Writer and Author

Tag: Off the Point (Page 2 of 4)

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!

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!

Whats in a Hashtag?

When my family first moved to Ireland when I was a teenager I was asked by a neighbour “Do you have prayers in your religion?” That was the first time I ever felt I was on the other side of a fence. Even though I had grown up hearing about sectarian attacks in the North and knew the difference between Cavaliers and Roundheads in the English Civil War it had never occurred to me that the church I had gone to as a child belonged on any side of any fence.  It was a place of bells and smells, somewhere that occasionally held jumble sales and children’s parties, somewhere where my less exciting friends hung out.

By the time we moved to Ireland I had gone off the idea of becoming a nun (a week long fad after watching A Nun’s Story and Black Narcissus in quick succession) and pretty much lost interest in religion as a whole. It’s an interest I never particularly regained.  But as I got used to living in the west of Ireland it was a subject I couldn’t quite leave behind.  It was there when my school was selected. It was there on the doorstep when I moved north to college in Belfast.  It was in the countless  jokes I shared with friends over the years – measuring differentness be it remembered kids’ shows (me Bagpuss & Saturday Swapshop, them Bosco & Wanderly Wagon), pub snacks (me salt & vinegar crisps or dry roasted peanuts, them Tayto or King).  Even though none of us went to any kind of church from one end of the year to the next we all knew which tribe we belonged to for that game at least.

The thing about the religion question was that it always did and always will underline differences.  It builds a them and an us and running under “them” and “us” is usually a current of entitlement. Heirs to the kingdom and all that.  But surely now the kingdom is up to it’s armpits in mortgage arrears and we are all apparently up a proverbial creek without propulsion “them” and “us” should be put aside.

This morning on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE’s 2FM there was a light hearted discussion about how to spot an Irish protestant.  As frequently happens these days with light hearted radio discussions it came with a Twitter hashtag.  Everyone had lashings of fun pointing out those differences (including at least one physiological one concerning optical distance).  There was no harm done, no offence taken and no malice meant…well mostly.  Tubridy addressed the negative comments beginning to clutter up the Twitter stream as belonging to a po-faced minority and advised them to turn off and listen to something else.

There it was again, the Them and Us.  They can’t take a joke.

The problem is that perhaps encouraging a large group of people to itemise how they differ from another large group isn’t very funny.  It’s not really something that encourages empathy and understanding.  Pointing and laughing at another peer group wouldn’t be funny if that group was made up of gay men, or black families, or Jews or Muslims.  Everyone knows this.  There would never be a slot on how to spot an Irish Jew or How Good’s Your Gaydar?  We’re all the children of the PC 80s in one way or another.  We are so careful not to offend.

And what was there to offend about the Irish Protestant slot? It was all meant as a bit of a joke.  Why am I even writing about it –I’m not even in the group being (gently) slagged?  The problem is that it encourages Them and Us thinking.  Ireland’s come a long way in terms of tolerance as last weekends Dublin Pride proved.  We no longer send unmarried mothers into slave labour in the Magdalene Laundries or turn round to stare at an African on the street.

But racism and sexism and sectarianism haven’t gone away, you know, and they won’t while Them and Us is the default joke position.  It might mean being a little po-faced once in a while but surely tolerance and empathy are worth the hassle?  There’ll always be forms of tribalism in society, but couldn’t we just leave it on the pitch?  We should be looking for similarities not differences and not pointing and laughing at the other side.

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.

I’m Not Leaving Either

It’s been a grim week for Ireland but the dissenting voices are growing.  Yes the government and the bankers have brought the country to their knees and thousands will flee to warmer more solvent countries but more and more people are saying why they will be staying.

Staying to see the worst through, to see the government fall, the economy collapse but staying because now there is a genuine opportunity to change.  It started small a few days ago.  A Twitter meme under the hashtag imnotleaving started to spread through the midday babble.

Then Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, editor of the Cork Independent wrote this on The Antiroom blog.  Inspired by her words author Charlie Connelly, whose latest book Our Man in Hibernia details his first year in Ireland at the end of the boom wrote this.

Well at the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, I’m not leaving either.  I moved to Ireland with my family more than 20 years ago.  This is my home, where I really grew up and where I always come back to.  I met my husband here, made a home here, got the opportunity to do what I always dreamed of doing here.  I have dear friends, valued colleagues and a country and a way of life I love.  This is my country now and there is no way in hell I’m leaving now.

Ireland has the capacity to be such an incredible country.  There seem to be two dominant personality types here perennially fighting for the upper hand.  There’s the brilliant, stubborn, creative, impossible bollox who can charm and infuriate in equal parts but has the capacity to really change the way people think.  The great egalitarian, the one who will refuse to bow to anyone and whose attitude when their back is against the wall and the chips are down is “Ah Feck It”, a refusal to be beaten.  This is the character that has brought so many Irish to the tops of their fields, that creates those flashes of brilliance, an ability to create new ways of thinking and to buck the trends.

Then there’s the other one.  The sleeveen, the cute hoor.  A character identified by a slavish obsequiousness, a blind assimilation of a set of ideas and values.  This is the character of the middle manager, the combination of a lack of real ability and a ruthless ambition to feather their own nest.  These two characters have appeared throughout Irish history.  There were the free thinkers who could have built a shining new republic, and the priest ridden, conservatives who wanted nothing more than jobs for the boys.

We’ve allowed the sleeveen free reign for far too long.  It’s time now for a new start with the better character.  We need those flashes of brilliance, that lateral thinking, the guts, the drive and the creativity to raise Ireland up out of the mess it’s got itself into.  It’s here.  It never went away.  I just hope people will realise that it’s not change that’s the scary thing, it’s staying with the status quo that got us into this mess.  It’s time to see the best of the Irish.  I’m going to be sticking around to see that happen.

Welcome to the Asylum

I’m going to step away from my normal subject matter for once today.  You’d have to have been living in a hole on the dark side of an utterly deserted island to have missed the fact that Ireland is, not to put too fine a point on it, financially up the creek.

Photo by Michael Stamp

It’s hard to avoid the news that the IMF have hit town and are not even going to lay a wreath on the grave of the Celtic Tiger.  We’ve had the boom times and are now facing the bust.

I don’t write about the economy.  The only stories I cover tend to be the ones that are sparked by the money running out.  Even though both my books are about millionaires, when you’re writing about murder, even a farcical quasi attempt at one, money is never anything more than set dressing.  Death is the same whether it takes place in leafy suburbia or in a squat. It’s egalitarian that way.

But it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Ireland at the moment.  Ireland’s party is over and the hangover has hit.  We’re left with a shambles of a government and a lot of lessons still to be learnt.  Ireland is the teenager with Europe, caught running up the phone bill and about to be denied car privileges for the foreseeable future.  The recession we’re in the middle of has hit the world but it’s knocked us for six.  Suddenly we discover that when the money was there the bills weren’t paid and the debt collectors are knocking on the door.

But what brought us to this point after so many years of prosperity? Why were the health and education systems left to fall into disrepair while the population bought holiday homes in far flung places and patio heaters bristled in every back yard?  When I think about the situation this beautiful country has got itself into my heart bleeds.  The situation we’ve found ourselves in has a feeling of inevitability and that’s not just because the party went on too long and we all succumbed to a national orgy of excess.  The problems have been there for almost as long as the republic.

Right from the start the writing was perhaps on the wall.  A health service funded by an illegal gambling operation for example.  The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes were famous for a flutter across the world and Ireland ended up with an enviable network of hospitals across the country.  Now those hospitals are closing or scaled down one by one.  The Sweepstakes themselves ended up in a sad little scandal as it was discovered that even when the cause was a noble one corruption wasn’t far behind.

I remember listening to an episode of the old BBC radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.  The show starred John Cleese and The Goodies, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. In an episode from the 60s which involved a skit about a trip to Ireland they made a crack about finding the Irish Government sitting in a woodland glade with brown paper bags full of money.  Now before all my Irish readers jump on me for referencing an Irish joke by a British show I’ll point out that it’s the subject matter of the joke I’m interested in here. The brown paper envelopes in the 60s…so reminiscent of the one businessman Ben Dunne handed former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, eliciting the now immortal response “Thanks a million big fella” back in 1991.

Then there’s the offshore gas deposits that would provide enough money to give Ireland a very nice little nest egg indeed.  But they were sold off to Shell by Minister Ray Burke (who’s since been jailed for corruption in other, unrelated, matters) in the late 1980s.

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the government (who for most of the independence of the State have comprised of Fianna Fail, with or without a minor coalition partner) have plundered the country for every cent they could get while investing as little as possible of the country’s money into the services that make a functioning economy.  The observer could very well have a mental image of a robbery interrupted.  As the lights come on in a bare wood panelled room the black clad robbers are stuffing as much loot into their pockets as they can before the cops arrive.  There’s a filing cabinet overflowing with rifled papers, some of which are smouldering in the empty grate.  When the cops do arrive our robbers fall back on tried and tested denials.  “It wasn’t me Gov, no one saw me do it.  You can’t prove nothing.”

Of course I’m not the casual observer.  I live here and work here.  It’s hard to build a fantasy scenario when you’re afraid of how much the looming budget is going to dig into your pay packet.  Something really fundamental’s going to have to change here if things are going to get better and stay better.  Ireland is a wonderful country, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  But it’s been run into the ground by a load of people who shouldn’t have been let near a business let alone a whole country. For a republic that was born out of so much idealism it’s heartbreaking to see it brought so low.  Greed and ineptitude has won out and now all that’s left is to pick up the shattered pieces.  Let’s hope something better rises out of the wreckage and Ireland can learn from past mistakes.

A Matter of Credibility

If you’re Irish the last 24 hours will have had you cringing.  Not one but two government ministers have made international headlines in ways that can only bring embarrassment to the country as a whole.  One of them would have been bad enough but two in such quick succession does nothing to disprove any stereotypes that Ireland has been trying to escape for years.

If you haven’t been following the news or if you’re not Irish and are wondering what the hell I’m talking about it all started yesterday evening when the news broke that Minister for Science Conor Lenihan was to launch a self published book by a constituent which aims to debunk the theory of evolution.

The story had been buzzing around cyberspace for a couple of months but as the launch neared it gained critical mass and went well and truly viral.  The subject was being discussed on two popular Irish forums, Politics.ie and Boards.ie then it found it’s way onto Twitter.  As tends to happen, this sent the story into the stratosphere.  Before long the story had been picked up by high profile tweeters like Ben Goldacre, the science writer and Guardian columnist.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/bengoldacre/status/24424753852[/tweeted]

Dara O’Briain, the comedian and broadcaster also chimed in.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/daraobriain/status/24415254156[/tweeted]

Then the story got picked up by the traditional media appearing on the evening news on both RTE and the BBC.  Conor Lenihan appeared on RTE’s 9 o’clock news completely unrepentant.  He said he didn’t see a problem with the launch as the author, John J. May, was a constituent and a friend.  His name disappeared off the launch flyer on Mr May’s website.  Then this morning the Irish Times announced that Lenihan had pulled out of the launch.

This is John J. May.  This is the man who Conor Lenihan was willing to hold himself up to public ridicule for.  Many, many years ago I worked for John May.  He ran a company called The Day You Were Born.  The name kind of gives it away.  For a small fee you could get a piece of paper with information about the day you were born.  You know the kind of thing – that day’s headlines, sports results, what was in the chart.  You can still get that kind of thing now but back then, in the early 90s it was a reasonably new idea.

My job was to get the headlines.  I spent some very happy weeks in the Reading Room of the National Library going through microfilms picking headlines for each day in a certain year.  I still remember some of the news stories I found during that time.  The broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the World, as covered by the Irish Times, or the reading in the Abbey of one of Yeat’s plays when he had engaged with a heckler about the merits of his writing.  I was there the day Charlie Haughey walked out of Leinster House for the last time.  I had been listening to the radio knowing something was imminent and lead a mass walkout as we all left our books and ran downstairs to watch the doleful procession leave Leinster House, ignoring our pale faces pressed up against the wire that separates the Dail from the Library.

There were a group of us working for May. Every couple of weeks, it might have been once a month, we all met up in a pub in Clondalkin where he would brief us and hand out the pay cheques.  We all thought him a little odd but we all needed the work  so no one wanted to rock the boat.  It was definitely one of the odder jobs I have had.

Years later I ran into May again.  I was getting work experience in special interest station Anna Livia FM and May turned up as a funding guru with radio experience.  Rumour had it he had run a pirate station in the 80s that had been based around where the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre is now.

John May always seemed in those days to be a bit of a Flash Harry character.  I’m not by any means suggesting that he did anything untoward, just that he was a man who always had an eye for a fast buck and was enthusiastic and diligent in getting it.  I had heard something about affiliations with some kind of Christian group but don’t know any details about that.

The way he is pushing this book of his is no deviation from type.  He’s a pushy, fast talking person and it doesn’t surprise me that he would manage to pull off a coup like this, guaranteeing his tome will get world wide publicity and will undoubtedly sell more than it would otherwise.

It doesn’t surprise me that he would end up in the middle of something like this but what does surprise me is why a government minister would get involved.  It doesn’t really matter if Conor Lenihan goes along to tomorrow’s Gorillas and Girls launch party in Buswells Hotel.  What does matter is the fact that he agreed to it in the first place.

He might think that he was going in a personal capacity but he is a government minister with special responsibility for science and the book is anti evolution.  What exactly did he think was going to happen.  Surely if John May is a friend of his he would know that May would make sure the launch got as much publicity as possible.  It’s years since I’ve seen the man and even I could figure that one out.  The problem the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that in cases like this there is no “personal capacity”.  If in his personal life he is a rabid creationist, say, he should not be the man standing as a figurehead to promote and champion Irish science. If he can’t understand this surely at the very least his political acumen should be severely in doubt?

The Lenihan debacle was bad enough but this morning another embarrassing story broke, this time centring around the Taoiseach himself, Brian Cowen. This morning Brian Cowen appeared on Morning Ireland, the main breakfast news programme in the country.  It was a pre arranged interview.  The Fianna Fail party, his party, were having their yearly think in down in Galway before the Dail resumes sitting next month after the summer break.

You would have to have spent the last year or so on another planet not to have heard of the spectacular crash and burn that has been the Irish economy.  Things have been bad for a while now and this December’s Budget is likely to be a particularly tough one.  You always know things are bad when the media start over using the word “swingeing” when talking about funding.

Cowen’s appearance on radio to talk about the economy isn’t so very unusual in these trying times but this morning something about his voice on air and the way he bumbled through some of his answers provoked a fairly speedy response.  Opposition politician, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney got the ball rolling.

[tweeted]http://twitter.com/simoncoveney/status/24458595143[/tweeted]

When Cowen got off air he was approached by the waiting media in Galway.  TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked him if he was in fact hung over after a late night, a fact he spiritedly denied.  But by then it was too late.  Once again the story had leapt from Twitter into the waiting arms of the International media.  As I write this the story of the question and Cowen’s denial has made it onto the BBC news.  It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and has been picked up websites in South Africa and India.  It’ll probably keep growing.

Throughout the day those who were in the bar of the Ardilaun Hotel near Salthill in Galway last night, where the Fianna Fail party and attendant political correspondents are staying, came forward with stories of what went on last night.  Stories of late night sessions abounded, but whether or not anyone breaks ranks to give a full blow by blow account remains to be seen.  In the end only those who were there on the night will know exactly who was there and what went on but again, it’s not really important.

On Liveline this afternoon, members of the public were queuing up to give their support to the beleaguered leader.  Everybody deserves time to unwind, they said.  Give the guy a break.  We all like to think our politicians are human, Ireland perhaps embraces such displays of human frailty more than most.  Maybe this was why Bill Clinton decided to wait until he was on a visit to Dublin to apologise from his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  But there’s a big difference between Brian Cowen and Bill Clinton in this regard.  Clinton was leading another country.  He was a visitor and his admission put us in the glare of international media.

Brian Cowen is leading this country and he’s not accused of playing around with an intern.  The suggestion is that he was unprofessional enough to stay up so late he was groggy and hoarse the next morning when he knew he had an interview on one of the most listened to shows in the country, his country.  He’s the guy in charge.  He doesn’t get to play with the rank and file.  He has the ultimate responsiblity for steering this sinking ship and, at a time when decisions are being made about how much the country is going to suffer in the forthcoming Budget, surely coming on air sounding, at best tired and disinterested, at worst hung over, is not the way to instill confidence.

Once again if he can’t understand why appearances are important now, why having credibility as someone who’s holding the reigns is vital.  If you were working in a company and had heard rumours of redundancies and pay cuts how would you feel if you came into work to a boss who was unshaven, sweating and looked like they were wearing last night’s clothes.  I’ve no idea what Cowen was wearing on the radio this morning, he could have even been in his pyjamas, but he sounded as if he was wearing last night’s suit.

What both incidents in the past 24 hours have shown is that there are people in Fianna Fail, who are the majority partner in our coalition government, who do not understand that the job they are doing has a lot to do with appearances.  You keep up appearances to keep people’s confidence – not just the voters but also the world outside.  All these two stories have done is give a picture of a country that is floundering, one that is a joke.  A country that has no leadership.

It’s that that makes me embarrassed to be Irish today.  I hope it embarrasses those at the centre of the stories as much.

Tools of the Trade

Today I’m writing in praise of fountain pens.  It might sound a rather perverse eulogy about an irrelevant luxury but my fascination has a far more practical root.  I use them every day and they’re as much a part of my kit as my laptop and my shorthand notebook.

I’ve used fountain pens pretty much all my life.  I went to one of those schools where they were considered to have magical properties developing the handwriting of small children.  If we used our fountain pens (cheap plastic Stypens with washable blue ink and only that) our handwriting would exhibit such exquisite regularity and grace that anyone reading it would be totally at our mercy…or something.

I bought into the hype but as a lefthander I had  to endure years of ink stains and smudged pages with no sign of this miraculous calligraphy we had been promised.  I got the hang of it eventually though and could write pages at a time where the nib didn’t gouge a hole in the paper or the ink sputter little blue raindrops all over my science homework.  I actually got to like the feeling of the nib gliding across the page and my hand never cramped with a fountain pen the way it would with those evil scratchy biros that were the only cheap option before the advent of gel pens.

One of the first things I bought when I left home was a proper grown up fountain pen, a black and gold affair to replace the sugar pink Waterman I had been using up till then.  When I got my first job as a journalist I went out and got a grown up Waterman for more money than I’d even spent on a pair of shoes.  But as I got into the job the pen ended up sidelined for anything other than a brief note or my signature.  I started typing everything and my speeds increased until the words seemed to magically appear on the page almost as fast as I had thought them.  The only time the pen got taken out of it’s leather case was to write Christmas cards and each year I noticed how far my handwriting was slipping from the graceful loops we were taught to aspire to in school.

But there are times when the clack clatter of the keyboard seems a little bit too aggressive.  Those times when an idea is taking its time in forming and the blinking of the cursor becomes a blink of accusation that taps out it’s taunts in a staccato rhythm.  When there’s no deadline looming and there’s time to indulge such thoughts something a little more sensuous is in order.

I recently went on a bit of a quest to find a pen that I could write with as smoothly as I can type.  Something that would glide over the page so smoothly and sit in my hand so neatly it was just an extension of my arm.  A pen that would allow the hand to form the curves of the word and smoothly as the fingers tap out the qwerty code to put thoughts on the page.

The magical pen is apparently an Esterbrook.

.Esterbrook pen ad

These little pens were the Volkswagen Beetle of the pen world, manufactured in their millions by the American company Esterbrook from around the Second World war.  They’re so common they can be found cheaply on EBay and they clean up to look as if they were made yesterday.

I use an SJ, like the green pen in the advert, smaller and thinner than the standard J model.  It was  made sometime in the 1950s.  It’s light and sits perfectly in the crook of my hand.  But the best thing is the nib.  You can change the nib on an Estie and the choice of alternatives is vast.  I can get a nib designed for shorthand or one that will give my writing the look of a thin ribbon on the page as the line widens and contracts according to the direction of the stroke.

But the best thing about using a vintage pen is the history.  I have no idea who owned my little pens before me; whether it was the pen of a school child trying to master that elegant penmanship I could never get the hang of in school; or maybe a secretary whose shorthand would surely have put mine to shame as she took dictation in a Mad Men pencil skirt and figure hugging sweater.  Maybe it belonged to a writer or a journalist doing what I do long before I was born.

Using a pen like that makes a blank page an invitation not a challenge and these days my handwriting’s no longer looking like it was the work of a drunken spider.  It can coax out tentative ideas when the clock’s not ticking and best of all does not need a nearby power supply like my laptop.  I’ve some time between trials and I’m looking forward to blocking out some new ideas with my little pens.  Most of the time the tools of my trade are the latest gadgets, netbooks, flash drive recorders, social networking and all that jazz.  Sometimes it’s nice to get back to basics.  It really is a nicer way to work.

Broadcasting from the Water Cooler?

Twitter’s got itself in the news again this weekend. Once again people have had cause to realise what a powerful tool for the dissemination of information the social networking site is.  At this stage Twitter has become mainstream and yet it’s still new enough that the issues it raises – the reliability of it as a source, the ethics of news breaking so quickly, the awesome power of this brand new form of broadcasting – are still to be hammered out satisfactorily.

The latest thing to throw the spotlight on the little blue bird is of course the way that the death of Gerry Ryan, one of Ireland’s foremost figures of broadcasting, spread like wildfire even before the news had been officially confirmed.

In fairness there’s always been a way of doing these things. Stories have to be confirmed before they’re made public and I can still vividly remember spending a very late night as a journalism student watching the Sky newsreader struggle not to break the news of Princess Diana’s death.  We had happened across the story quite early on, when it was still a serious car accident in Paris involving a man and a woman. Even with those meagre details it was obvious from the prominence the story was being given that someone very well known had been in the crash and we decided to stay with the story.

Eventually they confirmed the fact that it was Diana but it was a considerable time before they confirmed she was dead.  I remember watching the newsreader’s face crumble for a split second as the early confirmation came in his ear but he carried on for more than half an hour before he could share the news with his audience.

Twitter is as ever present as those 24 hour news bulletins but it’s far more anarchic in the way it operates. It’s not treated as the on air studio, it’s more the office water cooler.  People go there to vent and to comment and to enjoy a freedom that isn’t normally available to working journalists outside the ranks of colleagues who physically share the scene. Maybe we shouldn’t think of it that way but we do, that’s just the way it works.

Journalists are naturally gossipy creatures and it ‘s the most natural thing in the world for us to want to share what we know around the water cooler.  But with Twitter the water cooler has moved into that on air studio and broadcasting has become open to everyone.  There’s a very good reason for that bright red ON AIR light in any studio. It reminds us that people are listening.  With Twitter there’s no red light and sometimes people are going to forget.  It’s natural and it’s human nature.

There are good reasons why news organisations hold back on reporting deaths.  The main one is to allow the family the basic human dignity of hearing the news directly.  It’s brutal enough when news like that is broken by the arrival of sympathetic gardai, to hear it at the same time of hundreds of thousands of other people is just too cruel. However, when the death is as high profile as that of Gerry Ryan journalistic instincts can over ride caution.  It’s hard to describe what it means to break a story if you’re not a journalist but it’s such an intrinsic part of the job it becomes an almost physical urge that goes beyond merely doing the job you’re paid for. It’s the heart of what we do and that race to the finish can be – I hesitate to say addictive because I don’t want to be taken up wrong but it’s probably the best word for that feeling.

Twitter is the kind of place where you want to share a story that big. The first journalist to really break the news was Sunday Business Post journalist Adrian Weckler, he’s written about what happened on his blog here.  There are a lot of Irish journos on Twitter these days and everyone jumped on the story.  As the details emerged the debate was already raging about whether Weckler had been right to confirm the details before there had been any official confirmation.  Una Mullally, writing in the Sunday Tribune, has written about what happened and she goes into far more detail than I’m going to.  I know that the news broke where I was, in court, through Twitter but I was late to the story and didn’t get involved.

This isn’t the first time Irish media news has broken on Twitter.  When the INN news agency took the decision to close last year Twitter somehow got the story before the journalists were informed they were about to lose their jobs.  The news spread from Twitter into the mainstream media, just as it did on Friday, and staff listening to the news while they waited for a meeting with management to start, first heard they were out on their ears.

Journalism as we know it is changing rapidly. It’s easy to forget how loud a megaphone Twitter gives you.  I’ve been an active user of Twitter for well over a year and I’ve made friends and contacts there I would have found it very difficult to find anywhere else.  I’m fairly evangelistic about it, I tweet trials and during the recent Eamonn Lillis trial earlier this year that live tweeting really came into it’s own.  I was tweeting from my personal account and being listened to by people in so many different newsrooms not to mention the general public.  It makes you realise that Twitter is more than just a social tool.  It’s a very powerful broadcasting medium.

Now I’m no longer the only journalist tweeting updates from the trials I cover and it’s only a matter of time before the subject comes up for debate within the courtroom. Social media is raising brand new questions about the nature of broadcasting and how journalism is done and some day it’ll need to be discussed properly and ruled on. But I’m not going into the whole issue of live blogging and tweeting in courtrooms. Another time maybe.

What it all boils down to is that the old journalistic adage “If in doubt leave it out”.  If you put out news on Twitter it WILL spread.  If you’re not willing to stand by what you said or have any doubt about it’s veracity don’t Tweet it.  Most of us would do that anyway but there are times on Twitter when you know that your information is solid and you’re left with the decision of whether to share it.

Since we all became our own publishers these questions have become a lot more pressing.  It’s going to be a while before they are all hammered out and even when the talking’s all been done it remains to be seen whether news will ever go back to being something that could be easily embargoed by tacit agreement.  We’re going to see a lot more leaks like this, it’s simply the nature of the beast.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2021 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑