, there are numerous storylines where infection is brought into isolated communities. But those stories are talking about a truly cataclysmic pandemic. While Covid19 is bad and we need to do all we can to flatten the curve and make sure the NHS can cope with what’s to come, this is not the end of society as we know it. Yes, this is a once in a century event and it will shape the rest of our lives in ways we don’t yet know, but this is something we will get through – as long as we look out for each other and don’t act like assholes.
Personally I’ve been too busy getting ready for teaching to resume this week to go gadding about the countryside – oh, and I don’t have a holiday home. I had my first online seminar today. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for all of us but I’m just hoping my students feel supported enough to get through this disruption to their education. Starting university this year has been a roller coaster for any first-year students and my heart goes out to final years. It had already been a turbulent year before we had heard of coronavirus and social distancing. It’s hard not to feel helpless as this thing keeps smashing through our daily lives. All we can do is get through day by day. There’s very little that I can say that won’t sound trite because this is simply too big.
As well as teaching I’m also helping to organise our first online PhD game night on Wednesday. As I wrote yesterday, Twitter has been brilliant with help on that. But there is something about this time that almost feels like the early days of social media all over again. We’re looking at how to connect, how to stay together, in more meaningful ways I think. This isn’t about social media as a utility, it’s about social media as a lifeline. That’s what it was for introverts or scattered families and friends when it was new and shiny. Then, as it became ubiquitous, we began to shun the alwaysonness of it all. I even want to talk on the phone these days. Times really have changed.
Me and my mum, back in the days when we hadn’t heard of social distancing.
For weeks now businesses have been gearing up for the Mothers’ Day blitz. Well, there’s always some excuse to sell but Mothers’ Day sends them into overdrive. I’ve had exhortations to buy my dear old mum mugs, teatowel, perfume and speciality teas and those are just the ones that are relatively bespoke. I’m increasingly relieved when a company asks if I want to opt-out of the barrage of Mothers’ Day marketing. I always say yes. I know there are plenty who think these opt-outs are just another example of the delicacy of modern life but I’m always relieved when a marketing department actually realises that the day isn’t an uncomplicated love-fest for all of us.
I had a complicated relationship with my mum. When I was a kid she was wonderful. I was an only child and my dad had died when I was a baby so my childhood was solitary but happy. I know my mum found it hard – she was an actress and loved being the centre of attention, something that’s rather difficult to maintain on your own with a toddler. She never really recovered from my dad’s death. While as an adult I understand the decisions she made after that, there are some I will never quite forgive. I’ve written about my mum before here. Let’s just say she was a complicated woman and sometimes a hard mother to love.
I’m also not a mother myself. This is something that has loomed bigger in my life at some times than others. I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. While it’s not something I lose sleep over I would rather it wasn’t shoved in my face on a regular basis. It sometimes feels as if you aren’t quite counted as a woman if you’re not the custodian of small humans. Not all the time, but sometimes. Mothers’ Day is complicated and a little sad and a little bleak and usually I will go out of my way to avoid it.
This year, of course, Mothers’ Day is problematic for everyone. There will be guilt, far more than usual. People will be wondering if they should visit elderly relatives, younger mothers will be worried about their health and the health of their children. Family visits will be missed, Skype calls will be plentiful. It’s another thing that has changed in this strange new world of ours. In the last week we’ve begun to get used to change but today is a reminder of how many things will not happen this year because of the pandemic. The rhythm of our lives will be different this year. The next weeks and months will be filled with other things that have stopped, that are missed. If people don’t stop treating the general stoppage as some extended bank holiday we will find ourselves under much stricter constraints than today. That too will change quickly. That is the way we live now.
Today I have spent time planning new ways to socialise. I help to organise a games night for fellow PhDs at my university and this month we’re moving our gathering online. One thing has become apparent this week as the general sense of weirdness grew. Social media is suddenly feeling as helpful as it was almost a decade ago. These are times when social media comes into its own, where people can come together and reach out. We’ll see a lot more of that as the weeks draw on I hope. For the moment I’ve gone from knowing very little about online gaming to actually knowing how to get set up. For years I’ve promised to keep better touch with far-flung friends but never quite got round to it. Too easy to use the excuse of the pace of modern life. Let’s hope this is at least an opportunity to reset our relationship with each other, to perhaps finally step out from our bubbles, even in the face of global isolation, and reconnect with each other. This is the first global pandemic in such a connected world. It is in a sense, new territory.
So this is the fourth day of the revived blog. Goodness knows how long I’ll keep up these daily posts. At the moment it’s helping to get things straight in my mind as the world spins around me, although that could just be the vertigo. We’ll see as the days progress.
We live in a strange new world. A world where a delivery of toilet paper is anticipated almost as much as the new Hilary Mantel, where a silence has fallen on sports grounds and cinemas and more people are tuning into the nightly news than Strictly Come Dancing. We have all learned how to wash our hands all over again and now lots of us sing while we do so. We are learning new uses and combinations of words – social distancing, cocooning. It is like living in a sci-fi film.
The university made the decision to move all teaching online on Monday. I’ve spent most of this week working out how on earth I’m going to deliver teaching without actually being in the same room as my students. I worked remotely for two years for a company where my teammates were sometimes in three different countries, before that I was freelance for a decade. Working from home doesn’t bother me and technology doesn’t phase me but there is something exquisitely infuriating about realising that even though it’s a while since I’ve done either, the technological solutions are no less annoying and just as apt to wig out when they are actually put to the use they were supposedly designed for. In case any of those students are reading this, don’t worry I’m not talking about the stuff I’m going to be teaching you. The first few days passed in a flurry of panic, trying to assess the new reality. After weeks of being told the coronavirus was a concern but under control and nothing to worry about suddenly we’re all at DEFCON 1 and life as we know it has come to an abrupt pause. Nothing is as it was but for those of us that worry every flu season because the wrong dose could potentially mean months of incapacitation, there’s a strange sense of vindication. I’ve been paranoid about touching door handles, cash machines and public transport for months now, it’s kind of nice to know that most people are now on the same page – even if it does mean you can’t get toilet roll for love nor money.
If you are someone who has spent most of their lives waiting for the end of the world – and that does tend to be the scenario I catastrophise to, then there is a sense of familiarity with all of this. I grew up in a time when the threat of nuclear war seemed very real indeed. The early 80s was a period of intense sabre-rattling between the US and what was then the USSR. In 1982, the Home Office was running practise scenarios for a nuclear strike on Britain. Between 1984 and 1986, TV programmes like Threads, Z for Zachariah and When the Wind Blows shaped the cultural imagination. Being a kid at that time you knew something was up. Even the children’s programmes showed death and disaster – I particularly remember Dramarama Spooky, which ran in 1982 and featured an episode where a schoolkid is haunted by the girl who died when his school was hit by a doodle-bug bomb during WW2. There were the outlines of a family on the pavement outside the town hall, which I stepped over every morning. I knew they were just paint but I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that they represented all that would be left if a nuclear bomb hit. As if to reinforce the sense of impending panic, the fire station that stood beside my school had a habit of testing its old air raid siren every time we had a class with the windows open. I grew familiar with a noise that my mum and my grandmother had left me in no doubt meant death. It was around that time that BBC radio did an adaptation of the War of the Worlds and I discovered John Wyndham. These stories shaped my imagination, they became a genre I have sought out ever since. I’ve always loved a good dystopia.
So some of this feels familiar. The idea of having stores of food is one I’ve had all my life. My mum was a war baby and always had her tin cupboard well-stocked. I’ve spent too much of my life in in not particularly well-paid jobs not to know a thing or two about buying in bulk and making things last. That doesn’t make any of this less scary. I’m worried for elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives. I’m worried for myself but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head telling me “it’s ok, we know how this goes”. It’s an annoying little voice because yes, we know how things go and that why I’ve been avoiding door handles and obsessively washing up after using public transport for weeks!
As I said yesterday, this is a personal blog. It’s my way of getting this all straight in my head. This seems like a time to shout into the void so I’ll be doing it as often as possible,
Picture may not be an accurate representation of current working conditions
I’ve been meaning to start blogging again on a regular basis since February 2017, when I started working on my PhD. The realities of unfunded PhD life have meant that many excellent intentions have stayed sitting in a nice little list in my bullet journal (yes, I have one) and every week when I cross out the things I’ve done and copy the things I haven’t to the next page, it’s pretty much at the top of the list. It’s been on the list for so long that the shape of the words are almost ghosting through the pages as each week’s entry sits above the last. But maybe that emphasis is in my head. It’s between me and the bullet journal anyway.
So what’s changed you might ask? Or maybe not, because these days we’re all working from home, wondering what to do with all the hours we’re not spending on the commute, as a virus sweeps the globe and the supermarket shelves are empty. These are not normal days.
These are days that feel like episode one of the end of the world, That episode where you see people’s lives slowly change, the gradual realisation that this is a set up for our main characters trying to survive against zombies/despots/gangs who commandeer all the food/rapey guy the main female character meets on her travels – delete as appropriate. We’re so familiar with these narratives that they have seeped into our bones, part of our collective imagination. It is downright eerie to see images online of army trucks full over bodies being taken to crematoriums or fistfights in supermarkets over supplies. Still worse when you start hearing stories of general weirdness in your own social networks, when everyone you know, regardless of the country or time zone they are in, are working from home to hide from the virus. As the realisation sinks in that this is serious, that this is one of those events that you will remember for the rest of your life, that generations will be defined by, that time will be measured by, then thoughts turn to marking it.
We save momentos of significant days – weddings, birthdays, first dates. We also save records of events we instinctively know are historic. I have a file of newspaper front pages from days like that at this stage in my life. I started this blog, back in 2008, to write about the court cases I was covering on a daily basis. After a while, I realised that sometimes, if the copy I filed for the agency I was working for at the time wasn’t picked up, this blog was the only place those cases were written about. I always believed in the principle of open justice, in keeping a record of things and this blog was part of that. It’s also been a record of my life, my changing careers, changing focus over the past decade. I had wanted to write about my PhD because I knew that would be a significant period in my life but I never found the time to start. This time is bigger than my life or an individual trial. This is a collective experience. No matter what happens over the next week or months, we are part of a collective experience.
I remember covering the Columbia disaster as it unfolded one Saturday in February 2003. It was so unexpected, all hands to the pump, a journalistic rush. This is not like that. This will be a long-drawn-out slog, a collective experience of small realities, everyday annoyances and reaction to this strange new world. The journalist in me and the future historian both want to create a record of this as it unfolds. This will be a personal account as everything on this blog has always been. It is time to resurrect it. I cannot promise however that I will be sitting in my underwear on a bed with a frothy coffee and a Mac. My days rarely turn out like that, but it’s a pleasing picture to start off with. We’ll see how we go from here.
I’ve been terrible about updating this blog this year. I finally started my PhD in January and between a full-time job and trying to narrow down what my thesis is going to be all about, there hasn’t really been much time to think, let alone write any remotely cogent prose.
They don’t tell you when you sign up for a PhD that the research proposal you are accepted on is not the end of the discussion when it comes to your thesis subject. I had blithely thought that the rather scattered idea I had pitched would be the broad base for my thesis. Um…no. After a couple of meetings with my supervisors, I’ve ended up refining my focus considerably, even changing tack quite considerably. At times I wondered how I had got to this point at alI, if there was such a distance between my initial research proposal and my finished research plan. You see, I still think like a writer – I see a research proposal as a pitch and in my mind, I had already completed the initial stages and was now ready to settle down to the research. But, as I keep discovering, academia is not the same as publishing. This is a good thing. The plan I now have for the thesis is so much stronger than the idea I had come up with over a few days in a panic at submitting an application for an actual doctorate. This research plan has an elegance and sophistication I’ve never managed to get into a synopsis and chapter plan for a publisher.
I probably shouldn’t admit that, but the academic process is vastly different. If I had been writing it as a book I would have worked on the synopsis and chapter plan (containing much the same information I would put into a research plan) alone, in a mild panic as I tried to crystallise an idea that was still not quite ready to be formed. Whether you’re writing a synopsis or a chapter plan the problem is the same. It’s something you write at a very early stage in research. You write it before you know what problems, what discoveries you will make along the road, you write it with a skeleton idea, what you think is going to work. What comes out the other end is invariably a different beast. Obviously, in both cases, the idea you’re pitching is a solid one as it’s one that you know has the legs to become a book or your subject but any idea at the beginning of a project is a shadow of what it will become. As a writer, you go through the uncertainty and doubt alone. You must grapple with your idea until it is ready to present to the publisher – who will just throw it back at you if it’s not ready to go. In academia it’s different. It’s a far more collaborative, supportive process. That’s not to say it’s not still as frustrating as hell but I’m almost out the other side now so I can be benevolent. I like the fact that academic ideas are allowed to mature a little bit slower.
I knew that taking on this PhD part time while I hold down a full-time job would be a balancing act and it is, but it is also difficult to get to know people. It’s difficult not to get isolated but I gather that’s the case however you do your doctorate and I’m reminded of the way writers seized on Twitter in the early days as a way of building a network of “co-workers” so they didn’t end up talking to their characters – a problem that can be an occupational hazard whether you write fiction or non-fiction. I’m taking every opportunity I can to meet fellow PhD students because there are certain things you just need to talk with peers about. Working alone you lose track of what is a neurotic tic and what is normal behaviour – for a bit of perspective you need a meeting of your peers. But to meet them takes a lot of planning. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I have a job that allows me the flexibility to work from college on days when I have meetings or seminars. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d manage this without that flexibility. I know some people do manage to do a PhD completely unrelated to their demanding day job but this is as full throttle as I can manage.
So getting back to the purpose of this post. I’ve been pondering what on earth I’m going to do with this blog now I’ve an academic profile to build. I’ve built so many profiles on here in the past. But it occurs to me that actually, when you boil it all down, I’ve always stuck to the same thing. I have always written about my work, my research and the issues that I feel passionate about. Since my thesis looks at 19th-century court reporters in Ireland it’s unlikely regular readers will notice much difference. I’ll still be talking about journalism, writing and murder, but I will now be discussing matters that took place up to over a century ago. All I can do is share my experience. I’ll write about some of the cases I’m exploring and the way the papers covered them, I’ll also discuss wider issues like violence against women and social issues.
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.
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.
Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet. Pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved
I’ve always known that the Internet was a bit like the Wild West, that if you turned the wrong corner there’s be the aggressive stall holder tugging at your sleeve to sell you some over-priced piece of knock-off junk while simultaneously picking your pockets while his dodgy looking mates beckon you towards a manky shed where you can hear the faked pants of the live sex show taking place on a filthy mattress inside. I’m not naive about the lawless side of things – I did some fairly comprehensive research that side of things when I was researching Devil, my first book, and I’m well aware of how out of date that research is now. But even so I didn’t see it coming. I thought this blog was a pretty safe place to hang out, a little bastion where I could whether the storm quite happily for as long as I wanted to.
Now that was naive.
It happened on my wedding anniversary. I only noticed that once I had saw the damage a few days later. They hadn’t known of course – but that coincidence made it feel like an utterly personal attack, a violation. My blog, this site, which I’ve been building since 2008 despite the fact I haven’t been posting as often as I should for quite a while now, had been hacked. It was a particularly nasty kind of hack known as the Pharma hack – or at least a variation of that hack. It works by highjacking your site as it appears in Google search results so that your site advertises whatever they happen to be selling – as the name suggests it’s often pharmaceuticals, in my case it was games. It’s a particularly annoying hack because it’s hard to detect. It only shows up in Google searches, everything looks fine on Yahoo or Bing and if you go directly to the site it’s absolutely fine. It usually effects the most popular links to your site – so in a way it’s the most backhanded of backhanded compliments. You only get affected if you’re doing something right.
So I was stuck with a website that, as far as anyone looking on Google was concerned, did a very good line in Fifa games in Polish. I changed every password I could think of and got onto my hosting company to ask for assistance but was told it was down to me to clean up. One of the staff might be willing to do it as a nixer – for a price. So I started doing my own research. It seemed the hack was quite common. It also seemed that getting rid of the hackers was not the easiest thing in the world. But there was good advice out there – in particular this WordPress forum and this excellent post. I started looking for the code the hackers had added to my site – but while I managed to find the files modified on the day I knew they got in, I couldn’t find the (hidden) code.
So I decided to take drastic action. If the hackers were going to squat on seven years of hard work because I’d managed to get some kind of Google Rank then I’d make sure it wasn’t worth their while. I’d whip the rug from under them. I’d burn the place down.
Ok there were probably better ways of doing it. Ways that wouldn’t have trashed my own ranking, especially since Google seemed blissfully unaware that I hadn’t just switched my line of work. But I’d had enough. Like I said, it felt personal. I suppose that’s what I get for having a self-named website – it’s all going to be ego in the end.
So I blew the whole thing up. I deleted the database and uninstalled the WordPress installation. Then I started deleting everything else I could find – except a load of folders that I didn’t have access to – where the backdoor actually was. It was actually rather liberating – in a decidedly destructive way. I’d backed up all my posts from WordPress (and thought I had all the images and sound files I’d uploaded over the years). What could possibly go wrong? At this stage my faith in the Internet was somewhat restored when Good Samaritan came forward on Twitter and offered to give me a temporary place to call home – without which I seriously doubt I’d have got things restored to the stage they are at the moment.
It took a while to sort out but I changed hosts and transferred my domain to the new guys. I wasn’t happy with the way my old hosts had dealt with things. OK I had been naive about the level of security needed but there should have been a bit more by way of support there. I had always felt with them that there was an attitude that if I didn’t know how to do something I shouldn’t really be managing my own website. I might not be madly techy but I’m independent. If you bother to explain how something works, or at least point me in the direction where I can learn more, I will read up. I’m learning as I go – and the past six weeks has been a very steep learning curve.
So for the past week I’ve been putting everything back in it’s place, here in it’s new home. I’m far happier with the new hosts – they’ve been absolutely brilliant as I’ve been getting set up, no matter how trivial the question. The damage has been done with Google but I’ve been working on the SEO. It doesn’t help that I’ve sort of changed address – there’s now a /wordpress/ missing in every link – so I’ve been setting up redirects left right and centre and doing a bit of firefighting. Hopefully everything will settle down eventually. What all this has done is meant that I’ve had to go back over all my old posts. It’s made me remember why I started this blog and why I kept it going. Over the past few years I’ve let things slide. Well from now on I can’t promise that I’ll post as much as I did when I had a book to sell but I’ll make more of an effort. I’ve already been tweaking the look of the thing – this will be an ongoing process – I have a very clear idea of what I want – but I’ll need to learn a bit of CSS first.
And if I do things right and make another tempting proposition for the hackers I’ll be ready for them next time. I’m not going to get caught out like that twice – next time I’ll go all Charles Bronson on them!