Writer and Author

Tag: Writing (Page 3 of 11)

The Past Under Our Feet

 

A child's body found on May Street Dublin

A child’s skeleton found on May Street in Dublin

When I was a child growing up in London I got a tremendous kick out of the fact that, in some people’s back gardens, you could dig down and find a layer of black soil.  That soil, perhaps a little richer, a little grittier than the loam above, down where only the deepest roots reached, was the scorched earth that was left when Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, attacked the Romans at Londinium.

When you live in a city that has stood in the same place for hundreds and hundreds of years you live on the past.  When you walk down the street you are walking on top of history.  In a city like London, or here in Dublin, that history can reach back hundreds if not thousands of years.  Most of the time we don’t pay attention.  We go about our lives in blissful ignorance.  But sometimes history breaks through.  Just as gardeners can dig down and find those ancient London cinders, so those who crack the modern surface can touch a more visceral time.

Yesterday workmen digging ditches for drainage pipes under cobbled streets near Smithfield made the grim discovery of a pair of legs.  The arms and the skull had been lost but what indications there were suggested that they were male legs.  Work on the drainage pipe stopped and the gardai were called.  It didn’t take long to work out that the shiny, heavily stained bones did not belong to a victim of recent violence and the investigation was passed to the archaeologists.

 

Franc Myles archeologist

Archeologist Franc Myles at the May Street dig

The area was fenced off and this morning a crowd of locals and tourists on their way to the Jameson Whiskey Distillery peered through the metal links at archaeologist Franc Myles hunkered down in front of a large gaping pipe, wielding a makeup brush.  Once the legs had been removed for further examination another even grimmer discovery had been made.  There in the clay, right in the path of the drainage pipe, was the skeleton of a child.  Impossible to tell the sex, all that can be known is that he or she had only lived till three or four and had lived it’s short life in the 1600s.

The skeleton of a child is so much more interesting than a pair of grownup legs and a torso (when foul play isn’t suspected).  Peering down into the shallow ditch were locals shocked at the thought that such small death had lain beneath their daily route for so long, children transfixed by a skeleton that somehow didn’t look remotely Halloween, tourists happily snapping away at a splendidly macabre addition to their tour.  Occasionally glancing up from his work Franc threw up facts when he was asked, or to stop the steady stream of intermittently hysterical speculation.  He didn’t mind working with the crowd, he said, the job had become so sanitised by health and safety regulations in recent years the public didn’t get the opportunity to see archaeology in the field much.

Lying half exposed, it’s little arms crossed demurely in front, the little skull cocked to the side in an accidental approximation of infant piety, the small skeleton was the centre of attention just as it would have been when it was laid to rest in the 17th Century.  It’s easy to imagine the pudgy hands grasping at a mothers hair in life, the grieving parents standing over the grave, which would have stood then within the graveyard.  The church, St Michan’s, is still there – it’s home to a celebrated crypt with a lanky crusader and fallen revolutionaries.  The graveyard though has shrunk over the years and forgotten bones it seems lie beneath the streets in the area.

It would have been so different in those days.  I’ve cut down May Lane so many times on my way to the Four Courts but they weren’t even built when the child was buried.  Ireland’s first Inn of Court was in an old Dominican priory near the spot where the Four Courts now stand back then.  In the 1600s the Inn’s gardens stood where the Four Courts are “with knottes and borders of sweet herbs, pot herbs, flowers, roses and fruit.” The scents from that garden would have been carried on a summer breeze to the graveyard so close behind, where the child’s grave lay.

These days, where the churchyard would once have stretched, the large glass King’s Inns building lies empty.  I’ve only ever seen someone in it once, when hurrying home to write up the day’s proceedings, I saw white suited swordsman fencing for a film crew in the cavernous ground floor.  The barriers that now surround the child’s resting place usually ring the empty building – god forbid rubbish should gather in it’s white elephant corners.

In another four hundred years what will be left of our world?  What relics will we leave under the roads of our descendents? The child will be gathered up and taken away for further study.  We’ll never know whether  boy or girl, what was its name, perhaps even why it died so young to end up under a busy side road.  It’s sad but it’s what it means to live in a city as ancient as this one.  We walk on what came before, we live on top of the lives of those who lived here before.  The life of a city is vertical. You rarely get the chance to see so except on days like today.  Sometimes history really feels all around us.

The Sinister Life of The Ciotog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Luddites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Twelfth Night

Colin Rieley - image owned by Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

My father – Colin Rieley

Today is a day that means different things to different people.  For some it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, or Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan.  For me it’s the end of the holidays, the day to pack away the Christmas decorations for another year and knuckle back into the new year’s work full of good intentions.

But January 6th has always held another meaning for me.  It was my father’s birthday.  When I was a kid it always used to snow on January 6th and I used to think it was because my dad wanted me to celebrate his birthday.  Because you see my dad wasn’t around.  He died when I was still a baby, too young to remember him.

But every year it snowed.  And every year I remembered my dad.  I knew he had been a teacher, a writer and an actor at various points in his life.  I knew I wanted to grow into a daughter he would be proud of.

Around this time last year I heard from two of my dad’s former pupils.  Suddenly I heard stories of how he was outside the confines of our family.  How he was the kind of teacher who had encouraged and inspired his class, who had refused to cane them according to the school’s rules and who those he had taught had never forgotten.

I know he had started to write a book but had never finished it.  That story was the first lesson I ever had about deadlines. I know he was born in India and didn’t see snow until he was on a visit to England when he was six.  He wanted to know why there was sugar falling out of the sky.  I know he had a good sense of humour and told a good story.  But he will always be a patchwork of fragments from a dozen different sources.  I will never know him myself.

During the summer break this year I started to trace his family tree.  I started with a bare twig and ended up with a small bush.  I found characters, rogues and pillars of the community but my father remained elusive.  I found him on a ship to South Africa, or getting married to my mum. I found the record of my birth and the record of his death.  But once again it was only fragments.

So today, even though it isn’t snowing, I’m thinking of my dad.  I’ve learnt a lot about him this past year and I’m proud to be the daughter of the man I know he was, even if I will never have all the details.  I think he would have been proud of me too.  He would have approved of the job anyway.

A Matter of Convention

I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week.  Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.

My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM.  I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back.  at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.

When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration.  Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations.  The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.

One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as.  In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to.  Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand.  Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.

When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work.  It can sound clunky and artificial.  So you’re left with a choice.  Do you use first names or surnames.  Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.

For the convicted however it’s the flip side.  Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only.  Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.

It’s not a hard and fast rule of course.  It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.

When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.

There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape.  I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction.  I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.

It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens.  I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.

In the Spotlight

Death on the Hill hit the shops this week.  To coincide with this I’ve been hitting the publicity trail.  The last week has passed in a blur of corridors and studios and next week promises to be no different.  It’s a necessary part of bringing out a book but it’s one of the more surreal parts of the job.

As a journalist I’ve been in a fair few studios over the years.  I started out working in radio and it’s great to get the chance to be sitting in front of a mic again albeit on the other side of the desk.  It’s strange to be answering questions rather than asking them and being an item on the running order, a part of the story.

It’s very different from the daily business of court reporting.  Taking notes, checking facts, always on watch to catch the smallest detail that will make the picture that you paint at the end of the day all the more vivid.  It’s quite a passive line of work, an observer not a contributor.  Definitely not a position that tends to land in the spotlight.

Of course when you write a book it’s a different matter entirely.  You’re no longer simply a story in the paper, waiting for tomorrow’s chips.  You’ve pinned your colours to the mast and embarked on a project that involves, of necessity, some hard sell.  Suddenly you’re flashing a smile and plugging away and getting ever more removed from the violent facts that you’re recounting.

Covering murder is an odd business.  When you do the job for any length of time you develop armour so that the gory details slide off you like drops off an umbrella.  You become flippant when faced with brutality, treating each tragedy lightly because it’ll only be followed by another.  That’s not that you don’t have compassion, just that it get’s rationed, metered in the face of relentless details that bleed into one another as trial follows trial follows trial.

The details of each successive trial settle on each other until your brain is clogged by the fallen details of dozens of deaths, dozens of post mortems.  You learn to leave the job at the end of the day and put aside the details and the pain of the victims and their families but your sense of humour gets a blackened edge and gallows laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job – well love is probably the wrong term, but it’s what I do and the work suits me. But when you’re selling a book it tends to come home that while you are happy to have a book with your name on it you’re also constantly retelling somebody else’s personal tragedy with each bright and breezy interview.  It’s more than a little surreal.

All you can do is try to keep the balance.  A balance between the book I’ve written, telling a story as a writer and a journalist, and the dark, tragic truth at the centre of it.  It’s the nature of this kind of book.  Most of the time I don’t navel gaze but when I find myself sitting in another corridor waiting to go on air to do another interview it can get a little introspective.  Tomorrow starts with two such corridors.  You have been warned.

Publication Day!

Today Death on the Hill is officially published.  You probably won’t find it in the shops just yet – it usually takes a couple of days for book stocks to move from warehouse to shop floor.  Which makes a publication day rather peculiar.

I’ve had my author copies of Death on the Hill for a while now.  They’re sitting in a neat row in our front room and every now and then I go and take a look at them – I still get a kick out of seeing my name on the spine of a real, live book with pages and everything. I’m excited about seeing copies in bookshops but publication day itself is a marker in time that’s even more confusing than a mid life birthday.

You wake up and the morning is the same as the one before. When I was a child dreaming of being a writer I thought there would at least be streamers.   The appearance of a book in print with your name on it would signify an end to the normal daily grind and an emergence into the artistic realm like a butterfly emerging from it’s chrysalis.  I was a rather romantic child.

The reality is generally rather more prosaic.  Today I got up at the usual time and headed off to court.  There’s a new murder trial starting this week and there were several cases in the Monday list that I wanted to keep an eye on.  Then I went grocery shopping.  Life goes on.

In the days and weeks to come things will get busy.  There’ll be interviews to do, publicity.  I’ll start haunting book shops and counting their stock and fretting about sales figures.  I’ll be pestering everyone I know to buy, or read, or review and shouting about the book from every available rooftop.  This evening though it’s my publication day.  A moment in time where the one thing that matters is that the book is written.  It’s real and will very, very soon be coming to book shops all over Ireland.  That’s something to be pleased about.

Death on the Hill 1

A New Book

It’s an extraordinary feeling to hold your own book in your hands, that moment when it goes from being a string of insubstantial computer text to a real, proper book with a cover and pages and photographs and everything.

It’s even better when you see more than one of it.  That’s the moment when the penny drops that there is absolutely no going back, that this is the real thing and that the thing you spent weeks or months working on now has a life of its own.  It’s the sudden realisation that with this box load of author copies there is the reality of thousands of other copies that will soon sit on bookshop shelves around the country.

It’ll be a few more weeks before my latest book, Death on the Hill, hits the shelves but today the postman brought my author copies.

Death on the Hill stack

For the moment I can just sit and look at them in all their multiple beauty.  Have a moment of self engrossed anticipation before the reality of launching a book and the selling that must come.  Not tonight though.  Tonight I’m just happy to have written another book.

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.

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