Writer and Author

Tag: About Me (Page 1 of 5)

Living in a Barbie world…

Several Barbie dolls made up to look like zombies are photographed against a rusty fence.

Barbie is coming to get you. Image thanks to Jen Theodore on Unspash.

When I was a child my Barbie was normally buried somewhere in the back garden. I had decided at a very young age that Barbie was the kind of woman who would “come to a bad end”. Sindy usually investigated her disappearance – together with my bright red teddy bear Gooby. As a girl child in the 70s I had obviously absorbed the prevailing cultural misogyny and decided that my fashion dolls were inherently bimbos. I confess, as a 6-year-old, Second Wave feminism didn’t really appeal to me. I had absorbed my mum’s disparaging comments when I received my Barbie doll. She had noticed her large breasts, tiny feet and long blonde, perfect hair and had judged. Sindy was considered far more suitable for me but I wasn’t that gone on her either. She played second fiddle to the bear who was my constant companion. Sindy certainly had more approachable proportions but she exuded a Goody Two-shoes vibe that I found vaguely unnerving. My doll was a ballerina and seemed far more concerned with character building extra curricular activities. I was sure Barbie got asked to a lot more parties – which was probably the whole problem.

The only fashion doll I played with consistently as a kid was Palitoy’s Pippa. This was mainly because she was easily portable at only 6.5 inches or 16.5 cm tall. She was also more easily available with different hair colours. My Pippa was actually a Dawn doll with auburn, curly shoulder length hair. I remember picking her out myself one day in Chester and I had specifically picked her because she wasn’t blonde. She and her orange bridesmaid dress – whose purpose completely passed me by – were carried around in pockets and bags for years. She was a convenient plaything who could get into small places. I never really saw other clothes for her, although I did eventually acquire a spare yellow dress which seemed more practical at least.

Even from this young age I had decided that being too focused on fashion was a BAD thing. This despite the fact that to this day I navigate my way through episodes of Sapphire and Steel through Sapphire’s costumes. I just felt quite strongly, without really knowing why, that you couldn’t be serious or bookish – and I was both of those things, and like pink quite so much. I saw both Barbie and Sindy as not the kind of girls I would be friends with. Dawn, with her darker hair, seemed far more approachable. I’m sure this probably says something about my autistic childhood but I’m not sure what.

By the time Aqua released Barbie world in 1997 I was firmly unpink. I put that song firmly in the same pigeon hole as Achey Breaky Heart and Danny Boy, the pigeon hole that would make me switch channel in a flash. My mind had not been changed by the time the Barbie film was announced.

So now we all really do live in a Barbie World® and Barbie is now a feminist. Barbie is the biggest grossing film directed by a woman (can’t help feeling that milestone might have hit better for another film but we’ll take what we can get) and just keeps growing. More movie tie-ins are announced on a daily basis – the real winners in all this are the marketing bods as this Vox article examines. Mattel has seen the magic formula and slated a deluge of other toy inspired films. Capitalism just keeps marching on.

And that’s what always bugged me about Barbie. It was always about the money. I tended to inherit my dolls and the clothes I had for them were either made for me by friends and relatives or I swapped them at school. But even back then, I was aware that there were some things you couldn’t hand make. Star Wars toys were the big thing and Dukes of Hazzard, and Evil Knievel etc etc etc. We were all far more pop culture aware than our parents might have been and of course, things haven’t changed and have only speeded up.

Back in the 2000s it became clear that pink was the only colour that was deemed acceptable by the marketing bods when it came to little girls. I’ve written about the subject many times, this 2013 post is typical of my views which I’m not going into again. Things might have got a little less so but I can’t see that diversity staying long if Mattel get there way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to finally getting round to seeing both Barbie and Openheimer and I fully expect Barbie to be the more fun movie going experience of the two. But something in my gut still wants to bury Barbie in the back garden.

It’s been a while…

A little Lego Valkyrie symbolises the difficulties of life.

It’s been a long year. Photo by Michael Stamp. All rights reserved.

It feels like so much has changed since I last posted here. The last year has been a difficult one and so far there’s no relief from that. When I last wrote a post I had just been diagnosed with autism and was waiting to see if I also had ADHD. Well that diagnosis came through so I am now getting my head around being AuDHD, as it tends to be known online. It’s a strange piece of information to arrive at at almost 50 and I still can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if I had had the support and understanding that seems a lot more available to today’s children. It’s been rather a year of reinvention and looking back on the intervening months it feels like I’ve reassessed almost every bit of my life – not all because I’m looking at the world through newly-recognised neuro spicy lenses.

But that wasn’t all. In the depths of the first pandemic winter it seemed as if the quiet darkness of lockdown would bring a reassessment, an interlude for a collective taking stock. Even by the second pandemic winter it was becoming clear that a great readjustment wasn’t really going to be forthcoming.  Brexit had left a stain so deep that it clouded the perceptions of those who heralded it as a new dawn. It left a space that could be filled by nonsense, by conspiracy theories and even more fake news. With the pandemic those lies blossomed into something even darker and they haven’t gone away. Even as the threat of sickness recedes I still find myself using sanitiser whenever I touch something outside. I wear a mask less often but always have one on me. I guess this is normal behaviour after a major public health risk but it has meant that life has been held at arms’ length for a very long time now.

But it wasn’t just the state of the country, the state of the world, of the planet that kept me away. My default view of humanity is that it’s on the road to nowhere and I’ve always been fascinated by dystopias so the current hell scape I can deal with. In the southeast of England we are on the nursery slopes of a dystopia anyway. If you can tune out the Brexity lunacy it’s dealable with. No the reason why I haven’t written ANYTHING in a long time is because I’ve been trying to work out where my voice has gone.

Last year I turned 50. It wasn’t a great year – our beautiful cat reached the end of her life, I became a victim of academic cost cutting and my teaching has dwindled to a tiny amount. The kind of knocks that leave you somewhat hollowed out and diminished. For my birthday I finally took the plunge to look into my DNA. I’ve worked in genealogy and it was always something I was interested in trying. I wanted to find out if my research was correct – I had found evidence in my genealogical research that my dad’s family had been Anglo Indian rather than colonial as my mum had always lead me to believe. I wrote about that discovery at the time but was always conscious that all the evidence I had was circumstantial. So I took the test. Going in I thought I had a pretty good idea of the outcome. I thought that on my mum’s side was Welsh and Russian (actually Georgian) as that was what I had been told all my life. I grew up with Russian fairy stories and dolls because my mum was proud of her Slavic heritage. There was a history there, with details, names, dates. That side seemed unremarkable and predictable. I was interested in my dad’s side. The results took a while, as these things do, but when they came they once again made me question my own identity.

You see they revealed that firstly, my research was good. I kind of knew that. I trust what I now know as my hyperfocus super skills. If a fact is there for a subject I’ve got my teeth into then I will find it. There is Indian blood in there but a very long way back, about the same percentage as the Irish bit of my DNA. I’d worked out a very long time ago that I didn’t qualify for Irish citizenship under the grandparent rule. When I started researching my dad’s family it became clear that the direct line couldn’t have come from Ireland for a very long time – in fact both the Irish and the Indian probably got into the mix at roughly the same time, when Patrick Rieley married Sophia in Chennai in 1815. Since Sophia was a pupil teacher at the Freeschool attached to the Female Orphan Asylum it was probable that she was a child of a European father and an Indian mother, a quick assumption that speaks to the sad truth about such families. So going back as far as Patrick and probably Sophia’s mother a generation before, that’s not going to leave a very large percentage of either nationality in the DNA.

The surprise was the far greater percentage that was missing. I had always been told that my maternal grandfather was Georgian and his meeting my grandmother during the war resulted in my mother. That should have meant a biggish chunk of around 25% Georgian…which wasn’t there. In fact there was nowhere in that direction anywhere. My grandmother was rather known within the family as a bit of a spoofer but this news gave me a new respect for the sheer breadth of her spoofing. She had created a  phantom lover with a phantom family. His mother, my phantom great grandmother had supposedly turned up for my mother when she was about 6. My mum told me the story as gospel. But those results couldn’t be that wrong. Despite the fact that I have it on good authority that my golden eyes, pale skin and dark colouring are typically Georgian it turns out they are just a mix of Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Indian. I’m happy with that but what unsettles me is the sheer depth of the fantasy that grew up around my mother’s parentage. It shaped her, it affected her relationship with her real dad (and judging by the amount of Welsh in me he was definitely her dad) and both she and, I think, my gran believed the story. I have an inkling why the phantom was more attractive than the truth but it will take a lot more unpacking before I can put all my thoughts on that into words.

It was putting thoughts into words that has been the difficulty these past months. Turning 50 was a much bigger deal than I had expected. It’s a time of reckoning, a time for re-evaluation and it really didn’t help to have so much other stuff whirling around in my head and coming to the realisation that the forgetfulness and constant aches and pains were actually part of a fundamental shift. I’ve been used to a particular hormonal pattern for most of my life, to suddenly realise that that was coming to an end is both liberating and terrifying – if I could remember the words for either of those feelings.

Then in February this year we became another statistic. One of the households chucked out of rented accommodation because of financial pressures on landlords. We found somewhere new and it is lovely but it’s been a huge upheaval. At least I know now why I don’t react to change very well.

So yeah, it’s been a bit of a year or so. I’ve come out of it with a lot more knowledge about myself and after a very long time, I feel I have something to say again.

I’ll try to blog a couple of times a week to get back into the routine of it. After such a long time feeling silenced the thoughts are bubbling up again. It’s been a while but I’m back. Have you missed me?

 

A Different Operating System

Autism is having a bit of a moment. You must have noticed – you can hardly turn on the television or look on a news site without hearing someone famous has been diagnosed or some new understanding has been reached. It wouldn’t be the first time the media have seized on a subject and run with it but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s a perfectly sensible reason for the sudden approved awareness of autism. There’s certainly a reason why I’m noticing it more, which I’ll get to in just a second.

The last two years have been hard ones. Waves have lead to lockdowns, separation from the normal hustle and bustle of life. In the midst of all this death and uncertainty, a lot of people have had a chance to reassess, to look inward. For those with mental health illnesses it has been particularly hard as the constant change and the sense of unreality that comes with living through a global event. There is no way of avoiding the news. I started lockdown, way back in March 2020 with the intention to ride the waves and keep safe. I read up everything I could on masks and pandemics, then baking and dyeing techniques, then sofas – did you know how many webbing patterns there are for Ercol Windsor sofas? That is always how I have approached life, I research, I become an expert on tiny sections of things which stay lodged in my brain for years to come. The pandemic made me go into overdrive.

But as the months dragged on I started to think more. I started to realise that my reaction to staying at home all the time, to having control over the people I saw, the places I went, being able to cocoon myself in comfort when I felt anxious, to be childishly indulgent if the mood arose. It was only earlier this year I realised that all these little things, My geekiness, and antisocial tendencies, my weird tastes (when I like a food I will quite happily live on it for a prolonged period), the almost fetishisation of  certain combinations of colours and textures and the tendency to almost instantly want to make friends might actually all be part of the same thing. For the first time in my life the collection of quirks and twitches, strengths and weaknesses that go to make up me looked like they actually had a shape together and a name. A few weeks ago, I was given that shape, named that name. I am autistic.

A few short months ago if you had asked me about autism I would have pictured a little boy lost in a world of his own. I had assumed that autism, like ADHD was a childhood condition. When I was a kid autism was quite simply not something little girls could have…a bit like Scalextric and Meccano. Even if I had been tested for it back in the days when Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris did children’s programmes and Liberace was the housewife’s favourite, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed as I don’t fit the diagnosis – I’m chatty and have been known to run into the centre of crowds. People often mistake me for an extrovert. I would never have fitted the diagnostic parameters. But science evolves and learns new things and is currently very interested in learning about women who were missed when they were children. It’s very common for women to be diagnosed as adults because, not only did we not fit the profile, we are also a lot better at “masking”.

All my life I’ve treated fashion as a costume. I dress as the person I need to be at any given moment. I have outfits that are my journalist outfits, other ones for when I’m teaching and if I’m doing something as a writer then it’s a different costume again. All this, I learn now, is masking. It’s why I feel all peopled out if I’d had a particularly social whirl (or met more than three people at once, to be honest). I’m happiest at home with time to think. My brain sometimes gets jammed with everything and just needs to be quiet to filter everything out. When I’m calm and have space I can think the world, but when the noise gets to much and chaos crowds in, it feels like a limiter has been placed on my brain and I simply can’t function.

I’ve heard autism diagnosis being described as “finding your tribe”, “finding out what planet you are from”. For me it has been a Kaiser Soze moment where everything fell into place and it keeps falling into place to this day. It’s not something that changes who I am but it sure as hell explains a lot. My brain isn’t weird or wrong in anyway, it’s just wired differently. It means that some of my senses are up to 11. It means that some things I just don’t get – I’m utterly rubbish at reading certain social cues. It means that when I get tired and overwhelmed I just need to stop. Most of this is just stuff that is intrinsically me so it’s been odd realising that actually it’s part of a state of being. I hadn’t actually realised that most people don’t experience the world the way I do (although, really I should have taken the hints a very long time ago).

I’m currently waiting to find out if I also have ADHD, a combination that isn’t that unusual but that would explain a great deal about how I work, and why I’ve struggled with certain things. All of this also goes some way to explain why I’m writing this this evening. I have always found it easier to write about emotions than to demonstrate them. This is a big enough thing about myself that I want to tell everyone – not just those who’ve supported me and been my friends but also those who didn’t give me a break for things I know now I had no control over. I feel like shouting it from the rooftops. I am explained!

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This knowledge is simply good to have. It allows me to understand myself better but it is not the whole story. For the first time in a very long time I feel like a whole person. I no longer feel fractured but a complex, complete entity. It was a strange thing to find out as a result of lockdown but there you go. And perhaps that’s also why autism is having a moment right now.

How the Light Gets In

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.

On hashtags, secrets and the balance of power

This post is a hard one to write. I’ve kept this blog for years but this is the post I’ve always second guessed myself out of writing. I’ve written about dysfunctional homes so many times, homes that weren’t safe, predatory men, an inadequate legal system, but I’ve never said that what I had a personal stake in what I was writing – that I understood, that I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to live with a volatile narcissist who will make you doubt the facts in front of your nose. I know what it’s like to dodge ever-changing emotions. I know what it’s like to fear for your life – a dull practical alertness, not a nerve jangling panic.

Writing these words I’m consumed with an urge to qualify, to minimise, to explain. It’s an urge that always comes but I’m not going to listen to it today because I’ve got a few things to say. What happened to me happened. It wasn’t as bad as things that have happened to other people but it was sustained, and it lasted and I was in the middle of it – and I still feel my heart race when I think back to that time. I still jump to the doomsday scenario when I’m stressed because I spent long enough thinking about the bleakest outcomes because they were the only ones I could see. I read Lolita or watch Jessica Jones and I’m floored by the memories. I walked away and I rebuilt myself but I’m never free of it. Not really. I still have days when I’m caught by the tangled mess in my past and held by it. I might see his face in a crowd or on television. These cracks will probably always be there but these days the seams of their joins rarely intrude into day to day living.

So when a hashtag like #MeToo comes along I always think about writing this post. Don’t get me wrong, I think that this public sharing on social media is important. That by opening up the conversation about female safety and the ubiquity of sexual assault perhaps things will finally change – although I doubt it. When the outrage dies down will anything actually change? Will we see changes to the law? Will we see a proper societal shift? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. I’ve seen this before, I’ve read the articles by survivors who bravely shared their stories and the newspaper comments that called each time a watershed, a line in the sand. Things need to change, but will they change now? I’ll not be holding my breath.

You see, apart from having written about violence against women for a long time, apart from having gathered information for most of my adult life, I’ve been through it. A couple of years ago I went to survivors’ charity 1 in 4. With their support I contacted the Gardai and I told my story. Over three days I gave a series of detailed statements. I know what’s needed. I gave my statement to two very experienced gardai, who are used to taking statements, to analysing witnesses. They discussed the case with their superintendent who agreed there was a case to pursue. That man was questioned. The DPP were informed…and then it went no further. I still haven’t had any official notification that the matter has come to a close. I was only a witness after all. He was told. Of course he was told.

I’ll stop again here to silence that persistent little voice, the one that’s telling me I shouldn’t be talking about this, that there was no case to answer. Once again I’m going to silence it because I know what happened to me, and I also know that when it comes to justice for the victims of sexual abuse and assault Irish law could do much, much, much better. On my first visit to 1 in 4 they warned me about going to the gardai. They told me that of the people who come to them the majority choose not to report the case if it’s not necessary because there’s a continuing risk to children. According to the 2002 Sexual Violence and Abuse in Ireland (SAVI) Report, commissioned by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, only 8% of those abused disclosed to the gardai. Only 16%  of that 8% got to court. That’s a little over 1% of abuse cases.  According to a 2013 report from the CPS less than 1% of allegations of rape are prosecuted as false accusations (even though this is a British figure the percentage is a pretty standard one for false accusations). So when I’m writing about my experiences of this, even though my abuser was never convicted, I’m statistically far more likely to be telling the truth.

But again, that’s my instinct to minimise, to justify. It’s a normal response.

This is at the heart of what I’m writing here. I’m tying myself in knots because I know as a journalist that without a conviction my story is weakened. I can’t name my accuser, although I’d dearly like to. During the process of making my statement I mentioned that I thought there had been another victim. The gardai said they’d check it out. I told her I was writing this. We keep in touch – we’d known about each other for years and she’s the only other person who knows what it was like dealing with him. But the law makes me question my own experience because it wasn’t given a chance to stand up in court. And that’s  the problem with #MeToo. The abusers, the harassers, the rapists among us, live in a world that’s underpinned by that law. They are protected, their good name and innocence is sacrosanct. As the Garda Inspectorate report on responding to child sexual abuse points out “although substantial research in Ireland and elsewhere indicates that only a small percentage of allegations of child sexual abuse are false, the Inspectorate is mindful of the devastating consequences in those cases as well.”

This is what I see when I see the outpouring of shared experience under #MeToo. Our experiences are endemic because there is no come back. We are silenced because of the standard of proof of a behind closed doors experience, of our word against his, of his good name against the assumption of our untrustworthiness. I believe in the presumption of innocence, it is an important basis for a system of law. But it won’t lay to rest the experiences that are being shared at the moment or give us justice or peace. For that we would need a fundamental shift in the balance of power – and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

New horizons…

Me at the Brighton Pavilion

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.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

 

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

A Wound that Never Heals

Daddy-and-Lenin

My father, Colin Rieley, being only mildly disrespectful to Lenin.

On December 8th 1973 my dad was heading home from work. He was a teacher at a prep school that fed children into the elite public school system and well loved by his pupils. Every year he would supervise the school skiing trip to Switzerland as he had a gift for languages and could speak French, German and even passable Italian. My mum went with him one year and never forgot the welcome the local people gave him.

My dad was an inspiring teacher who specialised in English and drama. He was a writer himself and had met my mum when he was working as a stage director in rep companies during the school holidays. In his younger days he had acted himself, including a spell in the Brian Brookes Company in South Africa. He had been working on a novel and it had been accepted by a publisher.,,but he never finished it. He had to pay back his advance.

He had gone back to college. He needed further qualifications to teach. He was studying to teach special needs students.

That spring my mum and dad, my great aunt and me went on a cruise on a Russian ship. It was the cheapest option. There were pictures of Lenin all over the ship and everyone commented that my dad was a dead ringer. One night my mum and dad snuck down to the corridor to take the picture at the top of this post. This was the only version of the shot on the roll that wasn’t blurred from my mum’s laughter. Every night they sat at the Captain’s table. He enjoyed my dad’s company.

Exactly 42 years ago tonight, my dad stopped off to buy a bottle of wine. At home my mum was writing Christmas cards. It was to be their first Christmas at home as a family. I was upstairs asleep in my cot. My dad stepped off the pavement to cross the road and that’s when everything changed. That’s the moment that clever, funny, kind man went away. All that possibility stopped.

A coach driver wasn’t looking where he was going. He swung into the road just as my dad was crossing. It couldn’t end any other way.

My dad was 42 years old.

My mum always hated writing Christmas cards after that. She was writing them when the doorbell rang. She told me she knew as soon as she heard it there was something wrong. There were two policemen there, a man and a woman. There are always two for things like this. I know the details of that night by heart, even though I was a sleeping baby. I used to have a recurring dream that the doorbell rang and my dad was standing there. Until I learnt he never would. Even so I still dream it sometimes, he’s tanned as if he’s been away. I’m not angry he’s been gone so long just happy he’s back. My tears usually wake me up.

My mum was a poet as well as an actress. She wrote about that night. She didn’t show me the poem until I was grown. I’ll share it here now.

Accident

1.

That your dear head should let out all your life

Seemed blasphemy.

Could so much given to such good purpose

Be wasted in one foolish streaming night?

What timeless disbelief

Between first knowledge and your final leaving

Could all that life have given

Be appraised and mourned in such brief stunned hours?

2.

When at last they let me see you

Your abstracted stillness

Made me conscious of intrusion.

I feared the worst but could not think it.

I remembered conversations on the privacy of death

You believed it was already beyond mortal love:

That each man must make his own death,

With his particular God,

Suffering no distraction.

Unable to accept

I willed you back to us

But you continued in your great silence

I lay that night

With my palm outstretched, laid upwards;

Unable to believe

That your warm grasp was loosed forever.

poem by Tani Bentis (all rights reserved)

December 8th has had other associations for years but it will always be the day my father died. Every year my mum would ring me around this time, just wanting to talk about him. This pain never goes away. I don’t remember my father but I still feel his loss, even after all this time.

That’s what careless driving does. Whether you drink and drive or you just don’t take care please think. Please take care. Don’t do this to someone.

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Bad things lurk in corners of the Internet. Pic by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

I’ve always known that the Internet was a bit like the Wild West, that if you turned the wrong corner there’s be the aggressive stall holder tugging at your sleeve to sell you some over-priced piece of knock-off junk while simultaneously picking your pockets while his dodgy looking mates beckon you towards a manky shed where you can hear the faked pants of the live sex show taking place on a filthy mattress inside. I’m not naive about the lawless side of things – I did some fairly comprehensive research that side of things when I was researching Devil, my first book, and I’m well aware of how out of date that research is now. But even so I didn’t see it coming. I thought this blog was a pretty safe place to hang out, a little bastion where I could whether the storm quite happily for as long as I wanted to.

Now that was naive.

It happened on my wedding anniversary. I only noticed that once I had saw the damage a few days later. They hadn’t known of course – but that coincidence made it feel like an utterly personal attack, a violation. My blog, this site, which I’ve been building since 2008 despite the fact I haven’t been posting as often as I should for quite a while now, had been hacked. It was a particularly nasty kind of hack known as the Pharma hack – or at least a variation of that hack. It works by highjacking your site as it appears in Google search results so that your site advertises whatever they happen to be selling – as the name suggests it’s often pharmaceuticals, in my case it was games. It’s a particularly annoying hack because it’s hard to detect. It only shows up in Google searches, everything looks fine on Yahoo or Bing and if you go directly to the site it’s absolutely fine. It usually effects the most popular links to your site – so in a way it’s the most backhanded of backhanded compliments. You only get affected if you’re doing something right.

So I was stuck with a website that, as far as anyone looking on Google was concerned, did a very good line in Fifa games in Polish. I changed every password I could think of and got onto my hosting company to ask for assistance but was told it was down to me to clean up. One of the staff might be willing to do it as a nixer – for a price. So I started doing my own research. It seemed the hack was quite common. It also seemed that getting rid of the hackers was not the easiest thing in the world. But there was good advice out there – in particular this WordPress forum and this excellent post. I started looking for the code the hackers had added to my site – but while I managed to find the files modified on the day I knew they got in, I couldn’t find the (hidden) code.

So I decided to take drastic action. If the hackers were going to squat on seven years of hard work because I’d managed to get some kind of Google Rank then I’d make sure it wasn’t worth their while. I’d whip the rug from under them. I’d burn the place down.

Ok there were probably better ways of doing it. Ways that wouldn’t have trashed my own ranking, especially since Google seemed blissfully unaware that I hadn’t just switched my line of work. But I’d had enough. Like I said, it felt personal. I suppose that’s what I get for having a self-named website – it’s all going to be ego in the end.

So I blew the whole thing up. I deleted the database and uninstalled the WordPress installation. Then I started deleting everything else I could find – except a load of folders that I didn’t have access to – where the backdoor actually was. It was actually rather liberating – in a decidedly destructive way. I’d backed up all my posts from WordPress (and thought I had all the images and sound files I’d uploaded over the years). What could possibly go wrong? At this stage my faith in the Internet was somewhat restored when Good Samaritan came forward on Twitter and offered to give me a temporary place to call home – without which I seriously doubt I’d have got things restored to the stage they are at the moment.

It took a while to sort out but I changed hosts and transferred my domain to the new guys. I wasn’t happy with the way my old hosts had dealt with things. OK I had been naive about the level of security needed but there should have been a bit more by way of support there. I had always felt with them that there was an attitude that if I didn’t know how to do something I shouldn’t really be managing my own website. I might not be madly techy but I’m independent. If you bother to explain how something works, or at least point me in the direction where I can learn more, I will read up. I’m learning as I go – and the past six weeks has been a very steep learning curve.

So for the past week I’ve been putting everything back in it’s place, here in it’s new home. I’m far happier with the new hosts  – they’ve been absolutely brilliant as I’ve been getting set up, no matter how trivial the question. The damage has been done with Google but I’ve been working on the SEO.  It doesn’t help that I’ve sort of changed address – there’s now a /wordpress/ missing in every link – so I’ve been setting up redirects left right and centre and doing a bit of firefighting. Hopefully everything will settle down eventually. What all this has done is meant that I’ve had to go back over all my old posts. It’s made me remember why I started this blog and why I kept it going. Over the past few years I’ve let things slide. Well from now on I can’t promise that I’ll post as much as I did when I had a book to sell but I’ll make more of an effort. I’ve already been tweaking the look of the thing – this will be an ongoing process – I have a very clear idea of what I want – but I’ll need to learn a bit of CSS first.

And if I do things right and make another tempting proposition for the hackers I’ll be ready for them next time. I’m not going to get caught out like that twice – next time I’ll go all Charles Bronson on them!

A Bleak Choice

Empty cradle by dannysoar on Flickr

Empty cradle by dannysoar on Flickr

Saturday should have been a good day. It was a chance to meet up with friends, so many of whom were busy being inspiring as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations in Dublin. It was mild out and not raining, the beginnings of spring, a pleasant Saturday to spend doing not very much. But the day started with an article written by a good friend of mine. I’ve known Rosita Boland for a good few years now. I count myself fortunate to have her as a friend. I’ve known for most of our friendship that we shared an unfortunate situation that has caused both of us a lot of heartache over the years. Yesterday Rosita wrote about that unhealing wound and I hope that by sharing something so deeply personal her piece will start a dialogue that has been absent for far too long. But reading her piece coloured my day with grey. It will always be a painful subject.

If you find yourself having to look at alternative routes to starting a family here in Ireland you will quickly find that this is a silent, lonely place to be. It’s a subject that’s still not widely talked about, apart from with friends in the same boat. People who haven’t dealt with it tend not to bring it up. It feels like a shameful little secret, some retribution being visited for some unknown mistake. Then there’s the fear that you will be judged wanting, that this desperate last ditch attempt will be in vain. I really wouldn’t wish this position on anyone.

I’ve written here before about being childless. It’s something I have very complex feelings about. When I was first married I assumed children would be in the mix at some point. I looked forward to the eventuality. When the reality dawned that it was not going to be that simple I went through so many emotions. There was grief, anger, eventually resignation. At first it felt like a physical punch whenever another friend told me they were pregnant. Later I learnt to value my independence especially as it seemed a slimmer and slimmer possibility that we would ever be able to adopt in Ireland. A couple of years ago, after my mother died, we decided to step out of the adoption process as there didn’t seem to be any point of adding to the stress with something that seemed hopeless anyway. Lately we’ve started to talk about it again but only in the light of the realisation that for us ever to hope of being parents we’re going to have to move to another country. Friends in England applied to adopt a little over a year ago. They received their declaration in under a year. It’s often only when you see how things are done elsewhere that you realise just how chaotic things can be here in Ireland.

I know there are reasons why adoption is still something of a taboo subject here. The dark spectre of the babies forcibly taken from “undeserving” single mothers by religious orders still looms large and it’s a scandal that simply isn’t going away. It’s one reason given on an anecdotal basis for the scarcity of domestic adoptions outside the family. Add to that the various scandals in recent years concerning intercountry adoptions and it’s hardly surprising that some appear to think that adoption bodies in Ireland, not to mention prospective adoptive parents, are somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher and Cruella Devil.

There’s also a longstanding institutional blindness towards those who don’t fit into an extremely narrow definition of family. There is a violently vocal minority who think that the only family that should be recognised by the Irish State is one that conforms to a strictly Catholic ethos. According to these idiots my marriage isn’t valid because it didn’t take place in a church but that’s a whole other story. We’re used to the rabid prolifers and the anti gay marriage mob but surely it’s the exact same ethos that looks down on any couple who can’t have children within a properly sanctified union. It’s surely no coincidence that the Irish State has long ignored regulating the fertility treatment industry and that the ratification of the Hague Convention was allowed to go through without finalised bilateral agreements with compliant countries. You only have to look at the length of time it took the government to legislate on abortion (the laws only came into effect at the start of this year) to see how much of a stranglehold the Catholic church still has on all areas of reproductive policy. This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to drag on for as long.

But there’s a bigger problem here in Ireland, one that means these issues aren’t even raised most of the time. It’s another reason why trying to remedy your childlessness in Ireland can be an excruciatingly isolating experience and one that’s fundamentally unfair. Ireland might be ostensibly a classless country but it’s one that is brutally divided into the Haves and the Have Nots. All too often the Haves, who are all prosperous enough to be able to throw money at the inconveniences of Irish life, control policy and populate the media. Those who Have Not are left voiceless. They’re not even recognised by the Haves who won’t even look beyond their front door. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing The Red Flag, but the fact that expensive solutions exist for so many problems here, including in the area of reproductive healthcare, and the fact that so many of the people who have the power to change things have the money for these solutions means that no change happens. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of quarters that money in some way equates virtue. When it comes to adoption and fertility treatment it can often feel that if you baulk at the cost you are showing yourself to be unfit parent material.

Researching this post I came across this article for the Mayo News by Michael Commins that absolutely underlines my point. The article describes a public meeting last year, so since the ratification of Hague, with representatives from the only country left open for adoption, Bulgaria, and ARC, at the time the only accredited Irish adoption agency under the new laws. It describes how the meeting descended into chaos after ARC announced a tripling of the cost – with fees at their end of over €16,000. Now I know that the adoption process is a complicated one but that’s a hell of a lot for administrative fees. The change in fees, according to the article, had been agreed with the regulatory board, the Adoption Authority shortly before the meeting. Maybe I’m being naive but how could fees jump by that much? I was shocked by the fees when we first investigated adoption.  We heard many stories of unscrupulous agencies hiking fees at the last minute, leaving couples with an extra bill of tens of thousands of euro. One name in particular kept coming up, I’m not going to share it here without proof but I’ve no reason to doubt the people who told me this. The changes in the law were expected to change all the cowboy behaviour but one has to wonder if they have.

It’s not good enough to just shrug and say well you shouldn’t consider adoption if you can’t afford to raise a child (as someone once said to me). I’d genuinely like to know many parents could afford to have a child if the upfront costs were up to €50,000 – and that’s before you even get to the costs of raising a child. How can placing this burden on new parents be in the best interests of the child? Why have no questions been asked about the costs of adoptions? It really isn’t good enough to say “that’s just what it costs” when those costs are surely causing a major problem to all but the most affluent section of this society.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m completely in favour of what Hague was set up to ensure. Of course adoption should be carried out in the best interests of the child. We are talking about the most vulnerable children across the world. Of course they should be protected. But that’s what adoptive parents want to do – provide a loving, safe home for a child that desperately needs one. We’re not looking for a fashion accessory, something to go with the new living room curtains. Surely those who cannot conceive naturally deserve the right to try for a family just as anyone else does? It will be more difficult, it does touch on a myriad of sensitive issues but it shouldn’t be something that’s restricted on the grounds of affluence. Here in Ireland we’re in danger of assuming that a happy home can’t exist without affluence and that is a dangerous road to go down. We need to start talking about the problems with adoption. The current situation simply does not reflect well on Ireland as a civilised country.

I’m resigned to the fact that if I want to be a mother I will have to leave. I know the clock is ticking on that. It saddens me greatly that the country that I love is forcing me to make this decision but in matters like this Ireland can be a harsh place to live.

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