Mother

Last week, I tested out eating outside in the Bungalow’s back yard and sun bathing in its front garden and was very pleased with the results. The grass was comfortable, the bench table worked and the company was great so it was with heavy heart that I left the astonishing sunny climes of Cavan and touched down into the cold, clammy cloud of London to visit and take care of my mother for a few days.

I have been coming over regularly recently, and to date my mother has told me all about her daughter (i.e me, she thinks I am her grand-daughter), told me I look ‘very old’, and asked if I am ‘ok’ as an ‘old person’. I came down with her dinner yesterday to find ten cigarettes in her hand. She was trying to charge them in her mobile phone charger (she couldn’t get them to stand up). When I eventually convinced her that she didn’t need to charge them, she laughed at herself and said, ‘of course, I can charge them from the packet.”

In her basement flat, I sit on the broken, uncomfortable couch (the cat takes precedence and gets the only comfortable armchair other than hers) and listen to her repeat the cat’s daily routine, interspersed with moans about the horrors of incontinence and her bowel movements. After a few glasses of wine, I try to engage, but I have to repeat everything four or five times and eventually I lose heart and we sit in silence. This woman, who once was an academic with a sharp mind, seems happiest picking the cat hairs from the woolly cardigan she spreads across her nightie, itself already stained with food and cigarette burns. Except, in her lucid moments, I see the horror and fear in her face.

I have always had a feeling of never quite making the grade in my family, never doing it quite right, in fact, usually getting it wrong in some minor way. I am too slap dash, easy going, and am more like my father who enjoyed the ‘joie’ de vie. I defer to my older brother and mother who generally ‘know best’. But I have always been able to talk to my mother, happy to enjoy a drink and tell her my woes when the ‘joie’ is not so apparent. And she has always liked to give measured, rational, grown-up advice. So, we have been close. We talk. Without this this talking, it is hard to know what to do or what to be, and once again, I feel a failure, not up to the mark. I am letting her down. In our silence, watching her tendrils of cigarette smoke drift into the stifling air in the room, I wish I was in sunny Cavan – and immediately, guilt surges up inside and I try to stuff it back down my throat into my stomach where it turns and flaps like an unwieldy baby dragon.

In all this silence, it strikes me that I might be struggling with grief, even though my mother is still alive. I remember from when Dad died, how grief strikes; it taints everything. I had been thinking that I was depressed by Brexit, Trump, Teresa May, the attacks on Corbyn, the corruption of politicians, the world. But maybe my depression is also linked to my mother. Aha, something else I can blame on her! Typical, I think with some resentment (quickly followed by a surge of guilt), that she would cause me grief before she even dies.

If we were talking, and she was offering advice, she would say breathe deeply and slowly, it will pass. My mind quips, ‘not fast enough’. I have another guilt surge. I say here and now to my daughter (the one my mother thinks I am) beware this mother daughter thing as I get older. But my mother is right. Whatever happens, it will pass. I take a deep breath, I just hope quickly, preferably in good company, in the back garden in sunny Cavan.

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Holy Show!

I love the grandeur of the Irish Writers Centre at 19 Parnell Square, Dublin. It’s broad front steps bordered by cast iron black railings. The sweep and curve of the shallow staircase when you enter. The paintings. The book lined, wooden floored intimacy of the reception room with tables for you to sit and write, read, chat. The grand Georgian double fronted training room. The warm red painted walls, white high corniced ceiling, the grand windows looking out on the square. However, I’m not sure about the writers.

I attended the launch of the IWC Novel Fair last night along with an assortment of fifty plus men and women of all styles (all varying shades of white though). There was the casual, smart, trendy, bohemian, shabby, capped, colourful – as you’d imagine. Most of us were alone and, what’s the word? Diffident. There is always an air of diffidence among the writers at the IWC.

The discussion panel consisted of Angela Carter, a successful finalist of the Novel Fair from 2013, Dan Bolger from New Island and Martina Devlin, one of last year’s judges and board member. Kate Cunningham, the Communications Officer did the introductions and away we went, excellently chaired by Martina. The questions she posed were incisive, probing and elicited interesting information from Dan as to what he, as a publisher wanted (good authentic writing, clear, empathetic and emotional) and what he might edit out (raunchy sci fi) and from Angela about her experience of the novel fair (it made publishers and editors sit up and take notice).

It was the writers’ questions that made me shiver. ‘Tell us what you mean by “good writing’’’ they cried, ‘could you expand on your answer’. It was plaintive, a wail that hung in the ether by threads from the beautiful Georgian cornices; a silent plea to tell us what to write; to define good. It felt so needy. Surely, as writers, they understand what writing is? Good prose, good dialogue, good character development, good plot, suspense, humour, magic. And no one book can have all those elements. I understand ‘writing’ is a lonely and insecure occupation, but please, writers, don’t make a holy show of yourselves. If you don’t know what good writing is, read more books or give up writing. If you want to know whether your writing is good, read it to people and/or get an editor or a mentor (check the IWC website). Or attend one of the IWC courses or indeed, send it in to the novel fair.  Have courage, writers, take heart. Oh, dear, listen to me…maybe I should get out more.

Happy Easter…and writing!

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Creative Ireland – A Glimmer of Hope?

The Sheelin Suite was positively bopping with artists (a smattering of councillors, and a good few council officers) last night when I went to the Creative Ireland consultation workshop. There were painters, poets, writers, sculptors, video artists, embroiderers, curators, playwrights.  It was a positive love-in. I felt wooed and stirred. The Minister told us that ‘culture was going to be at the heart of government policy’, that the legacy of the 2016 celebrations was the revelation that culture mattered. There was a video of all the great and the good in the Arts World telling us how wonderful it was going to be with Creative Ireland in the frame. And face to face, the Cathoirleach, Cavan CEO, the Minister, Director of Culture Ireland, the Chair of the Cavan Culture team all told us, again and again, about how positive and radical it was going to be. Then, for the final twenty minutes it was over to the artists to say what we thought would be great in Cavan, creatively wise.

And did we think! We wanted to start young, get artists into schools running workshops, set up a network of artists in Cavan. We wanted space for exhibitions, rehearsals, workshops across the whole of the county (the Minister later referred to these as creative hubs). We wanted to make use of Castle Sanderson (a magnificent conference centre set in fabulous grounds restored under Peace Programme for the scouts) for training in traditional crafts. We wanted to develop a Cavan Gaeltacht, we wanted a heritage audit, we wanted to word farm and story tell, we wanted a children’s festival, to invest in our archives, an active creative and mental health programme, we wanted an artist buddy system, we wanted to make this Cavan Creative Team public.

So maybe, if anyone is listening, as the present Cavan Culture team seems to be all state/public sector officials, the first step is to ask a few artists from different creative fields to get involved.

In the world of Creative Ireland, there are five imaginings:

  • Enabling the Creative Potential of Every Child
  • Enabling Creativity of Every Community
  • Investing in our Creative and Cultural Infrastructure
  • Ireland as the Centre of Excellence in Media Production
  • Unifying our Global Reputation

So, it is not unambitious.

The core work of Creative Ireland is creating and sustaining functional and productive partnerships with all identified agencies built on detailed workplans, with tangible outcomes, that will be developed in consultation with each partner organisation.”

Maybe, the second step should be to write a little less creatively.

There is cabinet committee chaired by the Taoiseach, a senior officials group, a dedicated projects office to drive this initiative. But I am not sure how many Indians are involved. There is one, the director, John Concannon, who is currently touring all the counties with the presentation, so he has energy, and the Minister, Heather Humphreys, is enthusiastic. It reminded me of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy which ten plus years ago was very trendy but which created little change which impacted on poor people.

However, last night, I was heartened by the ideas, the suggestions, the artists! It was a glimmer of hope on what is presently a dark canvas. And, don’t you think its lovely to think that we might have government policy that is driven by the artistic and cultural well-being of its people. But, the collaborative nature of Creative Ireland is key. All Government departments need to be actively involved and creatively proof their policy making. And, artists need to be involved at every level. Not all artists will want to, but I am sure there are many who have been actively involved in their communities and who will be interested in helping make Creative Ireland successful. So, I will put aside my cynicism, all my previous experience as a community activist. Artists, check it out and maybe get involved. I leave you with the words of Oscar Wild, ‘a cynic is a man  who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’

https://www.facebook.com/CreativeIrl/ or http://creative.ireland.ie/news

Oh, and while I’m here – don’t forget the Poetry Party in the Town Hall at 6.30pm on Thursday 27 April. Bring poems and cakes. And this years first AT The Edge, Cavan takes place on Tuesday 2 May in the Johnston Library and we’ve got great readers. Truly: Colm Keegan, Helena Mulkerns, Kate Dempsey, followed by Open Mic.

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A Discovery of Human Nature

Having had all my ‘first loves’ in London, I can confirm that it is one of the most romantic cities in which to wander. The markets, pubs and cafes, the West End, the Thames, the parks, canals, Georgian terraces and gardens provide a wonderful setting through which you can two step a dance of human discovery – as indeed do the protagonists in both Doris Lessing’s and Eimear Mcbride’s very different novels!

I have just finished The Diary of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing. It is a dense, intimate diary in two parts written by a professional, female magazine editor, (Janna at work, Jane at home) aged fifty plus, who in the first part discovers the horrors of old age for women. She reflects on the physical breakdown of the body and the mind, the growth in frustration, fear, stubbornness, and fury as the old women she befriends battle with family, neighbours, doctors, officialdom, anyone, for dignity and recognition. It struck a chord (an uncomfortable one) as I watch my own mother with anguish, irritation, and impatience. Doris Lessing shows how these emotions, moods, responses are universal. The anger, frustration, love are natural responses to a stimulant or provocation. The feelings of frustration that my mother experiences in her physical inabilities and the impatience and irritation I have in response to her complaints are commonplace. They are natural responses.  Neither I nor my mother own these innate emotions. They are universal and are manifest by all of us. They are part of life.

In part two, Janna/Jane falls in love with a married man. In this section, Lessing reveals the potency of love as Jane tumbles into a physical, explorative relationship in London but without sex. Her affair becomes the most important aspect of her every day, her professional life peels away.

While the book is a diary of one person, what was revealed was the characteristics of human nature. It was not just about Janna/Jane, it was about the people around her and how they impacted on her. It was about the interaction of love, hate, bitterness, resentment. It was about pride and dignity and how they form a person. It cleverly focussed on the innate, natural emotions and behaviours of human beings rather than the person. Lessing used Jane as a blank canvas to paint a picture of society.

Contrast this with Eimear McBride’s novel, The Lesser Bohemians. This also deals with first love (also in London) from a personal perspective and abuse and incapacity also feature. The difference in this novel, is that the protagonists embody their emotions; they own them, they feed them. In this book, human nature, as revealed by anger, sorrow, love, burrows deep in their consciousness. It is not universal.

I enjoyed the poetry and flow of Eimear McBride’s prose, and her detail. Her narrative voice, the inner conscious, the muddle, the half thoughts, the observations, names of roads, pubs make reading the book real (particularly since it was the stomping ground in London of my teenage years). She describes the sex scenes in absolute detail with fabulous clarity, but the reader is focused on the sex and the relationship. The external factors barely feature and somehow this couple is isolated in London. The abuse is sordid, cruel and particular rather than inevitable and universal.

Both books are good reads. It was a coincidence that I read one after the other. They are both set in London. Both couples walk the city, alone, endlessly. Both couples fall in love. One couple discover each other through sex and the body. The other discover each other through the discovery of themselves. Both novels paint love in all its glory and destruction and I think both reflect the society and generation the writers live in, and so, interestingly, are very different. One reveals the response of someone living in the wider world, grappling with the impact of society and one shows a human grappling and dealing alone with emotions that have become subsumed in her inner consciousness.

I want to finish with a quick word about Sebastian Barry’s book, Days Without End. This is a beautiful story of love, death, cruelty, nature, vengeance, loyalty. All the virtues and sins of human characteristics teem across this book. But it is the voice of his protagonist, McNulty who carries the reader with him into battle, into bed, across deserts, mountain ranges, through fields of scalped heads, cut limbs, chopped body parts. It is an undulating voice, rich with wonder at the world, sonorous with wisdom, crackling with fear, and innocent with honesty. It scythes a path through the frontier of violence and reveals the metal of human dignity, perseverance, courage, loyalty and love. It is a book of sighs and gasps, perspicacity and intelligence and growth. It is a story that shows humankind in all its darkness and light.

 

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Thank You, World

2017 has been good to me, so far. My mother would say that by announcing this, I am putting its future in jeopardy! But to hell with caution, my yellow daffodil of spring wants to trumpet!

I have funding from Cavan Arts Office for a fourth series of AT The Edge this year, and not only that, we have nine brilliant readers (think cat and cream and you have the right image of me here). The first on Tuesday 2 May will see Cavan welcome Kate Dempsey, Colm Keegan and Helena Mulkerns. In August, Maurice Devitt, Stephen James (tbc) and Lisa Frank and in October, Afric McGlinchey, Mairead Donnellan, and Brian Kirk. I am so looking forward to seeing them all in Cavan.

So, I was surprised when another Cavan Arts Office envelope plopped down into the porch of The Bungalow last week – the porch is where I occasionally sit when my muse goes awol. I smoke, keep an eye on the neighbours, and watch for what my garden is growing. Anyway, this envelope from Cavan Arts Office was telling me that I had been given a professional development award to get a mentor to help me finalise my first novel and collection of short stories. This was brilliant news which came at a very good time for me as my muse has been more missing than musing recently. Not writing is another ‘art’ of writing that my mentor may have to help me with! In fact, in the past few months, I have spent more time submitting material (thanks to Angela Carr for her circulation of submission and competition deadlines) and editing my early stories. It has been alarming but interesting to see how raw and unkempt my early short stories are; a raggle taggle of cock tales in sore need of pickles and extra shots! I vaguely wonder, how I know this. When and how did I learn the craft? More to the point, what exactly did I learn so I can do it now? I’m hoping my mentor who has much more experience than I will be able to tell me!

Anyway, that is not all! There is more good news. We are having a poetry party in Cavan at the Town Hall Arts Centre on Poetry Day, Ireland (Thursday 27 April at 6.30pm). The Town Hall has just received good news too. It has received three quarters of a million euro from the Department to refurbish the listed building. They plan to install poets on every landing to recite poetry every thirty minutes (not really, I’m just getting carried away). So, we having a poetry party to celebrate Poetry Day, Ireland, but not just a poetry party, we’re having a poetry and cake party. What better way to spend a few hours on National Poetry Day, reading poetry and eating cake!

So, this Spring is good, and I want to say thanks. Thanks to Crannóg in Galway, the Lakeview International Journal, Anomaly, and the Honest Ulsterman for publishing four of my short stories.  I loved reading at the Crannog launch in Galway last Friday. My son, Joe, said there were two women who were crying with laughter. I could hear their guffaws and it was very encouraging, so thank you to them. (The story is Irish Mothers, Beware and you can read it in this edition of Crannóg (http://www.crannogmagazine.com/). Thank you to Cavan Arts Office for supporting At The Edge, Cavan, and myself. Thank you to all the readers who are prepared to come to Cavan and read. Thank you to Nuala, and all the local poets who come to my own poetry workshops, and thank you for reading this blog. I should also thank my family, and Poppins, my dog, and, Ciaran, the postman who brings such good news and is nice about Poppins barking at him, and oh, my mother! I should thank my mother!

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The Wizardry of Cork Poetry Festival 2017

It felt like being at Hogwarts – a school of wizardry and imagination. I weaved my way through streets, parades, fine rhymes and cuts of fresh meat and a river that beguiled my sense of rhythm.

My masters were magicians. Tom McCarthy cranked up my voltage, showed me how to play honestly. Brian Turner blew my mind and showed me the windows in my poems, the opportunities that they yield me. Natalie Diaz showed me how my hand can feel the heat of a poem and to use that heat to ignite fire. Martina Evans drilled for heart, piercing and accurate.

It was amazing to be a part of a street rhythm that was poetry; to be lost in a city where the roads were trafficked with words. I loved the flow, the uncertainty of strangers, the tentative of nerves, the diffidence, the strains, the excitement of readings, and the kindness. I loved being always on my way. I often feel I swim upstream alone. It was good to be jumping in a shoal.

Thank you to the Munster Literature Centre for a wonderful few days.

Readings: Brian Turner, Steve Heighton and Eleanor Hooker and Eileen Sheehan

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No Act of Kindness, However Small, is Wasted – AESOP

I now am six weeks living in the Bungalow. While I love my new home, I have discovered it takes time to settle, to establish routines and find a natural rhythm to the day. I am still exploring in which chair it is right for me to work, read and watch TV (Goldilocks syndrome). Do I want to write at my desk, in my bed, on my couch? It still feels like a poem in the making. On occasion, I think, yes, this is the best place – perfect and then the next morning I find the beat is off kilter.  It will come, I guess, just like the poems. My life will eventually pervade the rooms and not just pretend to live there, just like my words stutter their way on to the white page – and find some sort of expression, eventually. It will take time for it all to ‘bed’ in, for the feathers to roost, the dust to settle and, clearly, for the metaphors to be untangled!  I noticed, yesterday, for instance, I didn’t put my woolly hat in the coat press (such a thing is a new phenomenon for me) straight away, but left it untidily on the dining table…so maybe I am getting there. So, while I be kind to myself and wait for my days to find their familiar, I have been reading. So, a few thoughts on what I have been reading and where it has led me.

(Before I begin though, I have to say, my prevailing thought at the moment is ‘Thank God’. ‘Thank God’  that I have a home, that I have time to explore, that I have a basic income, that I don’t live in America etc).

I have just finished reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I found it a little bit of a struggle to finish as I bounced between North London, New York and an unnamed west African country. The story is the trajectory of two working class girls born to black and white parents (one of each) whose common denominator is their skin colour (the girls, that is). The book is about culture, class, background, wealth, poverty, individuality, the North, the West, developed, undeveloped, sophistication, religion, passion – in short, a multiple of sins and a multiple of me s. (How does one write me’s?) Anyway, me  is the theme. Me across the world. Me as daughter. Me as friend. Me as trampled on. Me as personal assistant. Me has a half cast, Me in relation to you, rather than the I. The story travels across the years, across generations, between countries, back and forth until I felt like I was counting the minutes until the end.

I also read The Blue Guitar by John Banville, a book full of exquisite language, complicated, esoteric (on every page, I had to look up the definition of a word) and crammed with self-indulgence. The protagonist is an unpleasant, self-absorbed, selfish creature who despite the beauty of the language (I loved “days smeared all over with sunlight, dense and shiny as apricot jam”), spreads himself across the pages like an unpleasant water mark.

However, before I sound too grumpy, I loved Ferenji and Other Stories by Helena Mulkerns. Through the experiences of Western war reporters, UN, military and non-governmental workers, she pinpoints the absurdity and obscenity of war and the pointlessness and inevitability of poverty and corruption. Each story casts a long shadow and at the same time shines a light through her characters. They live in a time warp between the tarpaulins of the refugees and the drinking holes of the story tellers. The detail and honesty is interesting and I noted how important are small kindnesses and how love, even if only in affairs, becomes hugely significant. Helena Mulkerns writes with poignancy, simplicity and directness about war, greed, corruption and the powerlessness of people.

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All of which have featured much in my reading recently. Is this because society is saturated with such or infatuated with it, I wonder. Mind you, Alone in Berlin by Hans Merkell is a post war classic. It is based in Nazi Germany and follows the characters in an apartment block through the years of the war. It is a thread of horror, depicting both the weaknesses and strengths of individuals dealing with what seems to be an unfathomable corrupting force of power. There is no redemption for anyone – which I guess leads me to Trump’s presidency.

I find myself unwilling to add to the maelstrom of opinion but cannot ignore what is likely to be a pivotal point in history. I am scared…scared of more intolerance, injustice, violence; scared of division and the loss of my right to live in peace and comfort.  My recent reading only serves to heighten my fear. I do not think ‘systems’ and ‘democracy’ serve to protect people. I believe the forces of globalisation and rise of dictators are inextricably linked and dependent on war, greed, corruption and power. But, I feel too old and tired to galvanise myself to respond.

So, having said that, and having read the above books, I think I can make no better contribution to the debate than referring people to AESOP’s Fables – particularly what he says about kindness. At risk of sounding grumpy, old, and traditional or sentimental I find myself thinking (rather surprisingly) we can only be ‘rescued’ or ‘saved’ by our individual bravery, love and kindness. It is all I can suggest: be kind to each other.

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AESEOP(or Æsop, from the Greek Aisopos) (c. 620 BC – c. 560 BC) was an ancient Greek fabulist of possibly African descent (his Greek name means Ethiopian or black man in today’s parlance), by tradition a slave who credited the African goddess Isis for his gift. Aesop’s Fables are still taught as moral lessons and used as subjects for various entertainments, especially children’s plays and cartoons.

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