Writer and Author

Tag: About Me (Page 2 of 5)

It Really Isn’t the End of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All In A Scent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Back into the Swing

I haven’t posted here for several months – in fact I haven’t written anything anywhere much since November. There’s a reason for that. In mid-November I got word that my mother was terminally ill. By the end of the month she was dead.

I’ve wandered through the past two months in a bit of a daze. When a parent dies suddenly it blows everything sky high. Every day for the past month and a half I’ve feeling around on the floor for the shattered pieces and trying to put everything back as it was. It’s not done yet, still the same bomb site, but at least now things are ordered enough to start to write them down.

As long as I can remember I’ve dealt with the world by turning it into words on a page. I’ve kept diaries, written stories, blogged about the way I see the world. When something hurts, even when something shatters, I’ll start thinking of ways to turn it into words. This happens with the good things two but I mainly write about pretty dark subjects so it’s the dark stuff that tends to get used first. The problem is that when it’s not dark, when it’s just red raw and seeping pain, then the words won’t come.  That’s the way it’s been. That’s finally the way it’s not any more.

My mother was a complicated woman.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved her deeply, but she could be a hard woman to live up to. She was an actress.  The kind of woman who could light up a room with her entrance. She was larger than life, funny, fiercely loyal and ever so slightly crazy. Talking to family over Christmas there were stories of late night dinners, dramatic flourishes and lots of laughter. Looking over old photos I see a vibrant woman, demonstrative and striking, commanding the centre of every photograph.

I remember her singing Summertime to me at bedtime, or reading me The Hobbit and having me in stitches doing Bilbo with a cold being invited to parties – “Thangk you very buch!”  I remember the dolls house she made me out of a cardboard box with the double bed in the master bedroom made out of a moulded piece of polystyrene packing with a lilac Kleenex valance. I remember her sticking up for me when I was being bullied at school.

If my mother had a defining fault it was probably that she loved too fiercely.  It was her love that made me the person I am today but I think in a way it also broke her.  When my dad died suddenly when I was a baby it hit her so deeply I don’t think she ever really recovered. Every year in mid December, around the anniversary of that dreadful day when she opened the door to two policemen, she would feel all the world’s sharp edges. Even though she had a second marriage, another chance at a love of her life, I don’t think the pain ever really went away.

In the days and months after that awful day. When life slowly got back to normal and the family home was emptier than it should have been, she did what she could to numb the pain. But over time the crutch fused and became an extra limb.

My mum was an actress of a certain generation. Gregarious socialising goes with the territory.  It’s much the same with journalism and writing too for that matter.  But alcohol can be a treacherous friend and will all too easily lead you into trouble.  If you start to trust it it will trip you up. And my poor mother fell.

I wouldn’t wish liver failure on anyone. It’s a brutal way to go. But that’s what happened to the beautiful, warm, daft, clever, woman I remember so well. The last time I saw her, just before the end, I could see that dear nutcase in her still luminous brown eyes. By that stage she was hearing Welsh in a Leitrim hospital ward, and seeing the mountains of her North Wales childhood out of the window but as she squeezed my hand she knew me and lamented the fact we didn’t share books the way we used to.

So that’s why I haven’t been writing much recently. But slowly it’s coming back. Life continues and the world keeps turning and there are stories still to be told.

 

Tani Bentis

My mother Tani Bentis

Tani Bentis RIP  1941 – 2011

The Right to Vote

Today Ireland is going to the polls.  By the weekend we’ll have a new President, a new West Dublin TD and, possibly, two changes to the constitution. Since I don’t live in West Dublin, I got to vote in three ballots.  Five years ago I wouldn’t have got to vote in any.

I became an Irish citizen in 2006. One of the reasons I decided to finally take the plunge was because I was sick of feeling like an observer in the country I am happy and proud to call my home.  We have a lot of referendums in Ireland.  It’s something of a national sport.  Since I hit voting age there have been 18 ballots, on both national and European matters that can have a direct bearing on life in this country.  Today’s vote makes it 20.  I remember the feeling of frustration not being able to have a say in votes on divorce, abortion (twice), the death penalty or the right to citizenship. Subjects that were hotly debated every time friends met for a pint or colleagues stopped for a cuppa.  To have thrashed through the issues, teased out the pros and cons, argued the toss, then watched as all my friends headed for the ballot boxes.

Not every referendum is on a “sexy” subject of course.  Not every one will get pulses raised and beer slopped on tables in excited pub conversations.  Some of them are overdue housekeeping, others are labyrinthine pieces of European legislation, but here in Ireland you can usually find someone willing to argue the toss.  Failing any other argument, there will usually be some vociferous contingent who fear that X or Y change will sneak abortion in by the back door.  Not all of them will have a direct bearing on the way you or I personally lead our lives but all of them are important.  It’s not much of a democracy if people are denied a voice but it’s even worse if those that have a voice refuse to use it.

Take today’s votes.  For most of the month long lead in to this vote the focus has been on the circus that was the campaign for our next president.  It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that attention has shifted to the two referendums we also have a say in.  On the face of it these are two of the not-so-sexy subjects, it’ll be interesting to see the voter turn out.  But these are important votes.  One of them is concerned with whether or not judges can have pay cuts.  In these straightened times it sounds like a no brainer.  The Yes Campaign would argue that anyway.  Under the current constitution a judge’s pay cannot be cut while he or she is in office.  The amendment will allow for cuts to be made in line with other public servants.  The problem I have with it personally is that the new wording is as vague as hell.  The third section of the amendment should be punished for crimes against language. But it’s late in the day for arguments – I’ll leave that to Dearbhail McDonald of the Irish Independent.

The problem with both the ballots today is that people are likely to vote with a jerk of the knee towards crooked bankers and ivory tower fat cats.  Fair targets perhaps but there’s a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.  I’m pretty sure the government were just as eager to see wrongs righted when they drew up these amendments but slinging a load of legalese into the mix, giving it a quick stir by way of debate and tossing it towards the populous for deliberation is all a bit slapdash.  The problem with slapdash is that it can have unforeseen consequences.  I’ve seen the effects of the unforeseen consequence in the day job.  I doubt very much whether those who drew up the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act in 2009 to deal with the threat of criminal gangs foresee that the Act would get one of it’s first airings in court at the collapse of a trial of four men accused of killing a young mother and burning her body.  The trial of those accused of killing Rebecca French collapsed because of confusion over wording. This might be an extreme consequence but it’s a stark reminder why clear wording matters. Legal language might look vague but that’s frequently because it’s over precise.  Too much space for interpretation means years getting clarification through case law and is too open to abuse.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt strongly about the result of a referendum but it’s the first time I’ve been able to act on that conviction. I incorrectly said on Twitter earlier that these were my first referendums. I’ve voted twice before, both for the same thing (Irish governments have had a tendency to keep asking questions until they got the answer they were looking for) but the Lisbon Treaty, important as Europe is, felt like a far more academic exercise.  Today is about having a say in Ireland, not Europe.  This is about having a say in the constitution that grew out of de Valera’s 1937 Bunreacht na hEireann, the document that crystallised the idea of a new sovereign state into a set of rules and guidelines. 

The Divorce Referendum in 1995 was the last time the vote went over 60%.  That means that more than 40% of the voting public couldn’t be bothered to have a say in their country.  That makes me angry. It’s always a yes/no answer, do you or don’t you?  This is why there should be debate, why there should be full and detailed explanations on ALL the arguments.  It’s no longer up to the Referendum Commission to provide the arguments but it should be a civic responsibility to find out as well.  It doesn’t matter how disenchanted you feel with the way things are or who’s running the show, things will never change unless people use their voice.  I waited long enough to get mine. I will always use it.

How to be a Good Wife

 

A 1950s housewife

Every day we’re bombarded with advice on how to be perfect.  Whether it’s the magic cream that will keep you young or the latest newspaper column on how to garden, how to cook, what gadgets will elevate your life onto a plane of Zen-like calm as the minutiae of life are sifted into ever smaller boxes, there are always voices feeding our insecurities with the promise that if you could only follow these three simple rules life will flow like it does on the movies.  With money tight and time even tighter it’s hardly surprising we feel like we’re floundering, but take heart.  We’re not the first generation to feel swamped by the image of the perfect home, perfect life.  It didn’t kick off in the 50s either whatever you might think from watching Mad Men. It goes much, much further than that!

At the climax of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew Kate instructs her sister and step-mother with her newly hard won wisdom.  “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled” she scolds “muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; and while it is so none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.”  She could almost be selling the latest anti aging miracle potion.

Next week an 18th Century guide to how to cut it in the modern world will go under the hammer.  The Lady’s Companion  with the snappy subtitle An Infallible Guide to the Fairer Sex,  was pitched as essential reading for “virgins, wives or widows”.  So dogmatic, so L’Oreal.

My own interest in the impossible dream started when aspirations to domestic nirvana were limited to singing along to Somewhere That’s Green from The Little Shop of Horrors.  It was the early 1990s and I was living in a bedsit in Rathmines that was straight out of Rising Damp.  The wiring was certainly straight out of the 70s – ah the heady days before landlord registration! So the 70s edition Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopaedia seemed like an essential reference when I found it on the dusty lower shelf of a second hand bookshop.  It was only when I got it home I discovered the wealth of information about stain removal and household budgets.  In those days I tended to skip the bits about how to cater dinner parties and look your most alluring with a gin & tonic when your husband came home from a hard day at the office.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s surrounded by strong women, many of whom were going it alone I never doubted that I would build a career.  There was never any suggestion that happiness was in any way contingent on a well appointed kitchen or, come to that, a man.  By the time I reached my teens and my 20s I saw the perfectly rouged, high-heeled beauties in the “House Wife” manual as nothing more than Stepford Wives, enemies almost, who were very definitely letting the side down.

My stance softened when I met The Husband.  I seized the idea of building a warm and inviting nest with both hands, consumed with the urge to build a glowing, sweet-smelling home just for just us two.  I bought an apron and matching saucepans.  I learnt to make cupcakes and bread.  I was never going to be a kitchen goddess – the keyboard will always have more of a lure than the kitchen – but suddenly I could kind of see the point.  It was in the euphoria of early married life that my little collection of “Good Wife” manuals took shape.  Even when newsroom shifts meant I was living off M&S microwave meals for one I would look at the colour plates in these books and marvel at the spotless kitchens and gargantuan cleaning schedules.

The earliest book I have is the didactically titled Book of Good Housekeeping published by the Good Housekeeping sometime in the 1950s.   “The modern housewife”, the introduction informs, “has to combine many functions with those of mistress of her house; she will almost certainly do her own shopping and cooking, and probably a good part of the household washing and cleaning; more and more she is her own interior decorator, handywoman and often gardener…Even with the willing help of the “man about the house”, the average housewife today leads a very full life.”  The book covers everything from balancing the household budget to plumbing and beauty (all vanishing cream and makeup that looks it’s best from the other side of the room).

The schedule for housework alone provides a full working week and the requirement for table linen (2-3 table cloths, 2-3 breakfast cloths AND 2-3 afternoon tea cloths) means life would be a never ending cycle of table laying.  But despite the frankly terrifying standards you’re supposed to aspire to there’s something comforting about the photographs of primary coloured kitchens and living rooms.  For all the fish knives and grapefruit spoons, the book makes ideal home perfection look attainable – even if it is a full time job.

Then there’s Frankly Feminine published in England in 1972.  Times have changed and it’s no longer enough to match your lipstick to your suit colour (or to dress up when doing the housework for that matter).  The book starts off with a list of the calories in everyday foodstuff and many pictures of a very supple blonde girl in a red leotard but the housework plan is as strenuous as ever.  As the foreword says “This book has been compiled for today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and her friends.”  “Today’s complete woman” is still going to be spending a hell of a lot of time with table cloths and dinner parties even if the fish knives have now been superseded by fondue sets.

These were the books bought by and bought for brides.  I can all too easily imagine how their calm, dogmatic tone could be tinged with the mother-in-law’s hectoring tones. They set the bar pretty high and, when not viewed as social history, must have seemed like the Stepford rule book.  But I read them from a different world.  I might not come close to their exacting standards but I don’t have to.  I find it comforting not nagging that they break down domesticity into a simple set of rules.  With their diagrams for everything from changing nappies to laying out a kitchen to putting on eye shadow they break down the esoteric secrets of grown up life into a few easy steps.

Generally speaking I restrict my domestic goddess tendencies to Christmas and the very occasional dinner party and you’re a million times more likely to find me sitting at my desk with birds nest hair and ratty pyjamas than turning the mattresses and laying the table for breakfast.  But if I had the spare cash I’d love to bid for the Lady’s Companion…how fascinating to see how the mother-in-laws of the 1740s would given their instructions.

The Sinister Life of The Ciotog

I sprained my thumb recently.  After a couple of weeks with it immobilised I’ve gained a new appreciation of the opposable thumb.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about left handedness.  The injured thumb is firmly attached to my left hand and suddenly I’m back to the level of awkwardness I remember all too well from childhood when I was first learning how to negotiate a world that had been built for the right handed.

Like many left handed people I’m so used to the fact that life is the wrong way round to the extent that I’ve developed a degree of ambidextrosity.  I can use right handed scissors, corkscrews and tin openers with my right hand – even if it will always feel a little bit “wrong”.  But my left hand will always be the dominant one so it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.  Not being able to hold a pen is head wrecking and my poor little Esterbrook SJs have been sitting on the shelf drying out.  Holding a book and turning the pages became a ridiculous struggle and even using the remote control for the TV meant the bloody thing kept leaping out of my hand onto the floor – much to the Husband’s amusement.  Even the things I’m used to doing with my right hand seemed more awkward without the left hand to steady everything. 

So I’ve spent a lot of time dropping things, complaining and pondering the plight of the left handed.  In fairness the left handed thing isn’t a new preoccupation.  It’s a fact of life that comes up on an almost daily basis.  When I’m working in the courts for example, being the only regular left handed court reporter for a long time meant that I was always the one who would get to sit next to the accused when we reporters used to share a bench with them in the Four Courts.  If I didn’t sit on the left end of the row I’d always end up getting elbowed as I tried to take my notes. Then if the case took place in one of the smaller courts on the upper floors, with their cursed seats with the fold out table…I really hate those little flaps, if it’s not me twisting into knots to get my notebook on them and try to write, it was the one beside me grazing my elbow every time I lifted my pen.

The only time being left handed was a positive advantage was when I used to fence.  Sparring with right handed people I had a slight edge as it was harder for them to block me across the body while at the same time I was naturally better covered.  It doesn’t help much when whoever you’re fencing is better than you granted and it’s damned confusing when you come up against another lefty but on the whole it was a plus. 

Statistically left handed people are more likely to be accident prone (I can definitely attest to that one) and we even have a shorter life expectancy than the right handed.  We’re not the ones to ask for directions either as a lot of us have difficulty telling right from left after years of confusion. I could go on ad nauseum but I’ll leave other examples to this excellent site from Dr M.K. Holder of Indiana University.

An estimated 10% of the population are left handed and it can be hard for everyone else to understand what the fuss is about.  We don’t think about the hand we pick things up with or the hand we use to button our clothes.  It’s one of those things that we do instinctively and that’s what makes it so awkward to be programmed to go the other way.  Even social greetings slip easily into farce when the majority lean one way for that air kiss and you dip in the opposite direction.

It’s awkward and all too often the left handed lack of right handed coordination is dismissed as clumsiness, stupidity or even something darker.  The word “sinister” for example means left on the one hand, on the other it’s all Halloween.  The Irish word “ciotóg” meaning left handed person, is all too similar to the Irish word “ciotach” meaning clumsy, but also has echoes of something far wilder – the strange one, touched, perhaps, by the Devil himself.  Certainly when someone calls you a “ciotóg” (pronounced kitogue) it certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment.

Evil spirits were supposed to loiter behind the left shoulder – which is why salt is supposed to be thrown in that direction when it’s spilt and the French believed that witches greeted the Devil with their left hand. Even wearing the wedding ring on the left hand comes from the Greek and Roman practice of wearing rings on that finger to ward off evil spirits.  And it’s not just Europe.  Apparently in Kenya the Meru people believe that the left hand of their holy man is so evil he must keep it hidden.  There’s a lot more in that vein here, from the UK site of Anything Left Handed, who used to have a magical shop in Soho, in London that was my first introduction to things like left handed scissors.

I was lucky though.  At least I was left to be left handed.  So many people, in so many countries were forced to learn to write with their right hand.  Many were left mentally scarred, with speech and even with learning difficulties because of it.  Left handed people were for a long time believed to be rules by the right side of the brain – the intuitive side that’s good at the lateral, creative stuff.  It’s since been found that it’s not quite that simple but there do seem to be quite a few left handed people in the arts – based on my own completely un scientific observations.

I’ve learnt to negotiate the world just fine but the very fact that it’s always my left side that gets injured probably puts the lie to that. Over the years I’ve had a broken arm, broken ankle, sprained wrist, sprained shoulder and the most recent sprained thumb – always on the left. It’s just an extra level of annoyance in day to day life.  Walking down the street with a right handed person there’s always that introductory waltz as I try to walk on their left while they would prefer me on their right for  easy conversation.  Even my all consuming stationary fixation is necessarily tempered by practicality – school years spent with ink stains all up the side of my hand have left me with a preoccupation about quick drying inks and flat opening notebooks.  It’s such a pervasive kink it’s impossible to ignore – even if it’s something I rarely discuss because for 90% of the population these things just aren’t a problem.  That’s just the way it is.

But before I stop I’d like to mention a new entrant to the world of the sinister.  Irish company On the Other Hand have recently launched an Irish left handed shop so if you’re based here in Ireland you can still buy Irish and get left handed scissors and tin openers galore – and the rest.  I’m not connected to them in any way but it’s always nice to see people who understand how irritating the right orientation can be – even if you’re used to it and deal with it just as you’ve always done.

The thumb is now almost better and I’m sure I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days but I’m not going to stop being left handed. We all move through life in our own groove – I’m just more likely to bump into others because I will invariably go the wrong way!

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

In Praise of Luddites

I’m in the Irish Times magazine today. For once I’m not on about murders and mayhem, this time I’m bringing my low tech fixation to a wider audience.  Anna Carey’s piece is looking at the pervasive use of obsolete equipment in the modern world.  Radio star Ryan Tubridy still uses pencils, author Charlie Connelly prefers to let his fingers do the walking with phone books and I’m there extolling the many virtues of my beloved Esterbrooks.

I’ve written about these great little pens before on this blog and, apart from smart phone and netbook, they are the tools I rely on most on a day to day basis.  Using a fountain pen has made my shorthand faster (handy for long legal digressions) and when I’m not court reporting the way the pen glides across the paper does seem to allow the ideas to flow more freely when the writing isn’t flowing as it should.

Mind you, if the truth be told, I’m a closet luddite in more than just my choice of writing equipment.  While I love technology and everything it enables us to do, there are some times when making the switch from digital back to mechanical just seems the obvious thing to do. Apart from my little Esties I also collect old Russian film cameras.  There’s something about working around their many eccentricities to take a decent photograph that can seem so much more rewarding than the cocksure precision of digital photography. Don’t get me wrong.  Digital cameras are great and if I want to make sure I get the shot I want I’ll use one, but the alchemy of the film process seems to infuse the whole photograph with a kind of magic – or maybe that’s just what I say to myself to explain the stripes of the light leaks and the fuzz of my less than accurate manual focusing. 

Using these old film cameras is a completely different experience to digital photography.  When I bring out my 1953 Zorki 3M, people stop and ask about it.  They don’t mind if I point it at them (I’m a purely amateur snapper I hasn’t to add but I’ve always enjoyed street photography) and the whole expedition turns into more of an adventure – even if the shots aren’t as good as the one’s I might bring back from digital outings.

Maybe my clinging to the manual and awkward has a little something to do with my 70s childhood.  Some of my earliest memories revolve around brown outs and power cuts that swept across England in the mid 70s.  It always seemed like a good idea to have access to equipment that didn’t require a power supply and could work in any environment.  Apart from my cameras and my pens I have always kept a manual typewriter handy…well you never know!

Whether the attraction comes from paranoia or nostalgia or just plain practicality I’m not about to upgrade my old school equipment any time soon.  There’s a time and place for technology and then there’s time to do things the old fashioned way. Quite frankly I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Rose and Crown

When I was little the Queen came to visit our school.  The teachers were ecstatic and the other pupils were pre-Christmas type excited. As the day got closer they jostled to be picked to be the one who would give the obligatory posy to her Majesty.  Even back then in those memory misted days I have no recollection of getting excited. 

The school was cleaned from roof to basement and we were handed little plastic union jacks to wave on the day.  I remember they had a hollow black stick with a red pointy button on top that was quite good for poking people in the back with.  I quite liked the plastic flag too. You could see the sky through it and the colours swirled with if you pulled at the plastic enough.  As a symbol of patriotism it meant little or nothing to my five year old sensibilities.  My mum had found  me a Welsh flag to wave instead, the flag of the land of her birth.  It had a wooden handle and was made of a strange shiny fabric that frayed nicely at the end – and it had a dragon on it. There was no comparison.

I remember getting told off when I brought my Welsh dragon into school.  It wasn’t the prescribed Union Jack, which was discarded in a messy corner of my bedroom, it’s red and blue pulled almost white and no longer capable of any satisfactory waving.  There was almost a row over that discarded Union Jack but in the end time was too short and young children had to be wrangled into lines on the side of the road to wave at the royal car.  I ended up standing at the front and waved my dragon like mad as the car drove down the road.  As it neared me it slowed down and a smiling grey haired lady looked out of the open window.  She caught sight of my dragon and waved right at me.  That was the last time I got excited about royalty.

I remember the silver jubilee.  We had a street party and I wore the Welsh national costume (Wales being a bit of a recurring theme in my childhood).  At one stage there was a fancy dress competition and once again I was dressed in my red check skirt and stove pipe hat.  I came second and was momentarily offended at being called a Welsh witch. 

These aren’t particularly unique memories if you grew up in England like I did and when I did.  Most people of my age and geographical upbringing would be able to tell you something similar.  It comes of growing up in a constitutional monarchy. Like most other people we gathered around the family TV set to watch Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles.  It was just another shared point of reference, a marker in the course of our lives.  But we were never particularly royalists.  I remember being taught how to curtsey (possibly for that school visit before the flag debacle) but could never do it without falling over.  There may have been the odd commemorative mug around but shoved in the back of cupboards rather than on display anywhere.

I’m writing this as background because today Queen Elizabeth II came to Ireland.  It’s a historic visit, the first in the history of the state.  There have been protests (small but noisy), a heightened garda presence (big, very big, but on the whole rather quiet) and more metal barriers than you could shake a St Patricks parade at.  There was a wreath laying and a visit to the Book of Kells and the Queen changed her outfit several times.  It’s all very portentous and historic.

This time round I wasn’t waving a Welsh dragon, I didn’t even have a stovepipe hat.  I spent most of the day wandering around a Dublin that looked like the set of a post apocalyptic British film made as a comment on Margaret Thatcher.  Yellow vested gardai were everywhere, as were disgruntled Dubs.  The royal cortege sped down a deserted O’Connell Street while the citizens of Dublin were kept at a very long arms length, at a sufficient distance so that projectiles couldn’t be lobbed, or anti monarchist chants heard, let alone republican banners read from a speeding car.

I’ve no sympathy for the idiots who staged a sit down outside the Conways pub on Parnell Street or the muppets attempting to burn flags down the road in Dorset Street.  They were the kind of rabble that come out of the woodwork any time something like this happens and they’re not representative of the prevailing attitude in Dublin.  I’ve seen enough of the trials that came out of the Love Ulster riots (which were sparked by an Orange March down O’Connell St – which was always going to  be a rather daft idea).  Most of the people charged weren’t republicans at all but unfortunates with no fixed abode who’d come across the placard waving protestors and seized the opportunity to sack and pillage the nearby sports shops.  There’ll probably be something similar over the next day or so.  That’s the way things tend to go in this city.  We have a highly excitable underclass.

What surprises me is how many closet royalists I’ve met in the last few weeks.  There’s been a genuine excitement about this visit that went beyond building bridges, and don’t get me started on the royal wedding hysteria we’ve only just got over.  I’m not expecting everyone to start singing A Nation Once Again but somewhere at the back of my mind was the assumption that the citizens of a republic would be less impressed by a family who gained their status through nothing more than an accident of birth, a life of privilege through a fluke of genetics.  When the Queen visited Trinity College this afternoon she was greeted with a labyrinthine line of people waiting to be presented to her.  It’ll be the same for those invited to the gala concert later this week. I’ve seen people with invites congratulated already on Twitter but I just don’t really get it.  She didn’t do anything to get to be queen.  What is the big deal about shaking her hand?  She can’t actually cure scrofula you know!

I’ve nothing particularly against the British royal family I just don’t really see the point of them.  I certainly don’t see the point of living in a temporary police state for four days while the glitterati of Dublin play high society with an elderly couple who lucked into figure head status across the Irish Sea.  Today’s wreath laying at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square may have been a significant moment in reconciliation between the two countries but the next three days are simply a junket that most of us don’t get to participate in.  There’ll be a lot written about how the acceptance of this visit shows a new maturity for the Irish people.  But wouldn’t it be even more mature to just take it all in our stride and not make such a fuss.  There’ve already been four bomb scares today.  The lockdown of the city is a reaction to a genuine threat from a few bigoted individuals.   Couldn’t these grand gestures have been made in a shorter visit?  One that wouldn’t require the city to be in a constant state of high alert for the best part of a week?  Do we really need to give the monarch of another country such a prolonged junket?  Can’t we just go back to appreciating our new found maturity in peace?

Sad news…

I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living.  When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words.  I still have one of those little books.  It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover.  I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.

I had started to write my first novel when I was 11.  I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out.  There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters!  Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me.  Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.

I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about.  I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day. 

Back in 2008 my first book was published.  A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer.  Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations.  Devil in the Red Dress  is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen.  But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author.  I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.

I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again.  I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true.  The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream.  I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life.  I decided to try and get an agent.  That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.

I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years.  She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching.  I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work.  When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel.  It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon.  After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.

Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future.  She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism.  I’ve never had any illusions about this business.  I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am.  I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.

Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill.  I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.

Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again.  Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support.  I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book.  I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita.  She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer.  I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am.  She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming. 

She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it.  But instead there was a bomb shell.  After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent.  I don’t blame her in the slightest.  I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset.  Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally.  I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other.  I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way.  Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.  The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone.  It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment.  Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable.  I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life.  I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.

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