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)



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.




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.


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).


A weekend of Culture with a Vengeance in Bray

On Friday 22 September, I could feel the slick in my throat and tried coughing. It didn’t move. I sighed and kept on driving, the wipers casting away the rain as I drove down N3 to Dublin, back and forth, lash and slash. Windscreen wipers, motorways and rain are the epitome of misery, I thought. Its not fair, here I am setting off for adventures in Culture, and my chest feels bitter, my eyes are icicles and my throat feels like a twisted snake. Mind over matter, I thought, twisting my mouth into a determined smile. Let the duel begin.

My first port of cultural call was Gortnamona where Gill, Stephanie and Samuel, Gill’s two year old grandson, were pitched. There is nothing more artful than a glorious, happy go lucky two year old boy who enjoys food, football, golf and is happy to kiss strangers under the kitchen table. He was a delight, particularly when watching him stuff his mouth with the joys of pancakes.

I was reminded of the windscreen wipers later at the Vera Klutz exhibition in the Hibernian Art Gallery, the first port of Cultural call for Steph and myself in Dublin. Klutz had a series of mechanically operated waving arms, maybe 25 of them on one wall, waving like wipers. I wanted to adorn them with bracelets, have dripping blood flowing down the wall. I really liked her sculpture, and her video looped brains/heads. Each exhibition piece was different. I was impressed by her versatility. It was a wonderfully eclectic, very exciting exhibition

Stephanie and I then meandered around St Stephen’s Green, stopping at Dublin artist, Dermot Brennan’s work: fantastic water colours where the paint trickles, fades, and leaks on to the beach, bridge, rain, rivers that are his subjects. The contrast of colours is superb. I want paintings of the lady with the orange umbrella. He is at St Stephen’s Green most Sundays. Worth a visit.

I was also really taken with the Royal College of Physicians building in Kildare St which had opened its portal for the day. What a fabulous 18th century building: grand staircase, ornate wood panelling, cornices, stained glass and the most fabulous wooden Dun’s library dating from the 16th century. But what was most fascinating was the staff uniform. They looked very debonair, stylish and sexy in a fine 18th century military outfit. Steph had stopped to ask about the discrepancy between the 18th century building and 16th century library. The uniformed member of staff explained but I wasn’t really listening as I was too busy staring at her, wondering why she was dressed like that. It seemed rude to ask. I wish I had.

Then we set off for Poetry Ireland to catch the last of the readings from the Trocaire / Poetry Ireland competition winners (so sorry to miss Angela Carr and Bernie Crawford’s poem) but it was lovely to chat to them both. Later, I enjoyed listening to Matthew Sweeney and Jackie Gorman who are part of this year’s Introductory Poets Series. We popped over to the Irish Writers Centre just in time to hear the last few readers of the writers’ soap box.

Now, food and wine are an important feature of culture, and I was delighted to have Stephanie drive me all the way back to Glenageary to feed me leek and potato soup and a lovely New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The throat was stilled after half a bottle. Sadly, it came back with a vengeance in the night. The voice went missing altogether in Bray at the Literary Festival the next day. The ears were still in place  so most of my body parts did pay attention to the wonderful array of poems, stories from Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Alan McMonagle, Catherine Dunne, Anne Marie ni Churreáin, Paul Bragazzi, Orfhlaith Foyle, Tanya Farrelly, Martin Malone, David Butler and John McKenna (phew) in lovely venues across the town. Well done to the Bray Literary Festival Team. But this morning, the chest set up its cannon ball of coughs and the nose was on artillery duty, so I took to the hills and had to miss the rest of the fest!


Summer in Cavan, China, London, Istanbul, Palestine and the USA

photo-10-09-2016-11-45-04This summer, I have pottered about Cavan, walked, swam, visited London, Borris, Dublin, Belfast, Galway. I have had a few poems and a couple of short stories published and have done a lot of editing of my first novel. I have also been at a few readings and festivals. I have sent material to an agent, and I am looking forward to a second mentoring session with my second novel. So, not a bad season. I have also travelled around the world, reading novels.

A Spring foray was to China, reading The Vagrants by Yi Yun Li. It was a grim depiction of Muddy River, a small town in China at the end of the Communist era under Mao. Poverty, violence, madness, despair, cruelty. Layer apon layer of human degradation with the occasional ray of love quickly snuffed out by the social system. It was an incredibly sad portrayal of the ruthlessness and utter devastation social oppression brings to bear on humanity. There was little of positive enlightenment except for the comment of one character that today, tomorrow, this month, year or season is not the whole of your life. It is only a part of your life. I guess, that is encouraging to remember: everything always changes.

The impact of society is a prevalent theme, at the moment. I guess, it is because people are feeling increasingly powerless. In My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal reflects on the battle the individual child faces in the development of modern society. She captures the innate love of a boy for his irresponsible and incapable mother well, and then his dawning realisation of difference. She tells a fascinating story of the journey of a black nine year old boy struggling with separation, a white social order, its collapse, and the slow growing awareness of his own presence, coloured by his skin and the violence thrust upon him.

I did not feel the same engagement about Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary. He describes Mary’s worry, anxiety, love, and fear for her son, and while, as a reader, I believed in her tangle of confusion, disbelief, longing, but, for me, Tóibín was unable to capture the tension I felt there should have been. To be honest, I felt conned and found it superficial. He has written it all before both in Brooklyn and Nora Webster.

Colm Tóibín shared (dominated) a platform with Richard Ford at Borris back in June. I would like to have heard a lot more from Ford, having just finished Let Me Be Frank With You. The book reflects the random haphazardness that exists today. ‘I am here’ is the theme of the first section, constantly undermined by characters needing to be ‘there’. There are parallel conflicts throughout the book: democrats/ republicans, the past/ the future; youth/ age, the wealth of Carnage Hill (the home of the wealthy sick) and the poverty of the dying, man/woman, black and white experiences.  I really enjoyed the subtle tension of the book and the questions Ford raises about the nature of individual existence within a runaway, chaotic society.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak was one of my favourite books this summer. It looks how history plays its role in the present. It is set in Istanbul and Arizona. The story focuses on the impact of the Armenian experience at the hands of the Turks and shows how the experience reverberates through the generations – each individual gathering the bitterness and bequeathing the hurt and resentment forwards. The main protagonists are a family of women (the men die early) of different shapes, sizes and temperament. They display a series of reactions – to their history, to each other. It reflects human chemistry in motion. The women are bold, startling and revolve around dishes of food and emotion, one feeding off the other. The males in the book are lost in an ocean of feminine determinism.

Using the ‘Café Kundera’ as a sardonic philosophical tool, Shafak spots a light on the how conversation influences, misdirects, inspires and is ultimately meaningless other than as a tool of self regard. I love her titles of the conversationalists: the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, the Non-Nationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies, the Closet Gay Columnist and the Exceptionally Untalented Poet, to name a few. Her key protagonists are the teenage daughters who are whirl wind twisters in a storm of chaotic history that dissolves into magical allegorical ribboned with human cruelty and power. The book pulsates. A bubbling minestrone soups with cherries on top. It was a completely different experience to Graham Green’s memoir along whose dusty corridors of power I am currently creeping.


The Best of the British Bulldog

I am just back from a few days in Belfast. We stayed in a great apartment overlooking the Lagan and wandered around the city centre on the first afternoon. I’ve always liked Belfast, it chimes for me of Northern England: messy, incoherent streets with the occasional wow factor in buildings, like the Opera House and City Hall. During this particular meander, the city was stuffed with tourists wandering around, turning maps upside down, stopping on street corners. Streets seemed to be cleaner, buildings shinier. The city seemed to be prosperous, booming, none of the jaded, bombed out fatigue of the past.

The next day we walked along the river walk – through the old Docks, littered with art, artefacts, tourism trails, old ships, the magnificent Water Front, the Arena and finally arrived at The Titanic, itself an extraordinary building. It rises up from the Harland & Woolf Dock, a silver, concertina like structure, solid, assertive but also looking like it might fold into nothing. It was humming with people and taking the tour, I felt part of a well-oiled machine. I was impressed. I learned a lot about ship building; the gantry, rivets, and Belfast, itself a hub of industrialisation at the turn of the 20th century. I learned about the Belfast Ropework Company, the biggest and best in the world, the linen factories, the glass factories, the breweries. We traversed the experience of working the gantry in a rail car, rattling up and down, through heights and depths, screens of men drilling, banging, balancing, hammering, welding, made me aware for the first time of the dangers, the skills, the courage and the pride of the ship builders. The exhibition showed me the real story of the Titanic from its planning, drawing, manufacture, it’s fitting out with the best of everything: luxurious Axminster carpets, mahogany, oak, brass, gold, furnishings of the highest quality, chandeliers, four poster beds, porcelain basins, menus including potted shrimp, veal, corned beef, ox tongue, soused herrings, galantine of chicken, custard pudding. And then, after all this magnificent build up, it was gone in a flash, very appropriate. All that I saw next was a gin bottle and a china plate floating in the debris field at the bottom of the ocean.


When I was driving home, I was thinking about what it must have been like to work on the gantry. The men would have to be skilled, courageous and have their wits about them to be working thousands of feet in the air with heavy tools and no safety provision in the elemental hazards of wind, rain, cloud, sun and no protection. So different to the miners crawling along dark, dank, dirty shafts. Both trades involved such dangerous work yet men were paid a pittance and many lives were taken. It is a warped world we live in.  I couldn’t do either, and I don’t think many could nowadays.  But in a sense, at least the ship builders must have felt the power and glory of working in the sky and creating something so extraordinary.

The reason I was in Belfast was poetry. I attended a poetry event at the Eastside Arts Festival, an event co-organised with Over The Edge, Eastside Arts Centre and Poetry Northern Ireland. To get there, and later to the hotel where our friends, Over The Edge facilitators, Susan and Kevin, were staying, we walked through close knitted, two storey, red bricked terraced streets of houses hung together with pennants and union jacks, conjoined with streams of bunting fluttering over gardens. On many corners were murals of militia, firearms, words of freedom and unity were painted with precision on walls.  Suffocating defensiveness or claustrophobia were the words that muraled my mind.

The event itself was wonderful. Poems flowed. The open mic wound around the room while people shared poems that reflected on love, division, equality, nature, silence, uncertainty, violence, change. I felt privileged to be able to contribute. The East Side Visitors Centre has been open a year. It is light airy, a café and exhibition space and the people are warm and friendly. It overlooks a skate boarding park which also celebrates CS Lewis and Aslan, the lion, stands proud in bronze. While waiting for the poetry begin, I watched two British Bulldogs skating on boards with great skill and panache, three legs balancing while the fourth leg pushed. I felt privileged to be British, yes, but happy to be living in Ireland.

british bull dog