Power to the People – And, Let’s Build a Railway Along the M3.

I have just returned, delighted and excited, from the bubble of Brighton where the Labour Party Conference was held this year. I am now well versed in the new Green Economic Revolution which involves a complete change of mind set. No more consumerism, no more private profiteering, no more isolation, no more feeling powerless.  Under a Labour government, people will live in a green and pleasant land of community-based initiatives, running enterprises where power lies with people. People will take back control.

I know this sounds off the wall, and I talk slightly tongue in cheek, but talking and discussing the range of initiatives involved in a green revolution was exhilarating. I went to fringe meetings that discussed basic income, the green economy, discussed digital power, new ways of democracy, and new structures of engagement. Five days later, I emerged from the Brighton bubble feeling like there are alternatives to the insecure, vulnerable, exploitative society that we currently live in.

However, my problem is what to do with it all now I’m back at home in Ireland. I don’t feel that there is any forum to channel this new-found energy and knowledge. There are only three political parties that operate in Cavan, and none of them appeal or appear to be promoting any kind of change from the status quo. So, I will write about the experience of being at Labour Party Conference which really inspired hope, an emotion I had despaired of ever feeling again. But, let me start at the beginning.

We flew into sunshine, and went straight to our Airbnb in Kemptown which was light, airy, very comfortable. I immediately felt very at home which was a good thing because every morning I needed to potter about in my PJs and make lots of tea to get myself over the night before. The first evening we went to a Unite Rally. The wine and beer literally flowed. I happened to be standing near the bar, and spent most of the evening, acting as bar maid as I responded to endless requests to pass a bottle, pour more wine, hand over a fresh glass. Meanwhile, the speakers boomed. There were few specifics, hardly any detail on policy, and I was skeptical until Danielle Rowley talked passionately about £500 billion that would be spent on wind farms, retro fitting, solar programmes and free bus travel for the under 25s.  Then John McDonnell talked of a new architecture of systematic change. It sounded good, but, after four glasses of wine, everything had a rosy tint, and I wouldn’t have been clear what anything meant.  However, over the next few days. I was to find out.

I got up early the next morning to explore Brighton before my first fringe meeting on Basic Income. Brighton is higgle piggle of apartments, hotels, beautiful regency squares and stunning Edwardian and Victorian splendour. Everywhere there is fabulous stuccoed, classical styled exterior mouldings, and gorgeous bay windows. The beautiful facades of Victorian and Georgian hotels stretch out along the prom, apparently to infinity. The streets are full of delis, cafes and posh restaurants where you can sit outside and watch the world (and an endless stream of homeless people) go by. There are beautiful cast iron balconies full of colourful geraniums. In the lanes, you can shop to your heart’s content. There is the ancient pavilion with its classic columns, porticos and curlicues. The 150 year old Brighton Pier is a wonderful old fashioned den of inequity, full of slot machines, shove penny, fortune telling, do nuts, popcorn, rock sticks, and amusement rides. The beach is the colour of burnished copper and sea-side bars beckon you to enjoy a beer or a cocktails while the sun sets and the homeless settle into doorways and sleeping bags to endure the cold east wind.

My explorations were complemented at lunchtime by the best sort of tour one can have from my niece, Alice (“that’s the pavilion, that’s a really popular shop that sells everything, that’s the best pizza place, that’s an excellent pub). Although a Northern lassie, Alice loves Brighton, and I could see why. It hums. Alice said she suffered from FOMO (fear of missing out). Yes, I understand, Brighton has that buzz. The place reminds me a  giant Galway; an image that actually gives me the shivers, but it has the same atmosphere.

Looking back from the comfort of my armchair at home, it seems that my days passed between effervescent and fervently enthusiastic fringe meetings and alcohol fuelled rallies. But, what more could you ask for from a party conference?  Every day, passing the Brighton centre, to get to my different venues, I walked past columns of tall, young police (mainly men) marching in front of me in columns of six, (why, I wondered) or they would be standing upright, in line,  along the wall, rifles abreast their chests, getting in the way of Socialist Alliance or Labour Briefing activists dishing out leaflets and tote bags. At night, in the ornate glory and plush of the Grand Hotel, people were huddled in cabals, meeting, briefing, plotting, hale and hearty, back slapping and air kissing. Everywhere I went, people were talking of change. The air was filled with conviction that soon our world was to be transformed. I found it strange to hear snippets of conversation such as “the green transition”, “the new common wealth”, “the coming national investment bank” blowing about in gusts of wind when I sat on a bench and watched the world go by.

There wasn’t too much of watching the world go by though. I had too many fringe meetings to go to. My first was on Basic Income (a proposal which would provide every British resident with a decent basic income – clawing it back from the rich through the tax system). I wanted to get a handle on this and how it would work. The fringe was to launch a report by Guy Standing written for John McDonnell. Guy Standing justified Basic Income on the ethical grounds of social justice, security, and providing a basic opportunity for all. Basic Income would slay the eight modern giants of

  • inequality,
  • insecurity,
  • debt,
  • stress,
  • the precariousness of life (termed precarity),
  • the fear of AI and robots,
  • extinction
  • right wing populism.

These eight giants were spawned from the five giants identified by Beveridge in his much heralded social policy report of 1942. They were: Disease, Illness, Ignorance, Squalor and Want. I say no more.

The argument against Basic Income has always been that people are inherently lazy and won’t work if they don’t have to. I don’t accept that. In my experience, people who don’t work usually find other interests and outlets to occupy their time – they mess on computers, take up sports, start to write, volunteer and out of this, new pastures and ideas emerge. I like the idea of not having to work all the hours God sends, of feeling financially secure enough to look after the children once a week, or see my parents, of not living hand to mouth, of training in new fields. Our new leisure time, which will only be increased with AI, is served well by Basic Income. Anyway, the report identifies various pilots taking place around the world, and it seems that John McD has agreed to pilot ten such projects, should labour be elected.

The eight giants mentioned above reared their ugly heads time and time again in Brighton. Austerity: The cuts in local services, the USC, the increased costs of housing, the need for foodbanks across both cities and rural areas, the working poor and the threat of homelessness and poverty seem to be rife in the UK. They are in Ireland too, but the Tories seems to have wielded the whip of austerity with a blind ignorance and unyielding harshness that the Irish didn’t. The precariousness of zero hour contracts, cut benefits have introduced fear, isolation, insecurity and individual vulnerability. People are scared. Everyone is living on their individual wits, battling alone. 

According to the Greening the Economy fringe I went to next, we need to stop the growth, stop consuming as much as we do, repair rather than renew, mend, recycle, adopt different co-operative economies and enterprises, share our common resources equitably, invest in communities and not in private individuals nor private corporations.  We need to reduce energy levels, shorten the working week, improve public transport, stop exploitative mining practices which abuse labour rights. We need to stop the arms production which serves the wars in Yemen and Africa elsewhere the world. We need to end the link between oil and the military and we need to stop giving our power and the public resources we own to the rich.

Yes, I think, if this happened, everyone’s stress levels would ease. My fears for the world would subside, ad if we reduced our energy production, we could start to offset climate change.  Working together to harness local resources, would increase my sense of community. I wouldn’t feel so alone and powerless. All my life, I have worked at local level, in local government or in community development. I strongly believe that we should be able to control our own lives, our own environment and share our own resources. The growth of consumerism and profit in the last forty years, alongside the reduction in the security people feel, particularly because of the failure of the corrupt banking system, once again serves only those people who have inherited wealth.

Municipal Socialism was the title of another Fringe meeting. Interestingly, it again raised the spectre of the eight giants – inequality, insecurity, fear, debt, stress, precarity, fear, extinction, nationalism. We heard from an Armenian local mayor in Turkey who worked with local Kurds, Christians, women, disability groups on a range of initiatives all of which were physically torn down by the Government who took over the running of the council and imprisoned and/or exiled its members. We heard from a black activist in Jackson, Mississippi who talked about the importance of learning how to implement action/policy in alliance with each other, without permission of the State.  In Jackson, every time the local authority introduced an initiative, the government legislated against it.  He called it ‘protagonistic governance’ and it was what they had to do to protect their community from the auuthorities.

Yes, there is new language. Some may call it jargon. Indeed, it sounds very like jargon, and it was hard to get my head around. But, I guess, new thinking requires new language. Precarity was new – but, now I see it all the time. Another such term for me was Commonwealth. I associated it with the countries colonised by Great Britain who come together to …not sure what they do. Common is an abusive term I associated with the upper classes – one they would use with their noses in the air. Wealth, I associated with the landed gentry and the corporate sector. However, ‘commonwealth’ is a term which Labour and the Green economy is taking back to refer to the common resources of the people – the land, the energy sources, the social capital of community that is ours by right. Yes, there was a lot of jargon – radical democratisation, circuits of solidarity, activist solidarity,– and I wouldn’t use these terms, but I think they refer to the importance of local people controlling their own lives by working together to ensure safety, quality of life for everyone.

I also went to a round table where we discussed digital democracy and new social enterprises. I learned a lot from the participants. There were so many ideas, so much hope and energy flowed. But, if I continue, you will all think I have gone mad. Anyway, I came out of that last Fringe into the World Transformed Tent set up by momentum just in time to listen to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. I don’t usually bother listening to Leader’s speeches but this time, I did, and it was music to my ears.

On the way home, Jerry and I were discussing our week’s experiences (he spent more time in the conference hall). We picked up the car at the airport and drove up the M3.

“The M3 makes the journey so much easier,” he said, settling in for a snooze.

“Yes, but I think we should put a railway track on it, “ I replied. “They say they can’t build a railway because the land is private and they can’t CPO it. I don’t know why they can’t CPO it. They did to build a road which is now privately tolled. But, if they can’t, a railway track would be better. In fact, why don’t we turn all our roads into railway tracks?”

As you can see, I was inspired!

Brighton Pier
John McDonnell
Brighton Pavillion
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Banter, Bartering and Blisters!

I am standing on the balcony of the Majestic Hotel, Tunis. Opposite, tall, green palm trees sprout yellow seeds. Below, on the street, people pass, some smartly dressed walk with purpose, others slowly amble. All about the hotel are five storey apartments or office blocks, white, balconied, ornate cornices, shuttered, a little decayed. Voices, shouts, car horns blare, trams sound warning bells. Tunis life pushes forward. Across the street, blue shutters are loose, broken. The dark unknown within peers out. Outside, the air is thick. It sticks my dress to my skin. I step back inside to the room, my bare feet on cool speckled pink marble, adorned with a Persian carpet. Ornate presses, mirrors, tables scatter beneath the glass chandelier. I sit on a tasselled couch under black and white photographs of old Tunis, the Avenue de Habib Bourguiba who was the first President of independent Tunisia. He knew my parents in Paris in the fifties and sent dates to my mother every Christmas until he died in the year 2000.

We go to explore the Medina. Today Ali turns out to be our Tunis sprite – always popping up when we are lost in the Medina. ‘Irelandas!’ he shouts with a smile, takes us by the hand, leads us through the crowds, the throngs, the push, the shove of Souk to our desired destination, telling 40,000 tales of Medina dangers, robbers that lurk and prey on Western strangers. He took us to the Government sanctioned exhibitions of ceramics, beads, delicious perfumes (date, jasmine). He showed us rooftops with fabulous views of Tunis mosques and spires and, of course, the Berber carpets. Rugs woven, embroidered and knotted, not by the bloodied hands of children; no, they were made by one poor Berber woman, living alone, somewhere in the plains of Tunisia who would appreciate the money we paid if we purchased a carpet so she could feed her children. This was the third time I had been through this rigmarole (in Marrakesh and in Istanbul), so I decided to purchase one.

Having bought our rug, we took our leave in search of sustenance and El Ali, a café that Google had recommended. But the souk lanes are narrow, and the wifi connections are poor, and our feet became dispirited and sore but suddenly, up pops our sprite, and guides us to our destination where we enjoyed mint tea and cake and lots of sugar. Ali was everywhere.  Later too, after showering and getting dressed to go out for our first meal that evening, up popped Ali.

‘Irelandas’ he calls, ‘I know one that is very good.’

We assured him we were fine and suggested he go home for he looked extremely tired. Mind you, Ali was the antithesis of the Tunis police earlier that afternoon who threatened us when we tried to take pictures of the marbled square outside city hall where tourists and ordinary people are not allowed, only the rich and powerful. We ended the day in a rather plain restaurant. I ate a Berber stew cooked in a jug, and we discussed Boris and Brexit midst streams of lovely Tunisian wine. A pretty perfect first day.

By the third morning, the usual family rhythms were taking shape. Roisin is an early riser, as am I. She established her position on the sun laden balcony. I stretch out with pen and paper on the tasselled couch in the cool hum of the air conditioning. Both of us drink green tea. I muse over the previous day and listen to the hum and blether of the current one outside: the trams, sirens, the morning tunes of Tunis in the sunshine. She soaks up rays and reads.

The previous day we had travelled on the local train to Carthage. It was a commuter train, travelling along a tract of wasteland alongside the vast lake that lies between the city and sea. The odd fisherman could be seen with his rod on the desolate crumble of rocks. Low rise, graffiti scrawled white buildings sprawled like an untidy lego-land. The stations were small and looked abandoned, but people got on and off. We alit at Carthage Hannibal and, conversely,  found ourselves on a wide avenue of large white walled, balconied mansions, a road lined with red bougainvillea, purple jacaranda and green palm trees. It reminded me of an African Killiney. With Joe tracking Googlemaps, we eventually found our way to the Carthage Roman remains where we stood, hot, sore footed and bemuse. All around us was what looked like half built sand coloured walls laid out in small squares filled with the roots of old olive trees. Fortunately, Hassan arrived to rescue us. He wove wonderful stories about the Punic wars, the Phoenician and Byzantine eras. He regaled us with tales of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s summer villa, showed us the ‘caged’ room where beautiful bird mosaics lined the floor. He showed us tablets of mosaics from each of the periods, splashing a bottle of water against them to bring out their glorious colour and detail. They were kept in a shady corridor for protection from the wind, sea and sun. Hassan was an old man, with seven sons. He was cultured and educated, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He talked of human rights, equality, and was proud that a Tunis women held office in the government. He was hurt and disappointed by the world’s tilt towards nationalism, and narrow minded thinking. He talked of Baudelaire, of times when Tunis was peopled by hard working men and women. He showed us plants, explained methods of cooking and gardening. Hassan was gracious and we felt honoured to have spent the morning with him. We said our adieus and walked to the roman amphitheatre – my third this year. After a sit down, we headed to Sidi Bou Said for lunch. The taxi dropped us off at the Souk which was a beautiful sedate affair, more of tourism outlet than a mad market, and found a restaurant over looking the sparkling blue sea and the pretty white and blue town. Then it was time to find a beach. We chose La Marsa and the taxi man taking us talked of the corruption in Tunis, how the poor were getting poorer. The rich did not share. There was no progress. The second ever election was being held in two weeks, but taxi drivers to whom we spoke did not seem hopeful of change.

                Roisin and I romped in the sea which was piping hot with big, splashy waves to ride and dive. Then we sunbathed and watched families at play. Men and women in full hijab swam and frolicked with their children, and like everywhere the whole world over, tiny children chased the waves and dug holes to catch the sea. That night, we ate Sushi in a restaurant balcony overlooking a pink sea and sky with one green palm tree silhouetted in the evening. In the car park at the front BMWs, Jags and even a mustang, gleamed.

                The next day, amid torrential downpours, we caught the train again to Carthage to continue our exploration of the ancient ruins. This time we found ourselves at St Louis, a plainly built church which housed beautiful painted wood and intricate mosaics. There was a simplicity about the place which was more divine than the usual glory, gold and pomp of cathedrals. There were two panelled paintings and stained glass stories depicting the story of King Louis the IX (after his demise in Carthage, and his crusades to the holy land, his body was plunged into boiling wine, his flesh decanted and transported separately to his bones back to France). Inside, we could hear the thundering pelt of the rain on the tiles of the church. Looking out, the rain bounced high off the hot concrete. We had a coffee in the café and waited for the rain to stop to find a taxi to the beach.  The driver wanted to take us to further ruins, but we persuaded him we wanted to go to a beach at Gammarth. Roisin and Joe were trying to gauge where the best beaches were from google, and it was agreed that we be taken to the lively resort outside the town. As we drove around flooded roundabouts and walled resorts, lively was the last word that came to mind. The roads were full of water, mud, road signs and plastic bottles were floating everywhere. It was like a war scene. The taxi driver dropped us off at a gate which said Chez Franki. The heavens opened and a monsoon descended. We rang along the slippery boardwalk to the beach bar which was protected by plastic sheeting.  We sat at a table and stared out at the rain and the grey rolling waves attacking the beach. There was nothing else to do but order cocktails and eat lunch after which we played cards. A perfect afternoon at a beach bar. After a couple of hours, the rain stopped. We paid and left. We meandered up the beach but each strip belonged to posh hotels and uniformed private security guys pointed us back. We managed to negotiate a series of flooded, derelict building sites which looked as if they had been bombed and were full of silt, rubbish and starving cats. Pushing forth, Roisin tried to persuade us to go down a lane from which, two minutes later, she made a hasty retreat, leaping over trenches and concrete piping. We dubbed it Baghdad Alley. We were wading through six inches of mud, trying to get out when we were rescued by another taxi, the driver of which clearly thought we were mad.

                That night, back in the city, we found a delightful, tiny restaurant and had the most delectable dinner of Harissa, sea bass, monk fish and chocolate mousse and laughed about the adventures of the day.

                On the Thursday we decided to go further afield and arranged for a taxi to take us to Monastir, a three hour drive away, to the South, visiting Sousse and Hammemet on our return. Walid, our chatty taxi driver, came from Monastir and after three hours of chat about the election, his divorce, his family, his job we arrived in a pretty resort where the old Medina had been restored and turned into a tourist attraction known as the Ribat. Walid wanted us to see the mausoleum build for Habib Bourguiba first. I had told him that Habib Bourguiba had known my parents and he wanted to see if there were pictures of my dad there as there were two rooms dedicated to old photographs. Sadly, there was no sign of dad in the splendid head of state displays of Habib with Sadam Hussein, Colonel Gadafy, Nasser, President Mubarak et al. The Mausoleum was a gaudy, ornate affair built out of marble and gold. We then walked across the square to the restored Ribat. It was an amazing, tiny city made up of lanes, rooms, towers, with lovely views across the sea and the town. Walid had said he would meet us back at the taxi, but after five minutes, up he popped, offering to take photos, carry my bag, and clearly wanting to talk to Roisin. Then he took us to his favourite restaurant for lunch, and then to his favourite bathing spot by the sea where he watched Roisin and myself splash about in the water. Then it was time to go back. There was no time to stop at Sousse which was where the shooting was five years ago, but it looked horribly touristy: big hotels and endless shops and casinos. Apparently, it was created for tourists. We did saunter the prom at Hammemet which was another tourist spot with a posh marina, many eating and ice cream places and tour boats.

The most interesting aspect of the day was the African scrub and plains where shepherds grazed thin , scrawny flocks of about twenty sheep; boys sold chameleons on strings at the side of the road and the fact that Waileed planned not to vote in the election, despite believing in the original revolution, because it had nothing to do with him.

The day made me pleased that we had decided to stay in the living, breathing city of Tunis, crammed with people, cafes, offices, fruit sellers, the homeless, rather than the sterile tourist spots we had seen on our tour to Monastir.

We dedicated our last day to Tunis. Roisin and I went for early morning coffee and a walk in the city park of Belvedere before meeting the lads at the Bardo Museum. We walked through the streets and tasted the fruit of the prickly pear. The park looked nice at the start, green grass, a lake, lovely trees, but as we climbed the road through the park, the landscape turned to scrub, broken glass, dwarfed fir trees. Barriers separated the road from the path. Then skinny wild dogs began to come forth and bark at us. Still, we ventured on, wanting to the get to the summer house with a wonderful view. When we arrived, the wild dogs had taken over, along with five or six of the city’s homeless all talking to themselves. The place was deserted. We decided to get a taxi to the museum but no taxis would stop. We walked quickly across to a main road we could see. As we approached a yellow car (usually taxis but this one had no sign up)  stopped and told us to get in. We asked if he was a taxi and how much it would be to the museum. He said he was, and quoted us 20 Dinar which was way too much. We asked if he had a license and he showed his taxi paraphanalia in the boot. I asked about his meter, and he repeated that it was 20 Dinar. Cars were whizzing past. We got in and he proceeded to tell us how dangerous it was in this area for two beautiful rich, Western women to be cavorting alone. He wanted to take us to all the beautiful sites of the country. We insisted on the Bardo, Roisin watching our every move on google maps. All the way there, he told us the terrible perils that befall Western women, scaring the wits out of us.

But the Bardo was worth it. The mosaics were beautifully curated and hung in an amazing light and airy space with high ceilings. One dome was hand crafted in gold and silver. Different exhibition spaces revealed the different stories of Neptune, God of the Sea, and the fish in the ocean and Diana, the Huntress, hunting deer, tigers, lions. Others showed the lives of the people living at that time. It took my breath away. The intricacies and clarity, the passion and belief on display was exciting. I had that kernel of pleasure in the pit of my stomach, thrilled by the beautiful creations made by people so many thousands of years ago and exhibited with such love and pride.

On our way back to the Souk, our taxi driver drove through the Medina itself (he lived there and so knew its maze of tiny passages, tunnels, lanes). It was fab to see its twists and turns. He pointed to a hotel that was created out of two traditional Medina houses and suggested we take a tour to get a feel of the inside of the old street houses that existed. It was free and worth it, he said. So, we did. It was a little like being in Alice in Wonderland. You step out of the hustle and bustle of the African medina street into a cool airy oasis of quiet. We passed through a massive, ornate wooden door into a square room of decorative mosaics, and then through into a beautiful courtyard with fountains and greenery. We were taken on a tour of ornate but simply furnished rooms full of light and colour. Our guide showed us the entrance to Hammam. Roisin asked if we could book a hammam/massage for later. The guide checked but it was fully booked – it usually had to be booked the day before she said. But then they phoned back and said they could take us ‘tout suite’ if we wanted. The men weren’t interested so we arranged to meet them later and headed off into the Hammam.

Roisin and I had a Hammam in Marrakesh three years ago, but this was my first experience of a full body massage. After a week of walking in Medinas, art galleries and ancient ruins, it was an exquisite, almost out of body experience. I felt as if my body was being reassembled into an integrated physical form again. It was as if my bones were being pieced together and fused with my being. Instead of being a blur of blub on feet, I became a complete and whole being of body and spirit. It was amazing. Sadly, it didn’t last long, dissipated by the exhausting trek through the souk, shopping and bartering in true Tunisian style and the gorgeous lamb and apricot lunch at El Ali’s later! Roisin is very good at bartering. She does it with great humour, making everyone laugh, and when Joe and I chipped in…well, I almost felt sorry for the Souk sellers!

We returned to Ireland tired, but laden with carpets, bags, ceramics and happy memories of a fabulous family holiday with no bickering but just happy banter, bartering and blistered feet!

sitting room in Majestic Hotel, Tunis
at the beginning of the medina, Tunis
the key gateway on the roof, Tunis
the caged room of birds in the Emperor Hadrian’s Summer House, Carthage
Roisin in Sidi Bou Said
Marching to the Mausoleum, Monastir
The Ribat, Monastir
Baghdad Alley, Gammarth
the new rug in Swellan!
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A Meandering Grand Tour

It’s a rainy day in August.  I have just arrived in Victoria. I pop up to the mouth of the station just to see the sprawl of red double decker buses, the people in bars after work, the queue of black cabs, the tower blocks and watch the smokers huddle in puffs, the commuters flow down escalators, all umbrellas and bags. A far cry from Main St. Cavan. Then I wend my way back through tunnels of rubber, hoardings, machines, platforms of wind, catch a tube to Finsbury Park where I climb a spiral stair of 87 steps, lugging my case to the top and arrive at a ridge of torn and dirty mattresses under a bridge where shrouded figures try to sleep. I make my way across broken pavements, pubs, and people drinking.

I arrive at Maria’s gloriously light, cathedral-like kitchen that flows through floor to ceiling windows and slate tiles into her beautiful London garden. Malcom, her husband, is making a deconstructed niçoise salad, tossing cherry tomatoes and tiny potatoes in a pan, and cooking fresh tuna. Maria takes me upstairs and shows me a fluffy cloud of white linen bed where I can rest my head later and pours me a glass of Brandon Estate, a New Zealand wine, one of my favourites. I have arrived at the start of my grand 60th Tour.

The next day, Maria and I walk around Hampstead Heath, around the ponds, up to Kite Hill where we study the view alongside the Sunday afternoon hoards, the children, the dogs and we reminisce. It takes a little time to refract an old friendship into the ray of light it used to be. It takes time to blend after 25 years of brief meetings over restaurant tables and at funeral homes. Now we are sixty instead of twenty. Our children are grown up and the world is at war with itself. We are no longer it’s life blood. We need to deconstruct before we rebuild, so, unconsciously, it seems, we go back to our beginnings to walk and talk. My life began on the Heath. We amble around, relaxed, pointing out places where we were caught mitching, ponds we met at to smoke and drink, the bush where my bike was stolen, where I played the drunken game of tennis with my dad, where I had my first kiss with Martin.

On Monday morning, I go to Clapham to see the brothers. We go for breakfast in Pimlico, at the popular Regency Diner where the queue of people stretches out of the door and Marco yells at a customer for grabbing a table before getting their food. Later, we catch a train from Kings Cross to the South East Coast, to a small sea-side town where the boys have rented a fine house with a garden. They live half their week there.

Deal is a small seaside town in Kent and an assortment of architectural design: Georgian, Victorian, Fifties and Sixties.  Small two and three storey houses face a sparkling golden red shingle beach, and the pier is a brutally beautiful, concrete structure. The town is crammed with fish and chips, tea shops, organic butchers, restaurants, hanging baskets. The banks are closing, M&S has gone but Sainsbury thrives and is situated next to the station which, as my brother says, is handy.

I had a lovely time with the bros. We ate, meandered and I watched the sun rise at 5.37am both mornings. I got up early and strolled down the prom, studying the different shapes and structures of the buildings, and watching the sea gulls scavenge the bins for breakfast, screeching. Where the prom meets the golf course, I leaned on the railing and watched the sun emerge from the sea, casting its red and golden light across the sky. It’s probably been forty years since I have watched a sun rise. I couldn’t believe how fast it was. I thought, if it continued to race like that throughout the day, evening would be here within three hours. I know time speeds up as you age, but this seemed ridiculous.

Later that morning, the soaring sunshine sadly vanished and was replaced by monsoon rains. I left Deal to keep a lunch date with my oldest friend, Mandy. We met in the first pub I ever frequented as a child: The Old Eagle in Camden. It used to have lovely red flock wallpaper, comfy leather bench seats and a bar billiards table. Now everything is hard wood, guitars hang from the ceiling and the bar billiards has gone. Mandy has blossomed from a quiet, timid child into a fabulously raucous woman with strong opinions. She is an active trade unionist, a socialist, and like her mother, attracts trouble which she then faces with an up-front, in your face, no nonsense response, the results of which provide excellent drinking stories which Mandy tells with Oscar winning performances. One such story was about her lodger, who, refusing to acknowledge his developing cancer, died, leaving a room full of hoarded rubbish including rifles, hand grenades, live ammunition and Semtex. The house was cordoned off, the bomb squad called, and Mandy was evacuated to her VW camper van outside the front door (really).

Four hours later, at 5 o’clock, laughing and crying, I leave the pub and Mandy and Barry (her partner) to meander (I use the word again, purposefully) up to Manor House to begin my visit with Lesley, my beautiful, teetotal, vegetarian friend who travels the world, visits exhibitions, goes to the theatre, and reads prolifically. She listens to the stories of my visit so far, makes sure I eat a proper dinner and puts me to bed.

The next day, Lesley and I go to the Moon in glorious sunshine. The Moon is hanging out in Greenwich as the central feature of a lovely exhibition. Back in the day, Greenwich was an awkward place to get to from North London, but now transport links are so extensive (when they work), it takes less than an hour. There is lots to do in Greenwich. There are more fabulous views from the National Observatory (itself a wonderful building), the Cutty Sark, a lovely, twee market selling jewellery and royal Doulton plates with pics of the royal family, and the National Maritime Museum where we found the Moon.

Did you know that the moon is a place where all that is lost on earth can be found and that there is a Sea of Crisis and a Bay of Rainbows there? Apparently, Apollo landed in the Sea of Tranquillity. I hoped these places were more exciting that the massive housing estates built in the boomtime in Ireland and so similarly named.

Having explored Greenwich to our satisfaction and lunched at a lovely Indian restaurant where I had my first lassie drink for years (sour yoghurt, delicious), we caught the Clipper boat West up the river to London Bridge. How London glitters and shines these days. The docks and wharves are converted into sparkling luxury flats and offices shaped like diamonds, gherkins, cheese graters, walkie talkies, domes. From London Bridge we caught the bus traversing the City, past St Paul’s, through Hackney, Dalston, Camden into Haringey – repeating the journey of my younger days. Except then, I never knew where I was in my London. It was grimy, exciting with adventure and love on every corner. This time it was cleaner, and I knew the way.

Thursday night, although still staying with Lesley, I was meeting my second oldest friend, Susie whom I have known since primary school. She still looks like she could be attending Gospel Oak. We met in a wine bar in Finsbury Park and went for grub in Stroud Green Road where she regaled me with stories of her love life. Yes, she still has one aged sixty plus and it is still as fraught as when we were sixteen. It was great to see her, but a relief, to meander again up to Manor House and seek refuge with Lesley.

The following day, I said my goodbyes to Lesley who was about to take herself off to Jordan and set off for Oxford by way of the bus which I got on at Marble Arch. It was raining again, so when Ruth picked me up at the station, she took me to  charming The Perch pub on the banks of Thames where she knew a fire would be roaring. It was, and there were candles everywhere as, for some reason, the power had gone. After a quick pint and a fish plate, we went home and snuggled up, drinking lots of tea, chatting to Sam, her son, cooking, welcoming Phil her husband back from an arduous day in London – all very domesticated and relaxing. I felt like the old Kate. The English Kate was beginning to peek out from behind the visitor’s visor.

On Saturday morning, after sharing tea in bed and dreams with Ruth, just like in the old days, I got on a bicycle for the first time in six years, since my hip operation. I wobbled merrily along the river paths and parks of the Oxfordshire flatlands to the open air, heated, swimming pool where children played in the shallow end and an older age group swam in sedate watery lanes. Then a bike ride home for breakfast, a tour of the garden and allotment, and off for a walk to meet Maria who was joining us. Maria, Ruth and I lived together for three years at university in Norwich forty years ago. On our way back, we popped into the Tap Social which is based in an industrial estate (opposite the foodbank) behind Ruthie’s house, and lo and behold, it was carnival time! At Ruth’s insistence, we got pints in, sat outside in glorious sunshine listening to DJs flip steel bands and west African music. We managed to return home to eat Phil’s pork belly and beans but then went back to Carnival and danced, hot, sweaty, hip searing steps like it was 1981. Old Kate was in her element. That night, Maria and I shared a bed, whispering quietly about our day.

On Sunday, Maria returned to her London life, getting ready to pick up her daughter from her camping holiday and her husband from his weekend of mother care. For our 60th birthdays, Ruth and I had booked four hours of an art workshop on Sunday doing acrylics and watercolours with an artist who lives in the Cotswolds. I had forgotten how pretty those villages are. He taught us about vanishing points and showed me how put things in perspective. I have been trying to learn this for 60 years – and not just on paper! We returned home, Ruth cooked a Sunday dinner of roast of chicken, carrots, chard and potatoes from the allotment and we adjourned to watch Poldark before bed. Monday morning, Ruth and Phil left early for work, I went off to catch my bus to Gatwick and their two sons stayed in bed. The world felt it was as it should be. I was returning home to Ireland, to my Cavan life of words, walks and water. I was looking forward to seeing Jerry, Poppins and sleeping in my own bed in my own home. But the 60th grand tour was wonderful. Not only did it give me perspective on my life, but it showed me how lucky I am,  and reminded me who I am and where I come from. Like Bill Anders, the astronaut said

“We come to explore the moon and the most important thing we discover is the earth.”

 

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A Muse

Last week as I negotiated the uneven pebbles and stones on Wicklow beach in my sandals, I saw the surf rise from the sea. A flotilla of floating gulls flew away one by one. Poppins Dog barked at the shore as sprays of white lifted from the waves, broke apart, drifted away on the wind, directionless, leaving the ocean behind, grey, without motion, ripples, nor undercurrent. As if with no lunar pull.

I remembered this yesterday watching the Boris show. Why I don’t know. His mop of hair, maybe, like a sea gull?  He stepped up to the podium, triumphant. Made a speech of hope and glory amid cheers, roars, shouts of protest. Then, as usual, Open Sesame, the door of No Ten admitted him, except, did you notice, Boris also knocked to get in. That amused me.

Which is why I am in two minds about Boris as Prime Minister. It has been truly sad to see the old country torn whipped, wounded on its knees after swallowing the poison dished by Dominic Cummings, now appointed by Boris, to stalk the corridors of British power.

I’m sorry, but Brexit has turned Britain into a performance. But, what is a show without Knaves? Without a simpleton puppet who thinks he can fix everything by waving his sceptre? Like the prince in Shrek One. I hope Boris will precipitate the end, the final scene, the culminating battle. Let’s hope it is more entertaining than Games of Thrones and that Jeremy Corbyn can be the Saviour, though I must admit, John McDonnell is my true hero, my Brave Heart, which, oddly enough, was filmed on the beaches of Wicklow.

braveheart

 

 

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Life Goes On

Sicily is already a faded footprint. There is no trace of the lava rock and ash that dirtied and bloodied my feet as I climbed Mount Etna in the flimsiest of sandals. It is hard now to imagine another person lying on my bed beneath the beautifully painted fresco on the ceiling. The poems of the paper machié girl suspended, swinging, beneath the vast moon have disappeared. The heat of the sun beating down on my skin as I walked across the marble piazzas are intangible memories. The noise of the traffic and trains outside my window in Catania have receded.  Sicily has almost vanished, simply because I am not there.

Yet, the woman whom I watched most evenings ply her trade beneath my balcony stays with me.

The Street Walker at 10pm

I watch as she adjusts her black hair in the dusty rear window

Of a black escort van parked by the zebra, her fingers

Push, twizzle, curl and flounce.

She seems momentarily satisfied and turns.

Her high silver heels totter her step, legs carved

into tight fitting hot pants, she prowls

up and down. When a man in a white van stops,

there is no talk. She gesticulates.

Four fingers. A thumb.

He passes on. She returns to the escort, fine tunes

A hair, turns back to the flow, the roar of the cars,

I can feel the rhythm. Edgy as hell.

 

We were staying in Catania, the second city of the island on the South Coast of Sicily. On one of the days, we went on a single gauge train into the interior, around the foothills of Mount Etna. I couldn’t understand why the first half of the journey was pitted with black, jazzed lava rock with barely any growth yet the second half was an oasis of grasses, camomile, whin bushes, mimosa, lemon and orange trees, olive groves: a glory of colour and scent flooded the tiny dusty carriages. There were bells ringing at crossroads as we rumbled past, people worked in the fields, tended the land by hand. The pastoral scene looked like an impressionist painting. Massimo, who guided us around Mount Etna a few days later, told me that lava is full of nutrients, sulphur, copper, iron and after a hundred years, these nutrients feed the soil. The terrain on the first part of the journey was the result of the 2005 eruption. In another seventy years, it would be lush, if Etna does not erupt again in a major way. When we went up to the top of Mount Etna, the ground was rocky and  black. It reminded me of a quarry. The terrain was like a moon scape – craters and peaks, black and grey. In the winter, it is pure white, and a skiing resort, with gentle blue, green and red slopes. It must be magnificent.

 

My two favourite Sicily days were visiting Ortigia, Syracuse and going to the Norman Castle built on lava rock at the edge of Catania. Ortigia is an island of alleyways, with an astounding white marble Piazza and Cathedral which I am sure is polished daily. We wanted to go by train but were given a bus ticket at the Statzione. The trains were not running. Massimo (our later guide) informed me that sometimes, in Sicily, it is simply too hot so that the train drivers get too tired!

My favourite meal of the holiday was after visiting the Norman castle where a man regaled me with tales of Cyclops throwing rocks. Lunch was huge, shiny, black mussels, a salad and a bottle of Sicilian white wine in a small café in a tiny square which we shared with fifteen Maltese holiday makers. Then back to the frieze for a siesta.

So, aside from the drinks in cafes, walks in the park, shopping in air conditioned stores to get cool, that was Sicily. Since returning two days ago, I have read the PEN Case Study list which is an immensely depressing list of imprisoned writers to try choose three or four to focus on campaigning for in 2020,  immersed myself in a seminar on human values (we prioritised respect, social justice, freedom, and equality), participated in a new Peace IV project called A Cavan Convergence (what do borders mean), and went to see Float Like a Butterfly with the Cavan Traveller Movement which was charming. And I have been preparing for my two day weekend writing course, photocopying materials and planning the lunches. And so, Sicily has gone.

My next adventure is a marriage in Manchester the weekend after next. It is the first of the younger Fitzpatrick Clan to wed. Yes, life goes on, each day leading to another, and then quickly disappearing, however immediate and important we believed it to be at the time.

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“Writing is Like Walking into a Room and Dancing with a Complete Stranger”: The heightened emotion of my 60th Celebrations:

There was no dancing during my 60th birthday celebrations, so this piece of writing is as close as I will get to the Nabokov simile which I heard three times at the Borris Festival of Creative Ideas and Writing on day six of my birthday celebrations. On the birthday itself, I felt prickly and anxious. My stomach was a kaleidoscope of different patterned beads. Dancing was not an option. I was more concerned that old age might come barrelling out of a corner, hunch backed, wart faced with 300 dernier flesh coloured stockings. However, when I glanced in the mirror,  I looked the same as yesterday, maybe a little paler. What did come barrelling out was a worm, inveigling its way through my intestine, slippery with what felt like a lascivious grin on its face. However, with a taut lip, and a determination as grim faced at Teresa May’s, I started baking cakes and experimenting with cocktails in preparation for the start of the celebrations. There was certainly no dancing with strangers.

On the day of the party, I discovered that cocktails and cakes are good ingredients for a celebration. Gluten free flour is less successful (my beautiful cakes crumbled), but what did work was the limited number of friends who, because they all lived in the same county, knew each other, or of each other, and were happy to chat and gossip. My hostess skills were not necessary and, very quickly, I found myself surplus to requirements. I was able to retire to the outer ripples of the party and enjoy the Sangria amid the hubbub of natural chatter and laughter.

The next day, however, not wanting to risk the sudden appearance of the wart faced, hunchback with flesh coloured stockings, I followed the last guest out the door and hot tailed it for Limerick.

Limerick is a licorice all-sorts kind of city. I love the wide, elegant Georgian streets that rise out of the chill of the narrow alleyways. Giant, foreboding, grey stone warehouses overhang and shadow the flower laden bridges. Tiny red bricked terraced houses line up to the grandeur and rotundity of St John’s Castle. It is a city with no airs and graces and is full of fluidity and light. I love the splendour of the Shannon, the fast pace of the Abbey River; the way water  of the rivers and canal weaves itself around the flow of the city. It has few pretensions. Limerick combines ancient with modern and thrives on itself, its history and seems to have no need of the outside world.

We walked in Clare Glens for the first time, climbing up alongside a gushing, rushing, swirling river and through swishing ashes, rain laden oaks and birches. The rhodendrums shimmered a purple haze. We got back to town just in time to go to hear a Brahms and Beethoven recital at a lunch time concert in the ancient,atmospheric St Mary’s Cathedral. Then off for Pizza and back for an official tour of the Treaty Beer brewery in Nicholas St, except it wasn’t the brewery. It was more a show house ( a very fine one with a beautiful, 13th century ‘Rembrandt’ wall). Steve, the proprietor/showman, stood at a classic walnut and cherry bar and, declaimed to Joe and myself, the glory of Limerick, his ancestry and the history of Treaty Beer. Great craic. Other Limerick highlights were the young women in the Social Democrat branch meeting I accompanied Joe to. They were excited, enthusiastic, and committed. In the pub after, we discussed setting up work plans, goals, how to reach further into the local community. Meanwhile, the young Social Democrat men huddled together, over pints discussing stats, data, and political gossip.

The Borris Festival of Writing and Creative Ideas was next on my celebratory schedule.  Joe drove me across rolling pastures of sheep, elderflower and hawthorn, past sombre mountain ranges, through small towns and villages with strange names and odd ancestry, deeper into a lush green unknown. As we were using Google Maps, I had no reference to where we were passing through, or what the mountains were. However, eventually, Joe and Google dropped me off (“Dada will pick you up on Sunday, have a good time, have you got your sandwiches?”) and waved me away, no doubt relieved to have fulfilled his filial duties.

I began stage four of the celebrations listening to William Dalrymple interview Simon Schama, sitting on a damp chair, in a mizzling rain, outside the Borris Ballroom for 25 minutes. I haven’t read any Simon Schama books, and I couldn’t see him, but he obviously hails from the upper English class as his talk was littered with Oxbridge, and art or literary references which flew between the quadraphonic speakers over my head. After a while, shivering, I felt ready to go to the Step House Hotel for ‘A Living Hell’, a discussion about Yemen between Ben Anderson and Lindsay Hilsum, two war correspondents. It was an aptly titled session (but, happily for us in a warm, comfortable surroundings). I was impressed by the knowledge, and passion of both journalists. In a sense, their dedication reflected the grim determination of both the Huthis and the Saudi backed men and child fighters, to fight to the death despite the cholera, famine, death, starvation, and homelessness that is wreaked on their family and peoples. War is a terrible thing and seems to be the corollary to man.

In contrast, the Julian Barnes session next was like listening to liquid gold. Instead of the crude bang of land mines and bullets, there was English reserve, understated, gentle humour, and a deft handling of the interview with Alex Clark. I liked his idea that a novelist will never know all the sources of their writing, even when the book is finished. Writing is like memory, as time passes, it changes complexion and colour. Both Barnes and Hisham Matar (The Return), who I saw interviewd later, referred to the importance of changing perceptions and imagination in both fiction and non-fiction.

Borris is a great combination of politics and literature, and I like mixing and matching the two. The MisInformation Age session featured Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, Misha Glenny, the ubiquitous Simon Schama and Fintan O’Toole. It was an interesting discussion on the Mexican narcos, corruption, globalisation, Trump, Brexit but the male hormones were flying up on the stage, and it became a bit of a pissing contest as to who knew the most. Also, at the end of it, I felt that I had listened to the gloom and doom of this subject matter long enough, and wanted to hear more about possible alternatives.

I had, by now, met up with my partners in crime and we ended the day picnicking with pizza, wine, olives, hummus, crisps sitting in foldable picnic chairs, drinking out of wine glasses, in the shelter of the car. They had come prepared.

I went to Afghanistan and Libya the next day with Christina Lamb (war correspondent) and Hisham Matar who were discussing non-fiction. Both authors felt that non fiction writing was motivated by the need for truth, but Matar felt that imagination was absolutely crucial to non-fiction as non-fiction is a selection of life, coloured by enthusiasm. While Christina Lamb nodded, she felt that her books were underscored by the rhetorical questions of ‘why do people have to die and for what?’. She reflected on the question that is never considered by any army, what happens next?

‘Heightened emotion’ is a core ingredient in every piece of writing, fiction, non fiction, reportage, but it is particularly so in the gothic novel as discussed by Joe O’Connor and Sarah Perry. I was intrigued by this discussion as I hadn’t really thought about the inversion of right and wrong in gothic writing, the bargain between the individual and the other, the multiplicity of selves, the fluidity of identity, the exaggeration of the rhythm and the spotlight of the tone. I’m going to read both Joe O’Connor and Sarah Perry’s latest books, Shadowplay and Melmouth, respectively.

Donal Ryan and Nicole Slattery were both charming and fluid and provided a relaxing interlude to the war torn realities and heightened emotion of the writers that had made up my day so far. The whispered, undulating vowels, soft consonants, the gentle praise and the pretty surroundings of the chapel had a lovely soothing effect. I was also interested that Nicole Slattery perfects each paragraph before she moves on to the next, as indeed, I discovered does Hishmar Matar. When I dance with my total stranger, I step on toes and twirl in the wrong places. Only after getting the feel of him, do I get his rhythm.

Martin Amis and Julian Barnes were in perfect rhythm discussing Christopher Hitchens. Between the two and fro of them, they drew a wonderful caricature of the once editor of the New Statesman and supposed life-long Trotskyist. Hitchens came from the British upper class, attended Oxford, was loud, acerbic, arrogant, a brilliant thinker but, apparently, a terrible writer. He believed he didn’t have the musicality to write and that it was ‘frivolous’ to invent someone who wasn’t real. Julian Barnes thought it was more because he probably couldn’t write women characters. His female descriptions would have been more in the PG Wodehouse mode of ‘fragrant’. As they discussed Christopher Hitchens and regaled us with anecdotes, it sounded to me like Hitchens was like many well educated, upper class men: arrogant, cruel, witty, and irrational. Amis agreed that he took positions that were difficult to justify – like being an anti abortionist on the premise that his mother had had two abortions, one before he was born, one after. Apparently, Hitchens railed “It could have been Hitch!” Both Barnes and Amis agreed that he was a ‘self shackling Houdini.”

On the last day of Borris, I discovered a new heroine in actor, Fiona Shaw. She was interviewed by Olivia O’Leary. I found myself gazing up at her in the Ballroom, mesmerised by her humour, wit, intelligence, vivacity and I was totally engrossed in her anecdotal stories about rehearsals, props and accents. She has given me a template to take me to my 70th birthday: props need to be done away with and if you are engaged with what you do, your heartbeat goes up, and so does your audience. Also, Shakespeare doesn’t work with a Cork accent.

So, finally, that afternoon Dada did pick me up and took me home. Great 60th celebrations and I want to thank everyone who shared them with me. If you travel with me to the 70th, look forward a racing pulse! I’m looking for dance partners. I hope you feel highly emoted.

 

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