Picture may not be an accurate representation of current working conditions
I’ve been meaning to start blogging again on a regular basis since February 2017, when I started working on my PhD. The realities of unfunded PhD life have meant that many excellent intentions have stayed sitting in a nice little list in my bullet journal (yes, I have one) and every week when I cross out the things I’ve done and copy the things I haven’t to the next page, it’s pretty much at the top of the list. It’s been on the list for so long that the shape of the words are almost ghosting through the pages as each week’s entry sits above the last. But maybe that emphasis is in my head. It’s between me and the bullet journal anyway.
So what’s changed you might ask? Or maybe not, because these days we’re all working from home, wondering what to do with all the hours we’re not spending on the commute, as a virus sweeps the globe and the supermarket shelves are empty. These are not normal days.
These are days that feel like episode one of the end of the world, That episode where you see people’s lives slowly change, the gradual realisation that this is a set up for our main characters trying to survive against zombies/despots/gangs who commandeer all the food/rapey guy the main female character meets on her travels – delete as appropriate. We’re so familiar with these narratives that they have seeped into our bones, part of our collective imagination. It is downright eerie to see images online of army trucks full over bodies being taken to crematoriums or fistfights in supermarkets over supplies. Still worse when you start hearing stories of general weirdness in your own social networks, when everyone you know, regardless of the country or time zone they are in, are working from home to hide from the virus. As the realisation sinks in that this is serious, that this is one of those events that you will remember for the rest of your life, that generations will be defined by, that time will be measured by, then thoughts turn to marking it.
We save momentos of significant days – weddings, birthdays, first dates. We also save records of events we instinctively know are historic. I have a file of newspaper front pages from days like that at this stage in my life. I started this blog, back in 2008, to write about the court cases I was covering on a daily basis. After a while, I realised that sometimes, if the copy I filed for the agency I was working for at the time wasn’t picked up, this blog was the only place those cases were written about. I always believed in the principle of open justice, in keeping a record of things and this blog was part of that. It’s also been a record of my life, my changing careers, changing focus over the past decade. I had wanted to write about my PhD because I knew that would be a significant period in my life but I never found the time to start. This time is bigger than my life or an individual trial. This is a collective experience. No matter what happens over the next week or months, we are part of a collective experience.
I remember covering the Columbia disaster as it unfolded one Saturday in February 2003. It was so unexpected, all hands to the pump, a journalistic rush. This is not like that. This will be a long-drawn-out slog, a collective experience of small realities, everyday annoyances and reaction to this strange new world. The journalist in me and the future historian both want to create a record of this as it unfolds. This will be a personal account as everything on this blog has always been. It is time to resurrect it. I cannot promise however that I will be sitting in my underwear on a bed with a frothy coffee and a Mac. My days rarely turn out like that, but it’s a pleasing picture to start off with. We’ll see how we go from here.
I’ve always loved reading ghost stories at this time of year. Nothing else seems to hit quite the same spot the wind is roaring like a lost soul outside and the rain is battering against the windows in truly biblical fashion. As the nights draw in there’s always that primeval part of us that draws closer to the fire but is mindful of the fury outside. This is something that writers have always understood and those writing before homes were lit with the flick of a switch understood it by far the best. My favourite ghost stories always seem to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century, when the gothic imagination was at its height. I grew up reading M.R. James and E.F. Benson, first discovered in the volumes that made up part of my dad’s Everyman Library – hundreds of uniform cloth covered books with matching paper jackets that lived in special glass fronted bookcases in the dining room.
It was in those bookcases I discovered the Brontes and Dickens, Tacitus and Gidden’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Everyman mission was always to provide a world class library of classics accessible to the ordinary men and women. The Everyman collection taught me about the gothic imagination and it was from there I first discovered the pleasure of reading to be scared. There were other horror compendiums around the house, one Welsh Tales of Terror compiled by the great Chetwynd Hayes left a particular impression with a story of man eating rats, but there was something about the heft of the Everyman books that was special.
Back then, happy in my reading nook, I never really noticed that all the stories I read were written by men. When I started to collect my own horror compilations I found a few female writers – Edith Nesbitt and Edith Wharton for example – but I suppose I just assumed it was a genre that women didn’t write – even though, as a little girl who would grow up into a writer, I devoured horror stories and tales with a twist in the tale more voraciously than almost any other genre. As I grew up I kept an eye out for female writers in this area, and particularly in my favourite period. It was only last year when I really started to make headway, largely thanks to my husband’s discovery that Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, included several volumes of stories by female writers. Some are well known names, others should be and I’m going to run through some of them, in case you have been on a similar quest.
For me, the stand out discovery. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to discover her. I’d heard her name before as a novelist but had no idea about her ghost stories. She’s a fascinating character. A writer from necessity, she supported her family, including her absolute liability of a mother who was an aspiring writer herself. Bowen received no formal education but taught herself French, Italian and a little Latin. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms – in fact Marjorie Bowen was one of them, her real name was Gabrielle Campbell – many of them male. Her writing style is fluid and lyrical and her stories should be among the best known in the genre. My favourite of her stories is the extraordinary Florence Flannery, a wonderfully dark Wandering Jew type story. The collection I have is The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories and Florence is in that in all her glory.
I grew up reading E. Nesbit’s children’s stories but it was only as an adult I discovered her ghost stories, again in the Wordsworth edition. It’s well worth reading the introduction to that edition actually. It gives a great insight into Edith’s unconventional life, her unusual home life and founding membership of the Fabian Society. The story that really stayed with me was From the Dead , a tragic story of love, betrayal and forgiveness, but I don’t want to say any more, I don’t want to spoil the story. Nesbit’s stories are good, old fashioned shockers. She uses physical horror particularly effectively, her stories are told more bluntly than Bowen’s, though that doesn’t limit their effectiveness. Track them down – the collection is called The Power of Darkness.
Another formidable woman as well as an excellent writer. May Sinclair, or Mary Amelia St Clair, was an active member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (now there’s an organisation to resurrect). She also wrote a fine line in chillers with a distinctively Freudian edge. The Flaw in the Crystal is more of a novella than a short story, telling the story of a female telepath who must live with the consequences of her benevolently meant actions, while Where Their Fire is not Quenched is a deceptively simple tale of lovers locked in an endlessly repeating, ever unfulfilling affair. Sinclair is writing a bit later than Nesbit and Bowen so her stories inhabit a less obviously gothic world. She is firmly 20th Century in her writing and her subject matter. The collection I have is Uncanny Stories and you will find both stories I’ve mentioned in there.
Dorothy Broster was a best-selling historical novelist, like Marjorie Bowen. She was a nurse during the First World War and afterwards worked as secretary for the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, where she had studied herself. Her stories are also somewhat later than the first two examples but Couching at the Door which gives the collection I have it’s name, is as good a creeping menace story as any devised by M.R. James. I can’t help but note that it says a lot that Broster, despite her literary success, was a mere secretary, while James was famously a career academic. Would more doors be open to her these days? It’s hard to know if she would have ventured through though, since she was a very private individual and little is known about her – although I’d be happy to be corrected on that, if you know of anything, let me know in the comments.
Another favourite author from childhood, I only discovered that Lucy M. Boston wrote ghost stories in the last couple of years. I loved the Green Knowe books, and you can see a lot of the same author in her stories Curfew and The Tiger Skinned Rug, possibly because both these stories feature young protagonists and indeed, both appeared in children’s anthologies. While I’ll let you track down copies of the other collections yourself, Wordsworth editions are relatively easy to track down in bricks and mortar bookshops as well as online, I’ll link to the stunning edition of Curfew and Other Eerie Storiesfrom Dublin based Swan River Press, as it might be more difficult to track down. Boston is the latest of the writers I’m writing about today, and one of the things I love about her story is that she was a late starter. Her first book was published in her 60s which gives hope to anyone out there still trying to make it as a writer. She wrote ghost stories throughout her life and it’s obvious from reading those published that like me, she was someone who had always loved the genre and had grown up reading M.R. James and the rest. You can see echoes of these in her stories but they more than stand up on their own.
One thing that’s struck me, reading all these female writers take on the ghost story is that there is a difference from the stories I read growing up. I hesitate to say there’s a male type of writer and a female type as we all know where that kind of thinking can lead (pink covers anyone) but on a very personal level I’ve noticed that these writers tend to give their characters more depth. Maybe it’s because I’m reading them as an adult, and as a writer myself, whereas I would have read all the others from childhood but I don’t remember feeling that before. The stories I remember tend to have very few female characters. Protagonists are invariably male and women only appear as wives, sisters or mothers. Now a lot of that could be because I’m thinking particularly of M.R. James who wrote the world he knew and consequently writes a lot about solitary, male academics. In the stories written by women the protagonists are often female, or children, but even when the story revolves around a man they tend to be less secure, more aware of the world and the relationships around them.
Most of male protagonists I remember reading about growing up were academics, or ex army or naval men. They work in the city or meet someone on a journey. I suppose that’s because that is the male experience. Just as female writers are sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the domestic, so male writers take their protagonists out into the impersonal world. Since so many of these uncanny stories focus on something that disrupts the ordinary, that disruption is going to occur in vary different places depending on the life experience of the writer. Personally I can’t help feeling that the stereotypical male life in this context, with it’s day to day work in an office of some kind, the home, a distant beacon rather than a natural focus, can put the horror at a remove. It doesn’t make me love these stories any less but when you read stories that bring that horror right into the home, into the safest of safe harbours, then that gives the story a totally different impact. I wonder if the female experience actually opens up the world more. Maybe we should be looking at all those male writers as the limited ones…
But that’s just an idea I’ve been playing with, not one I’ve any major thesis about. I hope these suggestions give you some ideas if you’re on the lookout for something spooky this Halloween. I’m planning another round coming up to Christmas, because that to my mind is an even better time for ghost stories. Do let me know what you think in the comments.
Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression. I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.
As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.
You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.
That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it. It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.
I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.
When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?
The grotto to Ste Expedit in the church of St Pierre’s in Bordeaux. Each on of the marble plaques is a prayer answered.
Since the hack, I’ve been been going through this site from the very beginning. I had to reconstruct everything because I ended up taking a fairly nuclear approach with getting rid of the pesky hacker and not everything had been backed up. It’s been fascinating going back over my old posts. So much has happened in the past 7 years.
Then I upgraded to Windows 10 so I’ve been putting my laptop back together as well. Well not literally, obviously, but it always takes a while to get everything back the way I like it after a clean install. Just as I was looking over old posts I ended up looking over old photos and found the one at the start of this article. I started writing this blog on a holiday in Bordeaux, just after I’d delivered the manuscript for Devil. I’d spent a semester there in college and got engaged to the husband while I was there. That return trip was 10 years later. Even though it was supposed to be a romantic occasion I had a book coming out so every day I sat down at the laptop and tried to work out this blogging thing.
Me, probably writing the first post on Ste Expedit. Looking very young.
One day, wandering around the city we came across the church of Ste Pierre. I forget why we went in, it was either raining or too hot or possibly we liked the architecture, it doesn’t really matter. Inside the church, the only thing I remember about it now, was a grotto to Ste Expedit.
Ah Ste Expedit. I’d never heard of his before that day but he’s remained one of my favourite saints (although it’s not really a long list). He’s the saint of getting help in a hurry, of hackers, of procrastination (or rather deliverance from). Seriously, what’s not to like when you spend your time trying to earn a living through writing and the Internet? He’s big in New Orleans apparently. According to legend St Expedite was a young Roman legionary who was thinking about converting to Christianity. As happens all too often in these circumstances a crow came to him to try to convince him not to. “Leave it till tomorrow” said the crow – yes it was a talking crow. But young Ste Expedite was having none of it. “Today” he insisted and, bearing in mind this is the saint you turn to if you want to kill procrastination, he did do it today. This is the reason why the very pretty young legionary you see in statues has a speech bubble that says “Hodie” or today and there’s a crow hanging around somewhere who’s saying “cras” or tomorrow. I approve of puns when you’re talking saints and Ste Expedite is all about puns. Starting with the crow who’s “cras” could be tomorrow or “cras, cras” or “caw, caw”.
But the puns don’t stop there. Ste Expedit got his super power of being there in an emergency from a pun. He sounded like that’s what he could do. So he did it. The plaques behind the statue in St Pierre’s church show decades of desperate prayers. “Thank you for saving my little girl” reads one. “Thank you, 1914-1918” reads another. Each one is a moment where time stood still for someone. Where they sent up a desperate prayer for themselves, for someone they loved, and were thankful when they felt it answered. I’m not religious but there was something so poignant about those little plaques. Ste Expedit isn’t one for Lotto wins or massive gestures. He’s there in a frightened moment, when you need him. Hardly surprising that he’s also the patron saint of students at exam time.
You can find websites dedicated to St Expedite, and voodoo potions (the New Orleans connection I’m presuming) but what I like about him is beyond any of that stuff. Because you see Ste Expedit probably didn’t exist. The Armenian centurion who talked to crows doesn’t have a name. Expeditus, is apparently Latin for a soldier marching with no pack so poor old Expedit was a nameless individual identified by his job. A body in a field perhaps, identified only by his breast plate. He’s not one of those saints with a complicated back story, just a conversion and a crow.
But that’s not all. Perhaps he wasn’t even a Roman soldier. Another story makes him the Saint of Swiftpost. A travelling priest was buying up relics and posted them back to the nuns back home in France. He wanted his purchases to get home before he did so he made sure the box was marked “Quickly”…”Expedite”. The nuns, being of a sheltered disposition and obviously not familiar with the finer points of the postal system assumed that the word was a name and that name belonged to the bones. So Ste Expedit was born.
I love the layers of the story of Expedit. From the relative detail of the original legend – the talking crow, the centurion – the story unravels and dissolves in layers. For his believers it doesn’t matter if Ste Expedit spoke to a crow, it doesn’t matter that he might have been an unknown soldier, it doesn’t matter that he might have been more than that, just random bones. For them, Expedit will save you in a tight spot. Those prayers are heartfelt, those plaques would have cost money. In the end does it matter if he existed, the logic seems to go, it works. There’s something in there that’s probably quite profound. It appeals to the writer in me.
I’ve thought about that little church many times over the years. Perhaps I need Ste Expedit myself. I was supposed to be researching a paper rather than writing here. Procrastination – I’m extremely good at it.
Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.
Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.
I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.
This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated. How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.
As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.
Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.
We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr
Every time I start a new book, once the idea’s solid and the characters are more than half formed, I work out the music that will accompany the writing. It’s one of my favourite parts of these beginnings, like buying new notebooks and a pencil case before the start of a new school year, a little ritual that makes all the work ahead a little less daunting. It’s my favourite tip about writing and one I tend to give at the drop of the hat, because I don’t know a better way to find the beating heart of a new book when you’re still at the tentative feeling around stage and the book hasn’t really started taking shape. While my characters are still getting themselves settled in having their own playlist seems to speed the process.
Music acts like a shorthand for the mood of whatever I’m writing. My desk is under the stairs in the middle of the house, equidistant from the front door and the kitchen. Even when I’m on my own in the house it’s not the quietest place to work. But once the music is playing I’m there. I start to feel a little of what my character must feel in the scene. It’s far easier to find that elusive zone where the words flow easily and it almost feels like you’re describing events unfolding before you. So far I’ve found that nonfiction works best with a single playlist for the whole book but for fiction character playlists are the only way to go.
The book I’m working on at the moment is broken up into several parts. Each part focuses on one central character and it’s their playlists I’ve been working on. Because this book is set in the 19th Century I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental pieces than I would normally. While I’m trying to keep the choice of music historically accurate I’m more interested in how each piece makes me feel and whether that emotional response suits the character I’m writing. So for my first chapters, set largely in the 1830s I ended up listening to a lot of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, including a particular favourite below.
Now that the story has moved on a pace and I’m in a place with a lot more drawing rooms. The music for this section is heavily piano based. I’ve been listening to some Bach, a little Chopin and a lot of John Field, like this nocturne.
As the story moves on the action will be travelling to America so I’ve a feeling I’ll be listening to a lot more Aaron Copeland even though once again the period’s off, although as always I’ll be open to suggestions.
By the time I’ve finished this book this music will have become the soundtrack, inexorably linked. When I get stuck and need to go for a walk to clear my head I can take the playlists with me and listen to them while I walk. Away from the page the music sometimes works its magic and cuts through a knot that has been confounding me all day. The only time the music isn’t useful is when I’m editing. I need to edit in silence, or with something familiar but incongruous playing in the background. Without the familiar soundtrack I can better tell if the emotion in a scene is real or hasn’t translated.
At the end of a book the playlists get relegated and I move onto the next thing and the next soundtrack. Finding them again is a little like finding a photograph of an old lover. Sitting in the music folder of my computer is the playlist named for the hero of my first book, the one that’s sitting in the filing cabinet in the next room and will almost certainly never see the light of day. Every now and then I revisit his playlist and toy with the idea of resurrecting him. I haven’t deleted the playlist after all these years so perhaps one day I will.
So if you’re reading this as a writer do you have any tricks that help you get into your characters’ heads? Any touchstones that you need to help you get into the writing zone? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.
My dad’s front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company
The projector whirrs into action, throwing a shivering oblong onto the magnolia wall. At first all that’s visible is a few random pairs of feet, white walled tyres. tarmac with the sky below it. Eventually the picture settles down. I’m transfixed, staring, afraid to blink and miss a single frame. I’ve had this ribbon of tantalising history for weeks now but until this weekend I had no idea what was on it. It was among a random assortment of things that had belonged to my mother. There was nothing written on it to suggest what it could have been. All I had was the phrase “It’s from your father’s time.”
For weeks I’ve been looking at the round yellow Kodak case imagining it’s contents. There were no cine cameras in my childhood. My mum might have left a suitcase full of snapshots chronicling random moments of my childhood but there are no moving images. Growing up I had few pictures of my dad. They were too painful for my mum, I think. She carried a passport photo of him in her wallet and I had a miniature of him painted just before he left his Indian birthplace at seven to go to school in a cold, unfamiliar England. Neither of these pictures seemed to relate to the smiling young man with the movie star looks who stared out of the black frame propped against the wall in the dining room. I knew the picture as “Daddy with his hair on”. I knew it was him because his name was printed below it and underlined with a flourish, but this young man bore no relation to the balding, bespectacled teacher who held the baby me in photographs. That was the man whose hair oil had left a dark stain on the brown fabric of his chair, who had sat there every evening with a book in one hand and me sitting in the other. I knew he had met my mother in a theatre company, I knew that he used to act as well as stage manage, but these were abstract facts that didn’t fit with the man whose absence was a constant hole in my childhood.
When I was a child I used to dream that my father had come home. There would be a knock on the door one day and I would run to open it and there he would be looking tanned and relaxed. I knew it would never happen, I understood death, but it seemed extraordinary that the person whose presence I could still feel would have left life without leaving some living impression. My mum kept him alive for me so successfully I could never quite shake the feeling he was just beyond reach, just outside my touch. When I got that reel of film a part of me was triumphant. That child in me was crowing “See, I told you he wouldn’t have left us with nothing.”
So on Saturday I finally sat down to watch the film, more than half expecting to finally see him smiling back at me, found after all these years. Instead I was watching tourist snaps. Stretching away from the camera were rows and rows of rounded Deco windows. The camera panned away, past vivid bougainvillea to smiling black faces waving from a field and white ones waving from a beach. After only a couple of minutes the clicking came to a clacking stop as the film ran to it’s end. There were no familiar faces and after all that no sign of my father. But I knew that I had been seeing through his eyes as he excitedly recorded the sights and sounds lately come familiar, capturing them before they faded and he returned to cold, grey Southampton.
That movie star picture of my father that now hangs above my desk was once in the foyer of a theatre in Johannesburg. In 1955, at the age of 24, my father travelled to South Africa to work for the famous theatre impresario Brian Brooke. I had known about this as a child, because of the photo. I knew it was a pretty big deal. As an adult I found other proof, corroborating evidence existing outside family legend. Searching Ancestry.co.uk for a family paper trial I chanced upon his arrival in Southampton in April 1956. The trip survives independently of our idiosyncratic archiving.
Among the clutter I inherited earlier this year, as well as the picture and the Kodak reel, was the passport he brought with him on that trip. It was the same passport he had since school. His picture is gawky, a child I’ve never seen before. I had always assumed that the trip was merely something he had done in an a cosmopolitan life. He had spent his first few years in India. From my vantage point in a London suburb I couldn’t imagine how you could top that, I assumed that after a start like that travel would be something simply taken in one’s stride, something to be enjoyed but not viewed with the wide eyes of a little suburbanite like me. But watching the film I begin to see something different. A young man intoxicated by his surroundings, who never wanted to forget the sights and sounds that he was seeing. This was a young man striking out on his own for the first time. These were his experiences, his memories, not those of his family or his schoolmates. This was a year he would never forget.
I don’t know what happened that year. I don’t know what parts he played, if he fell in love, raised hell. All I know is that the gaze he turned on South Africa was an affectionate one. I can forgive him never turning the camera on himself. He showed me something that he would never forget. That’s precious in it’s own way.
Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.
I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.
Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.
It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers. Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.
So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.
So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next. I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.
So today I’m tentatively sticking my nose into the real world – after making absolutely sure that the dispiriting mess that was 2012 has definitely left the building. I’ve been taking a break from all things internet related for most of the festive period…well apart from standing on the shore with a megaphone trumpeting Christmas wishes to anyone who’d listen and occasionally checking IMDB while on our annual compendium horror movie marathon…but for the most part it’s been drawbridge up, hatches well and truly battened down and it’s been lovely.
Much as I love the sprawling badlands that are the Interwebs they do hold an awful lot of silliness within their ragged borders. While the Net holds the kind of boundless possibilities Captain James T. Kirk was chasing (and still does apparently) it also gets snagged with all the pettiness of mankind. It opens up the world and you get the good with the bad. I’ve spent much of the past two years researching my new book. Thanks to a truly connected global Internet I was able to access the collections of libraries across the planet without ever leaving my desk. Thanks to the Google Books Project I was able to access printed sources that haven’t even survived in the collection of the National Library of Ireland. I’d go so far as to say that I wouldn’t even have been able to find this story if it wasn’t for that interconnectedness. It’s a small story, an intimate and subtle one that was scattered far and wide in the intervening years. Without digital copies and the ability to conduct keyword searches I wouldn’t have been able to pull the strands of the story together. I’d be left with a thin sliver of purely linear narrative running through a haystack bristling with needles I would have had no hope of finding.
Technology has utterly revolutionised the way I research – my smartphone has become as essential a bit of kit as the ubiquitous tricorder, to return to that StarTrek analogy for a second. As a journalist and writer my work suddenly reaches a global audience. When I’m between freelance gigs I can still reach out to that audience through this blog. If I want to find something out I have access to a vast source of information, bigger than the greatest libraries in the world, connected to any reference work, any expert with a few strokes of the keyboard. It really is extraordinary. In less than 10 years we’ve wandered into science fiction.
I think that’s part of the problem.
The Internet, just by being it’s enormous sprawling self, tends to magnify both good and bad. Moving from our analogue pre digital existence to one connected to the Net all day every day is like moving from a small village to a city. There might be better shops, theatres and sporting stadiums but you can bet there’ll also be higher crime and higher prices. The bright lights just cast darker shadows and those shadows tend to be very busy places indeed. What else would you expect when moving to a community that isn’t bound by city limits or country borders? This is totally global. That’s big.
Now city living doesn’t suit everyone. With the bricks and mortar variety we can choose to leave, to turn our backs on the bright lights and frenetic life of the city for something a little less intense. So it is with the Internet. At the moment there seems to be a settlement sprouting up at the edge of our Internet City, a forest of lean-to shelters for the most part, although there are signs that some of the residents have actually started laying down foundations to stake a more permanent claim. They refuse to accept that the land they have built on is still part of the city and gather outside their dwellings several times a day to shout and throw stones. Sometimes they even travel into the city centre to better tell the city inhabitants what a sinful life they’re leading. They say that the city is destroying the countryside they would have chosen to live in and they have no choice but to sit outside their shanty town at night and throw stones and the occasional bucket of excrement at the outer fringes of the city. It’s the city’s fault for being too close.
Over the past weeks and months in Ireland a lot of shit has been slung. The Internet is blamed for for all the ills of mankind it seems. It’s denizens are cast as an unruly mob waiting in the bushes to jump out at unsuspecting innocents. Whether it’s the amount of confusing facts and non facts floating around online that can lure unsuspecting journalists into making career-ending mistakes (the first of which would surely have been the old one of checking ones sources), or anonymous bullying from so called trolls (a genuine problem but not one that should be hidden behind by politicians and public figures who put themselves up for scrutiny and then decide they don’t like criticism) these are problems that revolve around responsibility. Yes perhaps their should be more civic mindedness online and yes perhaps there need to be consequences for some of the irresponsible acts but surely there’s also a responsibility to those on the other end to be aware of what they are dealing with. I’m often reminded these days of the advice I got from friends before moving from Sligo to Dublin in my late teens. They would have had me afraid to leave my flat if I’d listened to all the stories of rapes and murders in broad daylight on Grafton Street. When I’d moved to Sligo from London I was more freaked out by the way everyone said hello to everyone else and houses and cars were left unlocked. But if you weren’t looking out for it, sure Dublin was a wee bit dodgy but then, it is a city.
The latest missile is that old chestnut copyright. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of copyright – I’m a writer. My words are my trade. But the body representing the bulk of Irish newspapers has taken a stance on linking that is, to my mind, plain daft. Here’s the initial post from the solicitors representing charity Woman’s Aid, who received a bill for linking to coverage of their own fundraising efforts and here’s the National Newspaper of Ireland response. As any regular reader of this blog will know I use links a lot. I use them to explain the background of stories I’m writing about and choose sources I respect. I’ve always linked rather than quoted because I wouldn’t want to steal the work of another journalist (although I’ve often linked to my own coverage of stories in old media sources). As far as I’m concerned it’s the most ethical way of doing things, it drives traffic to the source (though not much from here) and I’m not taking credit for something I’ve not done. I’ve been dealing with copyright a lot over the past few years as I’ve gathered together copies of all my research. I’ve lost count of the number of copyright release forms I’ve signed before taking my camera out and before using the composite image in this post I had to get permission from the National Library who hold the images I wanted to use. I was using the images on my blog though. I wasn’t linking to the library website to show the images (though actually I don’t think those three are up there yet). If I had linked through I wouldn’t have asked for permission. All I was doing was pointing the way after all.
In fairness the NNI aren’t the only ones to come up with this kind of lunacy. President Hollande of France is having a scrap with Google over much the same thing (and yes I know I could be incurring the wrath of the NNI by linking to a piece from one of their members to illustrate that point). I can understand the NNI point and even more the French point but I think they’re both going about it the wrong way. Anyone who makes their living producing unique content should have an issue with copyright. It’s one of the biggest issues of our time and if it’s not watched carefully then people like me will and any other writer, journalist, artist or photographer will find themselves unable to make a living. Once again we’re back to finding a balance between that “civic” responsibility and a sense of reality on the other side. Surely it’s about time people stopped acting like rubes up in the big smoke for the first time and took responsibility for their new home.
Like any community it’s up to the inhabitants what shape it takes. You can watch it from down the road, occasionally shouting warning at it’s wayward ways and throwing buckets of shit; you can live in it passively, allowing a monarchy, a church or big business to run it for you; or you can take responsibility and mould something really worthwhile. Lets hope the Internet lives up to its own possibilities and doesn’t get swamped by the mass of humanity that inhabits it.
One hundred and sixty years ago today a woman called Maria Louisa Kirwan died on an island. She died at the hands of the man she feared, who she had thought had tried to kill her in the past, the man she was planning to leave. She was 28.
Maria is nothing to me. We share no DNA. In the years since I started this blog I’ve written of many abused, frightened women like her, who like her, met their death by the one who they should be able to trust the most. Her story’s no different from any of theirs, no greater tragedy. But for me this one’s different. It’s personal.
Every morning when I sit down at my desk she’s one of the muses staring back at me, those three photographs from the Kirwan collection I wrote about a week or so ago. When I’m stuck for a word I look up and she meets my glance, the calm gaze of an infatuated 16 year old watching the man she loves sketch her. Twelve years later, give or take, he will kill her. I stare at that hopeful young face each day as I write her, mapping out her brief future. She grows into adulthood in that horrible marriage, makes do because there’s no way out, asks for help but is ultimately ignored. As I write her story I’m with her every step of the way but I’ll also be with him, when the time comes, choking the life out of her. That’s what’s different with this story. I’m not just telling what I see, this time I’m the puppet master. I’ll make her into a real girl but I’ll also kill her.
When you’re writing nonfiction there’s always a line you can’t cross, like a pane of glass through which you can see a life you write about but you can’t touch it. With fiction there’s no pane of glass. You can get right in there and have have a root around. You have to know your characters before you write them, but that always tends to make me feel rather protective.
So on September 6th I remember her, and by proxy all my other characters who lived but aren’t attached to such a conveniently fixed point in time. I might put flowers on her grave, this year I’m planning something a little further afield. It might sound morbid or a bit obsessive but it’s a way of keeping that concrete link with the past. I know that when she died Maria didn’t have much support. Her only brother was over seas, her father dead and her mother and many of her friends jumped to support her husband. She doesn’t even have a gravestone.
So this year, Maria gets the spotlight. A couple of days ago I wrote an Irishwoman’s Diary for the Irish Times about the time Maria met her husband’s mistress. Today there’s a post
on the National Library of Ireland blog about that picture of Maria that sits over my desk (along with the rest of the William Bourke Kirwan paintings in their collection). You might have to wait a while to read my book though as Maria’s story is part of a far longer tale and it’s still being written. But if you’re so inclined today, spare a thought for Maria Kirwan who was killed by her husband on Ireland’s Eye one hundred and sixty years ago today.