A Valentine Thought: The Rugby Rape Trial in Ulster

kate culture nightI have a lot of respect for the complainant in the Rugby Rape Trial. It must be so daunting to take on such statuesque, well known and popular men. It must be very scary to put yourself into the hands of more men (the legal team) trying to besmirch your character. It must be so stressful to face more aggression after having already experienced shame, fear and anger at their hands. It must be so demeaning to have all your actions while drunk put into the public domain.

I feel all this because I have been in many similar situations but did not have the courage or fortitude to tell anyone, let alone take a court case. On numerous occasions in my life, when I was young and drunk, I was taken advantage of by older men who wanted sex. In some cases, I had flirted, and had been flattered by their attentions, but then didn’t know how to say no. I felt like I had gone too far, and I deserved whatever happened next.  In one case, where I did say I did not want sex, I was chased around my flat by the gentleman, naked, who refused to accept I meant no. It was not a pretty sight. In the end, he had his way. He was angry and I was frightened. I worked with this guy.

On other occasions, the men were colleagues of my father. They worked for human rights organisations. One came to my hotel door, suggesting a night cap. I was sixteen. I was undressed. I was flattered. I will never forget the way his hairy body grazed my young flesh as he rubbed himself on every part of me, or the scrubbing of the hot shower afterwards. Another man was my father’s colleague with whom we were staying who came to my room. Yes, I had been chatting and flirting with this man over dinner. I was his guest. I was my father’s daughter. Mea culpa. And I couldn’t tell my dad. They were his friends and colleagues.

These events when I was young and impressionable, led me to have a blasé relationship with my body and sex which wasn’t healthy. There were numerous times when I ended up having sex I didn’t want with men I didn’t like because they expected it.

On all occasions drink was involved. On each occasion the men felt that they had the right to act, that my behaviour had warranted it, and I complied. But, every single time, I felt abused. Then, I would not call it rape. Rape has so many connotations: it means victim, oppression, violence. I was a middle class young woman who fought for women’s rights, went on protests. I did not like to think of myself as oppressed; I was not a victim, just an immature, silly, drunken girl. And I did enjoy sex. I thought I knew it all. The generation of the seventies who understood sex. I loved the intimacy, the love, the exploration of each other. I loved the gentleness, and physicality the body brings to the relationship. But I didn’t enjoy sex with these men. It was nothing to do with love, intimacy, appreciation. There was no relationship. I had been afraid and ashamed. And I hadn’t known how to stop it.

So, I think this woman is very brave to come forward, and in effect, put herself on trial. She is showing us how honest, honourable men can assume that what they are doing is consensual and it is not. They are imposing their will. They are taking advantage. They are raping women because they are drunk.

I would hazard a guess that, like the ‘me too’ campaign, there are a lot of women with the same experience. My heart is with this young woman, and I thank her for taking the stand on behalf of us all.

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Food For Thought in Doolin

The writers’ festival in Doolin not only whetted my appetite, but sated it too. Every workshop was shared with scones, Danish pastries, chocolate drop strawberries, cheese, exotic crackers, fresh fruit, shell fish, bagels, tiny savouries. There is no better inspiration than food for thought: thank you, cooks, at Doolin Hotel.

On the Friday morning, I didn’t know where I was when I woke up in Limerick after spending the evening with my son in an extremely nice wine bar. A very, very nice, ‘will we have another’? wine bar. So, rather poorly prepared, I set off for Doolin (leaving my poor son rolled in a hammock trying to avoid daylight). Rain swept Clare had not changed much since I was there twenty years ago when I was flooded out of my tent. Barren, and bleak wilderness swooped across the shoulders of boulders, muds of puddles and isolated signs of life that dot the landscape and there I was, bobbing alone in Doolin, in a sea of a writers, feeling a mere pebble among celebrated rocks.

However, my first workshop with John McKenna was excellent. He is a great performer who gave of himself with humour and gentility.

The reception later was hosted by two divine, cucumber cloaked salmon, curled in yin and yang connectivity. When I delved under the silver threaded skin, my fork yielded a beautiful cream of pink flesh, that the fish was definitely worth dying for. And there were crab claws, and clams, oysters.

The Saturday morning workshop on advanced fiction was lugubriously intense with Sean O’Reilly. He took us through the perils of narration and language, instructing us to delve deep into the borders of our character, and keep ironic distance. It was fascinating. You could hear a pin drop.

This was followed by three hours of blurring the lines with Rob Doyle. The workshop was great fun, with lots of exercises, chatter and ideas for different writing. We did auto portraits, wrote Wikipedia pages, and filled suggestion boxes – great writing tools.

From experimental writing to the Mad Hatters Tea Party which served prosecco, G&Ts in jars with cucumber and poetry (with a particularly beautiful performance by Raven). And so, it went on, as it does, with greetings and meetings, dancing and prancing, arguing and barking, blisses of kisses, exchange and arrange until after the Blessing on Sunday morning with Susan, June and bagels and bloody marys, I went home in a blaze of Burren and sun. Now, sadly, it’s time for the weighing scales.

Thank you, Donal, writers and performers for an absolutely fabulous (yes, Ab fab) week end.

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The Paradox of Borders

The first time I crossed the border into Northern Ireland (maybe 1996, after living in Ireland for nearly two years), I experienced a frisson of excitement. The road surfaces were familiar, so were the building materials, the red pillar boxes, and the housing developments reminded me of home. It could be the North of England, I thought, and immediately, felt at ease. When I moved to Cavan in 2001, I regularly crossed the border for work, often late at night. I drove along dark, rural roads bordered by bushes, fields, and cloudy night skies where only one menacing bright star would gaze down at me.  I would sigh with relief to see the yellow paint of the Southern Irish road markings; Then, I would feel safe. It’s odd, but crossing the border, in whichever direction, became a valued milestone, and provided me with security of some kind.

Recently, it occurred to me, If the border disappeared, I would miss it. Why? I guess because it delineates a space I call home – on both sides. This realisation startled me. I was reared in London as a European liberal, on a diet of rights and responsibilities. As far as I was concerned, borders, class systems, gender, hierarchies, boundaries were there to be breached, crossed, broken. That was their value. But, as I get older and more vulnerable, I find those very boundaries increasingly comforting. I even find myself erecting more. I have daily routines which have become restrictive in their every day occurrence.

Right from the beginning our DNA forges a being which our parents or guardians set upon a road. Sometimes, we are guided or forced to break boundaries. Some of us become emigrants, others change class, some change gender. As we grow, we cross boundaries and break barriers, and in these modern times, there are so many more to breach: civil, criminal, moral, physical, mental, economic, scientific. Today, there are few limits. Yet, in our global, ‘everything within our fingertips’ world, we end up creating more boundaries for ourselves because we find comfort in the space they provide. And those spaces, both physical and mental, seem to become smaller and smaller.

So, what are boundaries: they can be physical, mental, they can be simple as routine activities. They can be family, they can be anything that impedes us or, ironically, makes us feel safe. I used to enjoy crossing or challenging boundaries. Now I don’t. Why? A number of factors are involved: my age and vulnerability (ageing is not for wimps), recent grief (bothering is a bother) but I also feel stymied by the never-ending stories, statistics, viewpoints, arguments, the endless stream of invective and sanctimoniousness that stream these days into my threads of operation. I am a rabbit caught in headlights.

I listen to the radio, arty podcasts, read probably 20 plus books a year, enjoy poetry, watch the news and too much crap on TV. I walk and swim daily. I love to cook. Occasionally, I get to a writing workshop because that is what I do, writing. I follow politics less and less, though I have a keen interest in Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Brexit and Repeal the Eighth. But that is the extent of my engagement. I have erected boundaries that are restrictive, but,  having got them in place, I am not happy to breach them! They are comforting.

At the moment, I am taking part in the Irish Writers Centre’s XBorders Accord project and we discuss borders and boundaries. We have a FB page and we all share information, articles, research, books, blogs and because we are creative writers, the definition of border has extensive boundaries. When I was working as a peace facilitator or co-ordinator in Peace II and III programmes, the work was about silence, cross community, the legacy of the conflict, the ignorance of different traditions. The peace programmes were tools of introduction, instruments to bring people together, to cross the border, to learn and engage with difference. Today, we are learning to ‘unsee’. At the first meeting of the Xborders Accord project, David Landy of UCD discussed how we all ‘unsee’. In Ireland, we avert our eyes from the homeless, the slave sex industry, the corruption of the financial system, inequality. We  ‘unsee’. We  adjust.

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So, with the British soldiers gone, the border is now easily crossed, and relations are more relaxed, but,  we still have a North and South, a rich and poor, a Protestant, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, a rural and urban, white and black, men and women, educated and poorly educated. And each of these groupings still have their value systems, their beliefs, their anger, their righteousness, but today their principles are more easily, and  noisily, promulgated through social media. To quote Louis Macniece, ‘the world is crazier and more of it than we think’, for now all that ‘crazy’ is narrated everywhere – it is the early morning chorus that starts our day. We see and hear everything, so, to protect ourselves, we try to ‘unsee’, create our own boundaries where our newsfeeds serve only to bolster the narratives we want to know.

Narratives. This word also has a new meaning which is akin to fake news, maybe a cousin. A narrative has the implication of truth, a chronicle, history. David Landy, the UCD lecturer, showed in his talk that the Israeli tourism initiatives in Jerusalem, and the archaeological digs taking place in the Palestinian areas all serve a common purpose: to narrate and depict a one-sided history. ‘Narrative’ also implies a static listener, which, indeed, reflects the status of the face booker and twitter pundits.

Social media, governments and corporations have limitless boundaries which, personally, make me feel insignificant, and worthless, unless I add a voice, like I am doing now, and add to the ‘crazy’ so I can feel engaged. An alternative is to erect personal boundaries that make me feel secure: writing poems, reading, walking, swimming, cooking. All of these take place within a five mile radius. And the more I do them, the more restrictive they become, and the more I want to ‘unsee’.

I suppose all this ‘reduction’, this ‘unseeing’, these ever decreasing but safe boundaries, do correlate to the fact that as I get older, I feel more powerless. I am told that this does happen and in one sense, I am no different to any other generation. I sigh as I watch the news, my heart sinks when I read the papers and swipe quickly through the on-line media.  I worry for my children. My grandmother, and my mother did too. So, all this could be normal, I could just have reached the ‘the grumpy old woman’ stage of life because whatever I have to say isn’t usually nice, but I don’t like to say nothing at all. Not after all this living. However, I do sometimes say nothing, because, If I’m honest, because I cannot be bothered. The end.

Update: having written and re-read this, I thought to myself, ‘screw that’ and booked a week in North Cyprus (what is it about division that intrigues), talked to my publisher about my new poetry collection and I’m about to head off to Doolin Writers Festival for the weekend to learn and engage. Just to spite this blog, I’ll be crossing lots of borders yet, though I may be grumpy. Louis MacNeice was right. ‘The world is crazier and more of it than we think’ and this blog is no different.

 

 

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A Scattering

On my mother’s 90th birthday, last Monday, (except it wasn’t because she died six weeks short of it), I was lying awake early in the morning in London listening to a howling wind being chased by driving rain through the hills of Crouch End. Dark windows rattled, pipes creaked and cats screeched and wailed in wheelie bin splashed streets. Storms in London have their own resonance. It must be the bricks, the trees, the wonky paving stones, the curve of the city that conduct the scary magnificence of wind and rain. At the height of the storm, I thought of my mother’s ashes scattered the day before in the square where my brother and I lived as children and wondered if they were now dancing further afield. Yesterday, I had smiled at my son’s wish that we had brought a watering can to bed them down but today, listening to the wind, it didn’t seem such a ridiculous idea.

We had scattered her ashes and then given her a wonderful send off, a group of us saying our goodbyes to her in a French restaurant in Soho. Instead of a funeral, she had bequeathed us lunch. We gathered in an 18th century room, under golden gilt moldings and cornices, sparkling chandeliers, vast mantels hung with age spotted mirrors. Only my brother and I knew everyone. The nineteen friends and strangers ate fine French food, and toasted the life of a woman who was straight forward, honest, and intelligent.

Grief. It has its finer points as well as its abrasive planes. It is many sided. It brings tears of laughter, as well as yelps of woe. Grief is a little like this storm raging outside. Here I am lying, warm, cosy and alive in its midst while it is ravaging around, wreaking havoc (probably with my mother’s ashes) and I have no control over it. It is frightening me yet I feel safe.

Since mum died in late November, I have found my thinking side lined, as if compressed into an inaccessible ball. My vision has been blinkered. My pencil has been blunted. Indeed, now, I feel like I am wrenching these lines out of my gut. They are the endless string of sausages used to illustrate the large intestine in cartoons. But I hope I have closure now.  I am still alive and so I must start to write again because just as we were deciding under which bush to sprinkle mum, my phone rang. It was from Ireland. Someone whom I hold dear had just died, out of the blue, unready, too young.

I ended the weekend by going to the reading of poets shortlisted in T. S. Elliot  Poetry Prize which was at the Royal Festival Hall. Sitting up in the rafters, waiting for the readings to begin, a memory fluttered forward. I remembered how fifty years ago I had stood on that very stage, staring out at the auditorium. I was in the back row of my school choir. The hall was full of children in school uniforms (mine was grey, royal blue with gold and black tie) and proud parents. I sang (more like bellowed)  in this newly opened, controversial development of concrete and glass and I remembered feeling in awe and hugely proud.

The poems in the Royal Festival Hall were a wonderful way to finish my goodbyes. Personally, I hope Tara Bergin, Jacqueline Saphra or Ocean Vuong take first prize, but I loved hearing them all. They released me in a strange way from my own flow of water and let me raft on other people’s rivers for the evening: in Saigon, in the hearts of daughters and sons, in Yorkshire (Ian McMillan was a fine MC) and in the tumbled down world of other people. For me, that is why poetry is magic. It uses language and form to let us into the heart of the matter, the heart of another and there lets us hear the beat of our own.

(thanks to Mandy Berger for the photos)

 

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Jackie Ennals  (January 1928 – 2017)

jackie ennalsMy mother was an intelligent woman, sharp, and erudite. A generous woman of her generation, she enjoyed political discussion, movies, books, wine, food and Silk Cut cigarettes (No. 6 back in the day). My perennial image is of her sitting at the kitchen table, the smoke of her cigarette rising and mingling with the steam of a whistling kettle in the evening sunshine, and a pan of leek soup on the stove. My mum was a worrier, but she was attentive to detail, scrupulous and particular.

Jackie liked to educate. When I was a teenager, my friends would be welcomed, given a drink, and find themselves sitting around a table talking about world politics, the latest film or book. Their views were sought, considered, discussed and they would leave the table feeling as if their opinions mattered. Instead of fraught adolescents, they became conversationalists of the world with something to say, valued social commentators.

Mum gave me a strong sense of right, wrong, duty and honour. Writing this about her, I keep finding I want to add a but – is that the child in me still? Maybe it is partly because she encouraged me to look at all sides of an argument, find the two sides of an equation and not to be afraid to put an alternative view. However, it is also partly because she had standards that were rigorous and demanding. Her eye was a critical one and she had an acerbic acuity and humour which could be expressed with a tongue that could cut to the quick.

My mother was not a sentimental person and she was dismissive of arguments that fell back on such human frailty. Her compassion revolved around what she could see and knew but her knowledge was extensive. She was an educationalist, a thinker and an academic. She was a strong character, generous with her time and mind. She was keen to support people improve their ‘lot’ and believed strongly in the importance of education and human dignity. She was an honest woman.

Once, when I was a child of seven, I was asked to write about my parents in a school essay. I wrote that Dad, whom I adored in his absentia, was a human rights person who tried to free good people who had been imprisoned for their political beliefs. My mother, I wrote, she was just a mum. I think that was because she was my world and always there for me while my father was hardly ever at home – he was always off negotiating with dictators and governments, doing ‘important work’. Mum was horrified and hurt. She told everybody about my faux pas. Never again would I describe my mother as just a mum.

Mother was an intellectual, a thoughtful, educated person reflecting a generation of people who emerged from two devastating world wars into a world of change, progress, and the white heat of technology. She was a quiet woman, and because of her own up-bringing, (a difficult one about which she rarely spoke), she suffered from anxiety. However, Mum believed in the power of people, and had hope for a world that she knew was made up of much sadness. Like us all, she was full of contradictions and frustration.

Jackie Ennals was my mother, not just a mum, and I loved her very much. She gave me everything she had. And I hope I make it worth her while. May she rest in peace.

 

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Exposed

photo-10-09-2016-11-45-04My writing life has been punctuated by a series of exclamation events recently: I have been a featured poet in Blue Nib Literary journal, had six short stories published on-line and in paper over the Spring and Summer and won the Westport Poetry prize. I’ve been racing around doing readings, master classes in poetry, radio workshops, enjoying the wisdom of mentors as well as running my own literary evening, AT The Edge, Cavan and my own poetry and creative workshops. So, indeed, I have been enjoying the plot line, and characters of my life, but I’m wondering how this is going to finish. I’m just at that stage in the story where the reader is checking how many pages are left before the end. Where do I go from here? Having written a collection of short stories, two novels, and a second collection of poetry, what next? Is it time to try and find an agent or publisher?

Like most writers, I write because I love it. But I worry it is a self-indulgence. There is the world physically collapsing around me, flames licking the sky, the earth collapsing, people starving, and fleeing monsters and I am sucking the end of a pencil, wrapped in the comfort of my winter duvet, writing stories and ridiculous blogs reflecting on the ambiguities of life. It’s not exactly super hero stuff. On the other hand, I rationalise, I have no super hero powers. In fact, I have very little power. I am retired, unemployed, increasingly cynical, live in the middle of nowhere and so have little to offer in terms of making radical change and putting the world to rights. Writing is my distraction.

So, if I love writing, why worry about getting published? Because getting a poem or a story published makes me feel less hedonistic and guilty. Winning an award, makes me feel that I do have a value, a skill, that I am not wasting my time, and I am doing something that others appreciate. But really, I ask myself, really? Awards and publication is all about luck, and, of course, is subjective, based on the person judging. Still, it is validation. For, what is the point of writing if there are no readers? The readers make the writing – as is said at many a workshop.

I have been to a good few ‘how to get published’ events, received volumes of advice, written synopses, re-written synopses but still sending out material is a challenge. I have developed a thick skin when it comes to rejections from magazines, but I still feel a little sensitive when it comes to agents and/or publishers for I am submitting my ‘all’ not just an ‘amuse bouche’. Their rejection letters make me feel like I am the fraud I mentioned before, and also then lead to my writing  “self-conscious, first person, micro narratives” like this blog to ameliorate my ‘hurt’. I quote Jonathon Franzen in The Guardian Review (4/11/17) discussing the increasing influence of the Karl Ove Knausgaard books where “the only authentic and politically defensible mode of narrative is autobiography.” Oh dear, I thought as he went on to talk about how the personal essay as developed by Montaigne, Emerson, Woolf and Baldwin (whom I love) are in eclipse. Now I am worrying that my written blogs serve only to contribute to the general slide into solipsistic analysis.

Publishers have a lot to answer for.

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A Meandering on Civilisation

I was encouraged to do a little preparation exercise by Siobhan Campbell who facilitated the ‘life writing’ workshops at the Bray Literary Festival last weekend. I had to choose a subject/word and see what other words/thoughts it prompted. The word I chose was politics and I ended up writing about the meaning of ‘civilisation’.

For me, ’civilisation’ conjures up an image of Egyptian pyramids stuffed with jewels and mummies, the Incas’ khipu (their system of communication and keeping records), Socrates, Kant, Derek Jacobi who played Claudius in the Beeb’s drama,  and stone tablets. That’s very old fashioned, I think to myself. Try again. I do. An image of a world of happy clappy people travellating to work in a Fritz Lang Metropolis full of repressed violence comes to mind.

I was reared on the importance of civilisation. I was taught that civilisation provides for progress; that from civilised actions emerged law and legal conventions that developed and protected human rights. Civilisation, rode hand in hand with ‘education’ across deserts, mountains, jungles and oceans, spreading progress (it now sounds a lot like colonialism). However, politics and culture were also a part of my understanding of civilisation. In my Western world, democracy was a key element of civilisation, (particularly the British variety along with the Spinning Jenny, Brunel, Cricket, Westminster, Shakespeare, not to mention the good old British sense of ‘fair play’). Then, as I grew older, I understood that every country and people had its own form of civilisation, based on its own progressive society, origins, lands, history, and culture.

My next conscious brush with civilisation came with my studying of early American writers, Fenimore Cooper (The Pioneer and The Last of the Mohicans) and Emerson (On Walden Pond) and ‘the advancement’ of the American frontier. There was the discussion about the establishment of laws and structures that people needed to live together but also looked at how those laws and structures undermined the natural law of the wilderness and land, and Indian civilisations. I began to understand that the growth of ‘society’ comes at the expense of nature and that progress also introduces power, elites, and injustice. This is where politics became important. I thought we could create a civilised society that worked in favour of the many, and this could be done through politics. For me, politics provided hope. ‘Corruption’, ‘ego’, ‘mistrust’ were not words I associated with politics. The words were ‘rights’, ‘education’, ‘equality’, ‘self-determination’.

All the above words seem to have faded from civilised conversation today. Now we discuss capital, enterprise, industry, finance, and of course, technological development. Having got this far in my musings, I decided to look up the definition of civilisation. The Wikipedia definition of civilisation is ‘the stage of human social development, which is considered most advanced.’ Or according to the on-line Merriam Webster, civilisation is the ‘high level of cultural and technical development’. For me, that puts the cart before the horse as I think the State or political system influences the art and creativity produced.

In fact, the more I consider the subject of civilisation, the more convinced I become that political systems and culture drive civilisation.  Would we have the pyramids without the Pharos? So, today, if politics and culture are incubated by a civilised society more interested in consumerism and self (because of technological advancement), does this have a negative impact on civilisation. Is civilisation cannibalising itself?

(Am I beginning to lose my bearings and meander off course? Do I detect the edge of a grumpy rant? In recent times, this happens to me frequently).

So,  I better summarise, and try to clarify or walk in a straight line.  I was thinking that civilisation was a good thing. I was thinking that culture and politics were integral to civilisation; that art and literature feed science and technology. I was thinking that the current political landscape and current advancement of human social development is not beneficial to civilisation as economic and technological advancement is focussed on the few. The many do not benefit unless it is to serve the few.  Eventually, the few will not be able to sustain the system and it will implode, as maybe civilisation already is.

Maybe the Leatherstocking Tales by Fenimore Cooper were right and progress will ultimately destroy. What is odd is that the radio programme I am half listening to as I write is about how the IT wizards are working on longevity and the disruption of death. Indeed, this maybe advanced technological thinking, but, to my ear, it seems a far cry from civilised.

But, maybe I am wrong and I have got my understanding of civilisation wrong. Maybe, it is not glorious. I am sure the down trodden people of past civilisations: the Indians in America, the slaves of Mesopotamia, or Rome, did not feel empowered by civilisation. It is probably my age (a bad thought) that makes me realise that civilisation does not have the romance, the glory, the hope that I once trusted in as a young woman, but to prove that I am still young at heart, (a good thought) I know that even if my death doesn’t get ‘disrupted’, there will be another civilisation out there somewhere, beyond me, just not mine (thank God).

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