On Balance…

The pleasures of books, chocolate, pies, piano playing and puzzles are the fancy curlicues of my life since Covid 19 sauntered in, alongside the grim gargoyles of death, disease, social distancing, not to mention the endemic usage of phrases like ‘strange times’ and ‘stay safe’. Life is so strangely balanced between light and dark, don’t you think?

Colum McCann’s latest book, Apeirogon, A Novel, is a story of balance. It must have been a labour of love to write. It is observant, astute, intelligent, detailed yet freewheeling, tight but unwieldy at the same time. As I say, a labour of love, certainly to read, but I am glad I did. I am currently reading Isobel Allende’s A Long Petal of Sea about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the life of a Spanish émigré, a medic, who travelled on the Winnipeg, organised by Chilean poet, Neruda, to carry the Spanish refugees to Chile. Again, the book depicts the horrors of disease and death caused and encountered by human kind. I must say, as I get older, death and illness seem have a more tenacious hold on my life

During our own war on Covid 19, I have found the clamour of Facebook too much to bear, so have had to keep away from social media. I also lack the impetus to write, but I force myself to pen the odd charming poem about walking in the woods, Spring time and loneliness. However, in the main, I have retreated, cocooned myself, you could say, in the back rooms of the bungalow to re-piece together our globe by doing a puzzle of the world as depicted by all the continents and their habitats. I also practice my piano scales. Somehow, playing piano scales, the scale of C in particular, gives me a stronger sense of control over days which pass in mindless contemplation. I imagine myself as the piano player in Sarajove, except I’m in Cavan and, sadly for my neighbours,  the scale of C is not as melodic as the Adagio in G Minor.

Funnily, enough music chimes strong in another book I have read during this time, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. It too is strangely redolent of our current experience of isolation and confusion. It tells of a large group of industrialists and foreign dignitaries listening to a recital by a world renowned opera singer. They are kidnapped and kept prisoner in the vice presidential palace over a period of two months. It is beautifully written and shows how people adapt to their circumstances, and if given time, silence, and a different environment, people will carve their own particular significance and being into the dynamic.

Family quizzes feature on a weekly basis. I organise zoom poetry sessions between old friends and so while I might not be writing much, poetry does feature. I listen to The Verb, a wonderful arts programme on Radio Three and am currently reading a book where Helen Mort writes poems in response to philosophical papers, again a rather odd coincidence given the philosophical bent of physical isolation. It is a rather fine volume called Poems, Philosophy and Coffee. Family and old friends feature more in my daily life –if at a distance – that is people who have experienced the times I consider to be my real, actual life and not just the days that have passed with me in them, as the current days do.

So, I almost didn’t write this month’s blog:  the week in Portugal didn’t happen, nor the Cork Poetry Festival, nor the Trim Weekend. There have been no visits to Dublin, Limerick or anywhere. There was no Easter Egg hunt. However, as it turns out, and it always does when I put pen to paper, that I have been engaged, absorbed, and as Ann Patchett illustrates in Bel Canto, I have carved out a new life…and I haven’t even got to the pastry making or the delicious liver and bacon casseroles I’ve been making nor the endless games of solo boggle!

Stay safe!

World Puzzle
liver and bacon casserole
heart of pine cones found in the forest

An Existential Conundrum

It has been 21 days since Leo Vradkar first appeared on TV and announced school closures and other cautionary measures around tackling the Corona Virus. I had been watching Boris earlier, so when Leo came on, I was very proud and relieved to be an Irish citizen. He brought tears to my eyes. The only other person who has been able to do that was Stephen Spielberg with ET back in the 1980s when I found myself weeping uncontrollably in the cinema, while laughing manically at this manipulation of my tear ducts. It was a similar experience on my living room sofa on the 27 March. Fortunately, because I already lived in social isolation, no one saw.

Social isolation has its benefits…as maybe people are beginning to recognise. There are more people exercising, smiling and waving while also keeping their distance. There is a great feeling of camaraderie. The community is sharing food, making deliveries to those who need it. No longer is it shameful to feel lonely, for everyone is feeling lonely or frightened. There are new forms of engagement. I am doing quizzes on-line with family. I am in contact with friends who before I would speak to only occasionally. Social distancing in supermarkets means a much more enjoyable shopping experience where one has time and space to ponder and choose.

My days haven’t changed dramatically due to Covid 19 because as a writer/poet, and retired person living in Cavan, they don’t really involve other people. I wake up, write or edit what I’m working on, get up, take the dog for a walk, listen to podcasts, have lunch while listening to the radio, read a book, listen to more radio, clean, shop, cook, watch TV and back to bed. After a few weeks of this routine, I do get what I term ‘Cavan Fever’. However, I am usually able to offset that with a visit to Limerick or Dublin, or a book launch or some poetry festival somewhere. Obviously, the Corona Virus has stopped that travel. So, after twenty one days of ever increasing restrictions and walking around in ever decreasing circles, it feels as if my eyes are beginning to dart side to side, my hair is standing up on end, and my skin is feeling prickly.  These are the physical symptoms I feel.

But, I wonder at this physical reaction because the quality of my day to day life is good. Since Leo made his first announcement, I have given myself ‘permissions’ which for some reason I didn’t before. I decided to learn piano, to improve my mind by studying The Guardian Crosswork (Simple and Cryptic), to do puzzles, to paint, to allow myself cake and chocolate. I feel guilty saying it while all around me the world collapses, but my life is good. The restrictions on movement make me feel twitchy, but when hundreds of thousands of people are dying across the world, twitchy is grand.  Okay, when I watch the news, I feel sick. The emergency hospitals going up in Central Park in New York, in London exhibition centres, in grand Piazzas in Italy and Spain are horrifying to see, but by the same token, it is wonderful to see people come together,  work and respond as one – as a society. Why does it take such calamity for us to improve our lives, both as a society and as individuals?

There is so much discussion about Covid 19 – is it earth’s natural solution to the tyranny of mankind. I don’t want to add to that, but for me there is an uncomfortable question inherent in the unfolding Corona virus scenario that we need to consider. In the future, how do we make our society reflect the values around human rights that Covid 19 has shown us all to hold?

I am lucky. I don’t know anyone who is ill. The Irish lock down has presumably stemmed the spread of infection and the subsequent number of deaths. What I’d like to know is how we hold on to the benefits that the virus has shown us are possible without requiring the threat of death? Hopefully, the future Irish Government will reflect on this!


Home from Home

It seems that I haven’t stopped crying recently. I spent the weekend in London, and then the last few days in County Kerry and throughout this time I have required a constant stream of tissues which, unfortunately, I never had! The tears have been big, round rolling ones which spill involuntarily out of the eye. I usually tried to wipe them away before anyone saw. When I didn’t succeed, these tears led to big, embarrassed, foolish grins plastered on my face over which I had no control.

It all began when I returned to London to see The Boyfriend at the Chocolate Factory Theatre in Southwark. I flew into Gatwick and travelled into town. My brother, and his partner, my oldest childhood friends, various university friends, some with family, and my own daughter had already arrived at our pre show dinner,  so when I sat down, I felt a little emotional at having my nearest and dearest so close at hand. I managed to keep my composure but of course the show itself triggered the lachrymose gland that would continue to leak for the next five days!

The Boyfriend provoked a variety of emotions – joyous nostalgia, horror at the unremitting sexism, and amusement at how successfully the production undermined its own sentiments through exageration. It was almost grotesque. The costumes were rich in jewels, glitter and shimmer. The ‘girls’ were pitch perfect in giggle and chatter, and Mme Dubonnet was a treat to behold. Her outfits were perfect and her acting was superb. The dancing was fabulous. I do recommend it, particularly for people of my generation though I have to say, at 60, we were the youngest in the audience.

When I was at Primary School, my class put on The Boyfriend. We were nine years old. Watching the performance, I quivered with retrospective embarrassment at how our porky, pre-pubescent bodies must have looked, kicking and twirling in our flapper costumes. Aged ten, I had little concept of irony so I think all those songs yearning for Pierrots and love, and boyfriends in Bloomsbury, probably have a lot to answer for!

The next day, Maria, Malcolm and I set off to Colchester to visit Martin and Kobi, who had turned down the invitation to The Boyfriend. Martin is one of my first loves and has recently returned from New Zealand (where he is now a citizen) and he and his Kiwi partner, Kobi, are buying a place in Colchester…don’t ask. Anyway, after driving around endless Colchester roundabouts and suburban posh streets in Storm Enrique, looking at the hundreds of houses they didn’t buy, we drove out to Mersea Island to a popular sea shack to  eat gorgeous seafood. To get to Mersea Island, we had to cross a toll bridge over miles of brown, roiling, schlucking, glorious mud. Admittedly, there was actual water at the coastline with colourful, pretty boats jangling in the marina, but it was definitely offset by the grey sleeting curtain of wind and rain.  The shack, however, was a shanty of delight: live, crawling lobsters in tanks, mussels, crabs, shrimps, tuna, herrings, salmon. We feasted well! Me, a little too well and while I managed to contain my tears, my stomach rued the over-indulgence as Malcolm, Maria and I drove on to stay their country pad in Suffolk.

I awoke on Saturday to storm Jorge (I don’t know what happened to the storms beginning with F, G and H) and at the crack of dawn, we left Suffolk (I was fully recovered) and returned to Sunny London where I was meeting another old friend, Lesley. At about six o’clock, after visiting a rather fine textile and costume exhibition at 2 Temple Place, a very bizarre mushroom exhibition in Somerset House, and rather fine David Bomberg and Nicholas Maes paintings at the National Gallery, we were crossing Shaftesbury Avenue on our way to an Indian Restaurant on Carnaby Street.

“Look, Mary Poppins is on at the theatre!” I said, suddenly very excited. Some of you may know that Mary Poppins is my heroine and role model. ‘Practically perfect in every way’ is my daily mantra. “Let’s just see,” I said, disappearing into the foyer. In a click of the fingers I had bought two top priced tickets for just half their value – Seat 13, Row D, in the stalls – and in one hour, we were gazing up with expectant faces and gappy grins.

It was a magnificent and spectacular performance. I have never seen a show like it. The sets were wonderfully detailed and very sophisticated. Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane was like a huge dolls house. Bert and the Chimney Sweeps tapped and swept across the roof tops, even up the sides and over the ceiling of the theatre, and Mary Poppins flew with her parrot umbrella across the auditorium. It was true magic. She sailed up the bannisters, pulled standard lamps from her glorious carpet bag, and with a click of her fingers righted the wrecked kitchen destroyed when Jane and Michael baked a cake. The dancing statues were magnificent, and I loved Mrs Correy’s Talking Shop. I couldn’t control the tears. They streamed down my cheeks in utter joy! The songs were fabulous and performances superb. Zizi Strallen was a wonderful Mary Poppins and Petula Clark was the bird lady. It was indeed, to my view, practically perfect.

The British Library, which is where I met Jayne on a lovely, sunny Sunday, was a less exuberant joy but still a pleasure. I loved the maps from the 16th century, the manuscripts you can browse through, written by the Brontes and other beloved English writers. From there, Jayne and I ambled our way through Bloomsbury, calling in at the lovely Persephone bookshop, past our old Alma Mater, Kingsway- Princeton FE college, through the ancient grave yard where my first real boyfriend used to meet me for kisses and joints, to the new Boulevard Theatre in Soho to go to a poetry reading. The poets were a mixed bunch, but the event is a weekly one run by a crew called Live Cannon which I will check out. I enjoyed it. It is a venue to look out for.

Then back to Maria and Malcolm’s and a Sunday dinner (no longer a tradition in our house at home) where I enjoyed heated discussions with Mary, their fervent and committedly vegan seventeen year old, about her school’s appalling policy on toilets for trans people and its undemocratic attitudes. I had forgotten how teenagers keep you on your toes.

Over the weekend, there had been much discussion about the Covid 19 virus in London. Mary’s school discovered one of the pupils was a possible threat and kept him in the stock cupboard until he could be collected, so I was relieved to be back on home territory in Ireland on Monday and driving down to Kerry to take part in my beautiful Citizenship Ceremony at 9.30am on Tuesday morning. Arriving in from London, it was as if I had spent the weekend saying my goodbyes to my British heritage.

Would you believe, I welled up during the Minister of State’s speech at 10am in the morning! Due to my previous work, I have heard many Minister of States speak; but I have never found myself so poignantly moved. After taking my oath of fidelity to the state, I openly wept when judge Mcmahon pronounced that I was now Irish. Tears coursed down my cheeks. I couldn’t fling my arms around my closest Irish compatriot because of the Corona virus, but I nodded with shining eyes and we decided to elbow nudge instead. I have lived here for twenty-five years, and have many friends and acquaintances. I have worked for State agencies and across the country in a community development capacity. I have been very active in my own local community in Cavan, but I have always felt as if I didn’t truly belong because I wasn’t Irish. Now I am!

So, my weekend was a bit of a roller coaster of emotions. Being in London, spending time with my oldest friends in the place I was reared, visiting the landmarks of my youth, going to exhibitions and theatres reminds me of the girl I once was, and makes me feel safe. However, coming home to Ireland, receiving acknowledgement and acceptance of my life here as a mother, worker and woman and becoming a citizen of the land of saints and scholars was tremendous. You won’t believe this, but after the ceremony we took a drive through the Dunloe Gap of the stunning scenery of Macgillycuddy Reeks through blue skies, glorious sunshine and amazing black, formidable clouds. At the pass, I got out danced at the end of triple edged, watery rainbow!

Macgillycuddy Reeks
macgillycuddy Reeks again
Martin, Kobi and Maria on Mersea Island
Certificate of Citizenship

Taking a New Path – Out of Doolin

I was at the Doolin Writers festival last weekend. Its my fourth year going to Doolin and the faces are becoming more familiar. I might even remember people’s names when I turn up next year. It’s strange how friendships evolve. I meet someone once a year in a workshop, share a few readings, become firm friends over a few drinks and then don’t see them again for a year or even two, and some people I don’t ever talk to, yet every year I feel a part of something at Doolin! I feel like a fish swimming in a shoal or a starling flying in a murmuration.

Usually, going to festivals, at first, I feel cautious, nervous like a rough sketch of a charcoal character, or a figure in one of Lowry’s paintings. Probably, it is what most people feel, but if the workshop facilitator is good, s/he is able to turn us all into fine art (not saying that Lowry is not fine art). This year the workshop facilitators were excellent and I was turned into a Yeats figure (particularly after a few in Fitz’s bar).

I loved Jessica Traynor’s Poetry Workshop. She is a very adept painter, to continue the metaphor. Her brush strokes were deft, detailed and loving. We discussed and wrote poems about winter – the cold, bleak rawness of winter.  I had brought a poem of mine called the Grand Scheme of Things (after Arthur Rimbaud) to workshop. It is a poem about a slow realisation of how little our lives are in the grand scheme of things. It turned out to be the start of an interesting journey.

Pauline Clooney’s workshop on Memoir was fascinating and pointed me in a direction I wasn’t really expecting to take. When I was writing about the previous day, (as per one of Pauline’s exercises) I realised that I had not prepared for this writing weekend, it had merely been a date in my diary. In the morning, I had just got up, got the dog to the kennels, got in the car and driven . I couldn’t even remember which workshops I had signed up for. Describing my day, I suddenly realised that I had lost faith.  It was also in the memoir workshop that I met my dad. From his bag he gave me a French baguette, a camembert and a bottle of wine so we sat down and shared it. It was an unexpected pleasure and made me realise how much I have missed him in the last thirty years. Kathy D’Arcy pushed me further down this self-reflective path on our Ginko walk on Sunday.

However, before that I went to Christodoulos Makris’ poetry workshop on experimental sampling which was brilliant. He was measured, gentle, quiet, a most unusual kind of rule breaker. I was still unaware at this stage but his workshop about breaking rules and patterns was to encourage me and gave me confidence to strike out on a slightly path. That path came with our Sunday morning walk with Kathy D’Arcy as a guide.

I had thought I was going for a wind swept guided walk over the cliffs of Moher – presumably Kathy would stop me taking selfies too near the edge. I was wrong – about Kathy and the Cliffs of Moher. The cliff path was closed due to the weather (it was wet and freezing) and Kathy pushed me over an edge I was not expecting.

Apparently, this was a walk involving exploration of self (remember, I had not prepared for this weekend). There were three parts to the walk and each section was to be walked in silence. The first section we had to think about our past. The second section we considered out present and in the final section we thought about the future, the goals we had, the challenges we were going to face. After each section we sat on a rock or a bench in the freezing chill winds and did some free writing – writing anything, without stopping.

I should mention at this point my feelings about the Doolin landscape. I think it is a startling one, but I find it unsettles me and this morning, it was particularly bleak, and cold. The harsh, sweeping winds, the vast grey sky was reflected in both the ocean and rocks of lime strewn around the land. The small white buildings scattered across stumpy fields, to me, look lost and forlorn.  There are no distractions, little loveliness.

On my walk in the past I recalled being nervous as a child, unsure, always watching, and then forcing myself to plunge into life. Then, it occurred to me, life took over and somehow, I disappeared. Walking along, single file, in silence with the wind pumping at my eyes, I wondered what happened to that child. I couldn’t remember much about her. The only image I could recall from my past was giving birth to my children (and I think that was provoked by the white sea spray smashing against the black rocks). Thinking about my present, I felt the cold stone beneath the soles of my feet, and the freezing wind scorch my cheeks.  I watched a sea gull balancing on the soaring wind, squawking. The manicured green flow and bump of the pitch and putt course reminded me of curvaceous shape of a woman lying down, oiled and massaged. I couldn’t think of anything else. Not only do I not recall my past, I don’t know what my present is, I thought to myself.

Thinking of the future, and my goals, my first thought was to wonder if I had one. Maybe I should focus more on me, I thought. I don’t seem to know very much. I can’t remember anything about my childhood. My present is just full of stones, wind, gulls and pitch and putt courses. Maybe, I need to discover more about myself.

I have enough self awareness to know that my way of dealing with challenges is to move on. I have always shied away from self-reflection, been sceptical about meditation, felt there were more important things to do, like tackling poverty, inequality, politics. I could try, I thought. Nah, I thought. Yes, I thought, I’m just scared. It would be good to know if there is more to you. Nah, I thought, its too self-indulgent. Anyway, I don’t know how to. I remembered Kathy said to think about the challenges. Possibly, I am my greatest challenge.

The last section of the walk we were able to talk and I asked Kathy how to even begin to try being more self aware. Write, she said. Try the Artist’s Way. Yeah, yeah, I said, instantly dismissive. Everyone says that, she said. I ordered it when I got home.

So, I will try this path of self reflection. I still feel sceptical, but, when I thought about the weekend, it was strange – everything pointed me in this direction. My lack of preparation, my realisation that I had lost faith (in everything), my choice of poem to workshop, my meeting my father at the memoir workshop, taking a workshop in experimentation and doing a Ginko walk – without checking what it was.

Susan Tomaselli, June Caldwell, and Donal Minihan were the key organisers of the festival. While, I will hold them responsible for whatever happens, I also want to thank them for a fantastic writing weekend.

Doolin Writers Festival Programme

My Stats of 2019

Review of 2019

This year has been full of revolving doors, escalators, immigration queues and giant flying machines on aprons. I have visited different countries, cities, cathedrals, cafes, museums, mausoleums, islands, people, parks, paintings, riches, royalty and seen much poverty scattered liberally around streets.

I’ve watched, read and heard about many protests – in Paris, Hong Kong, Beirut, Gambia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Sudan, London, Dublin. These are the ones that immediately come to mind. I’ve seen amazing ‘planet earth’ film and photography on TV, on-line, and in exhibitions – beautiful photos that depict our amazing world that is now under threat.

I’ve read about thirty books with characters from Lagos, Korea, London, Dublin, New York, Ohio, Idaho, Jerusalem, Belfast, the Dominican Republic, Paris, Ghana, Sligo, Norwich, Cavan, Maine, Chicago, India, Italy, Amsterdam, Yorkshire, China, Canada, Holland, Istanbul, Greece, Jordan and Mexico. Stand out books were The Lost Children by Valeria Luiscelli, Education by Tara Westover, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Welcome to Lagos by Chibundo Onzu, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chicozie Obiama and a book of short stories, The Lemon Tree by Julian Barnes.

I have watched hundreds of hours of TV, Netflix and Prime (I loved Pride, with Dominic West,  Fleabag, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Games of Thrones, The Crown, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty, The Hand Maid’s Tale).

I have walked approximately 2,000 kms and swum 100,000 metres (conservative estimates) through woods, along lakeshores, by beaches, in strange, wonderful cities.

I have written about 30 new poems, spent hours (approx. 700) happily editing poetry and short stories in bed and submitted approximately 50 poems/short stories to competitions/literary journals. I have been published in three journals, shortlisted in two competitions, not heard back from most and read at three events this year. I have been to five literary festivals. I have written about 14 blogs (you can check that at kateennals.com) and listened to about 200 hours of book and political podcasts. I have run four literary evenings in Cavan, two writing weekends and one eight-week poetry workshop on form, which was fun, and I mentored three poets.

I also worked with the Freedom to Write campaign – highlighting four imprisoned writers: Nedim Turfent, Turkey, Chimengul Awut from China, Galal El-Hairy, Egypt and Dawitt Issak, Eritrea.

I have daubed thirty paintings and tried my hand with water colours, oils, acrylics, pastels. I have discovered my perspective is completely askew which probably explains some of my poems.

I have celebrated 60 years this year. God knows how many cakes I’ve baked and scoffed in compensation for having to watch Brexit unfold. I have experienced glimmers of hope at the Labour Party Conference and during the recent UK election when I listened to John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn talk of green industrial revolutions, nationalisation, co-operatives, jobs, and home building but Boris Johnson and Tory voters broke my heart on Friday 13th December .

The learning from the year? Life goes on, day by day, and I want to enjoy it in a million different ways until it stops when all the agonising, wondrous beauty will disappear forever: all the lovely photographs on Instagram, all the protests, all the books, all the natural disasters, all the rubbish in the oceans, all the miles and metres walked and swum, all the stories, all the love, the poems, the wine, cakes and then there will be no more failure nor any more Tory Party. But, until then, I am yours and looking forward to 2020.

Kate’s painting!
Mount Etna

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer – Speak Out

Today is the day of the imprisoned writer and last night a fantastic crowd of about sixty people came to Poetry Ireland in Dublin to listen to poems by four poets who have been silenced and imprisoned by their Governments: Galal El Hairy, from Egypt, Chimengul Awut from China, Nedim Türfent, Turkey and Dawit Issak from Eritrea.

There were brief introductions to each of the imprisoned poets and writers from the members of a group, Freedom to Write who organised the event and then four Irish poets read their work.  These writers were imprisoned for writing articles or tender, gentle lines about freedom by people more concerned with personal power than in the magnificence and beauty of their countries. It made me ask the question, who is the real traitor? Dawit Issak from Eritrea has been imprisoned for nearly 19 years with no trial. He has been ‘disappeared’ with no trial and no word, and there are many writers like him across the world.

Photographs of the poets were on the Poetry Ireland mantelpiece, like family photos, and there were brief, very beautiful, haunting musical interludes from from two musicians, Eamon Sweeney and Cormac Breatnach who played a kind of low whistle (a tabhar dom do lambth) and spanish guitar/banjo kind of instrument (sorry, I didn’t get its name). The music was very effective. Having heard the poems, closing my eyes and listening to the beautifully clear notes and melodies somehow moved me closer to the imprisoned poets. I imagined the confined space, the dirt, the hunger, the sorrow, the longing to be free and human.

I seem to spend much of my time, these days, being relieved or grateful. I have much to appreciate: I am not homeless, I have a basic income, I am educated. I am free to travel, think, and write. I can vote. I am healthy. There is love and friendship all around me. Yet, I still feel a sense of increasing powerlessness, and the closing in of walls. This may be due to age as well as the rise of the power of the individual reflected in our politics and social media. I find it debilitating. Feeling simply grateful and relieved that it’s not me who suffering is degrading, and I wonder if it is reflective of what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Being part of the Freedom to Write Campaign, actively un-silencing the writers Governments imprison, by reading and hearing their writing, makes me feel stronger. As writers and poets we want the power of language released and channelled into expression, love, reason, beauty and civilisation – the key elements of humanity.

Last night, I felt grateful that I was free to hear the poetry and music, and that I could come home to a warm and welcoming home, but I also felt angry and frustrated that in this world that so many people today are imprisoned, if not by governments or dictators, then by poverty, bullies, injustice and most of all, insecurity. It is good to speak out. On the day of the imprisoned writer, speak out.

The Irish poets reading the work were Celia de Fréine, Colm Keegan, Maria McManus, and Chris Murray. Thank you to the Freedom to Write Group for organising, and to Poetry Ireland and Irish Pen for the support.

Galal El-Behairy, poet, lyricist and activist (MALE)

Poet, lyricist and activist Galal El-Behairy is serving a three-year prison sentence for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’. He is being held in the notorious maximum-security prison Tora prison in Cairo. Nicknamed ‘Scorpion’ Prison, Tora has been condemned by scores of human rights organisations for its serious abuses, including denying inmates access to lawyers, their families, medical care and basic of hygiene products. Its infamous solitary confinement cells — which El-Behairy was subjected to — are cramped and airless. According to Galal El-Behairy’s lawyer has shown signs of severe torture, after his initial detention during which he was held incommunicado for a week.  On 31st of July 2018, Cairo’s Military Court sentenced El-Behairy to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 000 Egyptian pounds (560 USD). Following El-Behairy’s conviction, the publisher of his latest book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth, terminated their contract with him and publicly stated that its agreement to publish the work did not imply its agreement with the book’s content. Galal El-Behairy remains in prison, and is currently serving his sentence. 

Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years (MALE)

Dawit Isaak, an award-winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and writer, has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years. His case is emblematic of the dire situation facing independent journalists in the country, many of whom have been subjected to systematic arbitrary arrests, threats, harassment and enforced disappearances over the years. Isaak was one of several journalists arrested during the government’s September 2001 crackdown on independent voices in the press and politics. Very little is known about his current circumstances. Although Eritrea’s Foreign Minister claimed in a 2016 interview  that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 were still alive – including Isaak – no proof has yet been provided. Similarly, there is little information available concerning the charges against these prisoners; the Foreign Minister has said that those arrested would be tried “when the government decides.” Isaak was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017.

News editor and reporter, Nedim Türfent  (MALE)                                                 ‘No matter what the price or consequence might be, we will never compromise from the magical creations of writing and of the written word. We would like to repeat once again our gratitude to PEN members, who have stood by us on this path.’ Nedim Türfent

15 December marked one year since news editor and reporter, Nedim Türfent, was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him. Prior to his arrest, Nedim Türfent was covering Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey. He spent almost two years in solidarity confinement in harrowing detention conditions. His sentence was upheld on 19 June 2018 and his lawyers have lodged an appeal before the Constitutional Court. Determined to keep writing, Nedim Türfent started composing poetry while detained. PEN International believes that Nedim Türfent is being imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

Chimengül Awut a renowned Uyghur poet    (FEMALE)                                                                 Police in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, arrested Chimengul Awut, a poet and editor for the state-owned Kashgar Publishing House, in July 2018, according to Radio Free Asia. Awut was arrested as part of a more than year-long crackdown on the publishing company in which several other former and current staff were detained.

As well as Awut, police arrested Ablajan Siyit, a deputy editor-in-chief and translator, and former editors-in-chief Osman Zunun, who retired 10 years ago, and Abliz Omer, who retired 20 years ago, according to the RFA report. The report did not name the other staff arrested.

According to the report, the staff are accused of producing books that were deemed “problematic” or “dangerous.”

RFA cited a member of the local judiciary as saying in a phone interview that the arrests were part of a government investigation into books that may be politically sensitive. The judiciary member said that Kashgar Publishing House was accused of publishing more than 600 books that fell into this category. The investigation focused on authors, editors, and those who authorized the publications, according to Radio Free Asia. 


A Limerick Weekend of White Russians, Walking, Mushrooms, and Curved Stone Arches

Squalls of rain and galloping clouds followed me down the swerve of the N55, the straight of the M6 and the temptations of the M18 (Gort, Ennis, Ennistymon, Doolin). I was driving down to Limerick to spend the weekend with my son, Joe, last Friday. It was national ‘slow down’ day which encouraged me to stay at the speed limit, so I felt excited and virtuous when I arrived, laden with crusty, a gorgeous looking home-made quiche, bottles of Vodka and Kalhua, and my walking boots.

                Joe lives on Kings Island, so after a few white Russians and a light supper, we headed up to Katy Daly’s opposite the castle for a few. It’s a great local: blazing fire, burnished wood, people in full, Friday night flow of bon-hommie and chit chat.

                On Saturday morning, we headed out early to take Poppins Dog for a walk in the trails of Broadford, before lunching at Springfield Castle where one of Joe’s friends runs a The Green Café on a Saturday. Once we got to Broadford, we sought directions from an old man on a bike. He had few teeth and the thickest of Cork/Limerick accents. With extensive flamboyance, he gesticulated where the trails might start, one of which seemed to be the car park and the other which pointed us in the direction we were facing. So we followed his hand gestures and, after that, a series of blue arrows which led us a merry dance up and down winding, narrow country lanes, past barking rottweilers, and then disappeared (as signage in Ireland does) leaving us in the middle of nowhere in a bleak pine wood landscape and a farm of turbines. So, we stopped the car and headed up on what looked like a Coilte path to explore the windmills. After traipsing through cleared pine forests for an hour, we decided it was lunch time and to go to the Castle cafe just as it started to rain.

                Unfortunately, Google maps had put the X for Springfield Castle in the wrong place so immediately after performing a rather impressive hairpin turn, we ran into a sign which said this is not the entrance to Springfield Castle. Thankfully, the sign gave detailed instructions about turning back, bends, kilometres and stone arches. We knew we had arrived when we turned through above mentioned stone arch and jolted our way along the longest, straightest, gold leafed, tree lined, potholed avenue I’ve ever seen. After brilliant avoidance driving by Joe, we parked about 100 yards away from a fine gothic turreted, Virginia creepered castle in a park land of meadows, trees, ponds and walled gardens (with more stone arches). We followed another, more accurate, arrow through the arch into the walled garden. A middle-aged woman in mac and wellies, with head scarf and empty flower basket over her arm, greeted us with a smile and disappeared through a gate on the right and we turned left for the café.

                On entering, we gasped. It was massive, full of light and stone, with a huge black stove/BBQ structure where Dan, Joe’s friend, was cooking delicious smelling food from the kitchen gardens and farm. Dan had kept us a table and waved us towards it with a steel spatula.

                The grey stone wall was hung wooden pallets turned sideways and decked with green spider plants, ferns, Aloe Vera, and others. Silver dustbin lids, acting as lampshades, lined up high above the long and square tables that looked like they belonged in the dining hall of King Richard III. Old church organ pipes, decorated, hung on the wall, back lit in silver. Blankets were scattered around in case we were cold. The smell from the wild kitchen range was glorious, the tea was strong and served in solid large tea pots, and the staff were friendly and chatty. My skewers of chicken and roasted vegetables were moist (the meat that is, not the skewer) and served with a salad of fresh salad leaves, and an array of different coloured tomatoes. The chips were home made and tasted of potato. The chilli sauce and ketchup were also homemade and beautifully tangy. I wasn’t as convinced by the fermented aubergine, onions and beetroot served as a side dish, but Joe enjoyed his unusual veg hash of onions, potatoes, turnips and strange roots.

                After lunch, Dan suggested we walk around the farm and gardens, keeping Poppins on a leash as there were deer. We wandered into the walled garden, peering into large tunnels of flowers: lupins, marigolds, delphiniums, and through veg beds, all muddy, overgrown, full of weeds which is how I think a walled garden should look. The western tower at the back of the castle (it looks like St Kevin’s at Glenda Loch) looks ruined. The eastern one appears to have been restored and looks lived in. We walked through more stone arches and into a beautiful plantation of birch trees which was saturated with a silver light. We discovered the deer and worked our way around the castle to find ourselves at the front, admiring the luscious spread of deep green and bright red Virginia creeper climbing around and across the six full length ground floor windows and central, grand, stone arched front door. The six gothic turrets give the castle a fairy tale look. Three cars were parked in front, and we chatted to an older man emptying his boot of bags. It was soon obvious that this was Dan’s father. The timbre of the voice and the shape of his eyes matched. It is always startling to see such strong family resemblance. Anyway, Dan’s father told us that the house was originally built in the 1850s but had been burned down by the IRA during the Civil War, except for the servants’ quarters above the stables which had been an extension built in the gothic style. His wife’s great uncle had rebuilt the castle in the 1930s in that same gothic style. Next, their massive collie and black greyhound looking dog soon arrived on the scene and took a territorial dislike to Poppins and launched an attack. Joe plucked her from the growling fray of teeth, shouts and boots and we waved our goodbyes to the sound of frantic apologies.

                “An interesting place,” said Joe as he negotiated our way back down the drive.

                “Must be a nightmare to keep going,” I mused, “I really liked it.”

                I do recommend lunch in the Green Room Cafe if you are in the Limerick area on a Saturday. It’s good food, and interesting. I will go back…we still want to do the trails.

                It was a great start to my weekend which continued to pass in a convivial atmosphere of food, markets, walks and sunny adventures of mushroom picking in Cratloe woods…followed by a wary discarding of said booty. It concluded on the Sunday night with famous fiddler, Martin Hayes in conversation with poet, John Kelly in St John’s Church (not the Cathedral which has the longest spire in Ireland and is incredible gauche looking). St John’s Church is itself a discovery – a gorgeous old church in a splendid limestone fronted square built back in the 1750s by the famous architect, Francis Bindon. I don’t know much about architecture, but when you stand in the square, you know it is perfect. It is perfectly balanced. Fortunately, it was dark, so I couldn’t see the uPVC windows restoration work that I read about later on-line.

                Fortunately, there was no uPVC about Martin Hayes. I don’t know much about the fiddle music, either, but listening to Martin Hayes play was an exquisite experience. I closed my eyes, and it was as if there were a range of musical instruments. I would have said at least three. Martin Hayes does something with his bow which conjures up one melody which seems to dialogue, dance and dovetail with different tunes. It was like magic. He was a great conversationalist too, with many amusing anecdotes about life in the States, New York in particular. A perfect evening.

                We had started our Sunday earlier by having breakfast in Limerick’s Milk Market. I had wanted to visit the mushroom stall there (I need encouragement about my mushroom picking abilities). Sadly, it wasn’t there because apparently it was family relaxation day and not market day. An odd phrase, I thought, Family Relaxation Day, it doesn’t sound very enticing, but whatever…it summed up my weekend in Limerick with my son, walking, talking, eating and drinking, perfectly.

Joe and Poppins
Springfield Castle Tunnels
Birch Plantation
Springfield Castle
Martin Hayes, Fiddler
The Abbey River, Limerick

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

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!

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.”