A Discovery of Human Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thank You, World

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

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

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

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

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


The Wizardry of Cork Poetry Festival 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


The Work Ethic

As we slobbered over turkey, chocolate and glasses of bubbly this year, the subject of the work ethic came up. I googled it. The first definition was that the principle behind the work ethic is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward. I nearly choked on the dinner. Intrinsically virtuous? How often do those two words come together these days? That is some concept. Worthy of reward? That too has an 18th century ring to it. Does worthy of reward imply that if the work is rewarded, it is no longer ‘ethical’? The plot thickens. Further down the Google definitions, hard work and diligence were terms associated with the work ethic and it seems capitalists believe in its ability to enhance character. Well, they would, for an example of the work ethic was going into work when the boss wasn’t there or while you were on holiday (at that point we almost all left the Christmas table to rush to send an email into the office).

Work ethic. It has a Protestant ring to it and indeed, in Ireland anyway, it is ascribed to the Protestants, often with resignation and a sigh – sure, they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. So, is it someone who is driven to work, to succeed, to excel to the exclusion of all else – like John Banville who, I believe, suggested that good writers couldn’t/shouldn’t have children. In that case, is the work ethic a good thing?

I remember, as a child, it used to be ascribed to my father’s family who were Baptists from Birmingham (I think there may be a poem in that). But in relation to my dad, that work ethic label got changed to workaholic. He was passionate about his work in human rights, very committed, worked hard, was relatively successful, hardly ever at home and wasn’t paid much (actually, I think I could say the same for my mother who worked in education but then, she was at home a lot more which might explain her lack of work ethic). I think my father’s work was intrinsically virtuous and worthy of reward (as indeed was my mother’s) but in the liberal 60s and 70s the work ethic wasn’t very trendy so workaholic became the name of the game but always said with a stamp of approval. Workaholic is probably more accurate – after all ‘aholic’ denotes addiction, obsession, attributes which aren’t intrinsically virtuous or worthy.

Michael Viney of The Guardian says he inherited his work ethic (over Christmas he was gathering his intrinsically virtuous seeds for next year) from his father. Now, that is interesting. The work ethic does seem to be a male thing. You rarely hear of a woman being troubled by it despite often being responsible for running an office, a household, rearing children and usually working 16 hour days. Mrs Thatcher had the reputation for only needing four hours sleep; it was rarely described as a work ethic but then again, her work definitely wasn’t intrinsically virtuous. Maybe, to have a strong work ethic or be a workaholic you need to be selfish, arrogant, obsessive as well as have an irresponsible attitude towards family and community, ironically the most worthy and intrinsically important aspects of society. Yes, I think that might be it. That would also explain why the work ethic is not inherited by women. So, having worked that out, we went on to enjoy our Christmas dinner.

Happy New Year. I hope 2017 doesn’t trouble too many of you with a work ethic. One of my new year resolutions is to write as well as I ethically can and travel, that is, go on lots of holidays!



Home Sweet Home

I have enjoyed my first week in The Bungalow. I now live five minutes from Cavan Main St and I love the thought that down the road in one direction, people are drinking, eating, partying and, should I choose, I can roll down that hill and join in. On the other hand, after a five minute walk in the other direction, I can meander the forests, the wide open skies, the rolling hills, and lake sides, all burgeoning with ancient history and animal life. I am often struck by how much our earth teems with such different life forms and energies all at the same time – mice, moles, lions (the latter not in Cavan), people, war, love, happiness, hurt, hope, violence, death, terror and yet we all carry  on regardless.

This week, the Cavan evenings have been an artist’s dream. The bungalow nestles on the shore of the sky. Each evening, kippers of pink have rippled through the dusk, floating among the chimney pots and the starlings have choreographed perfect, mesmerising kaleidoscopic dances around the roofs and tree tops.

At night the glinting sheen of the orange street lights floods into my sitting room, casting my treasures into shadow. Coals glow in the stove beneath my Father’s square glass and brass clock on the mantelpiece. He was presented with it in 1981 at a Peace Congress in Berlin for services to Human Rights. The clock shows the time zones across the world. As I am writing, it is 3am in Bombay, now Mumbai. I love the tiny plane that is the second hand, circling the mountains, skyscrapers, and oceans of our world. It is one of my favourite possessions.

During the move, I discovered much about possessions. We have too many. When Indian tribes moved with the seasons, they simply moved with the tools they needed to reassemble. My move involved 150 boxes (we are a family of four I point out in defense but really that is no excuse) as well as beds, presses, tables, couches, carpets, dressers, chairs. It was interesting to note that what gave me most pleasure to handle and see as I unpacked: my teapot from Marrakesh, my Christmas cactus, and my House at Pooh Corner books, recipe books, a lava lamp,  my radio, a photograph, a rose tinted mirror, my dad’s clock, and my bed. I could have lived without most of the contents of the other boxes! However, having said that, I do rather like my new L shaped couch and the two suede leather recliners (another age milestone) that we have acquired since moving, not to mention the new Oisin Stoves in the sitting room and parlour. I also am fond of my potato masher and there are cooking pots that I especially like. And, of course, clothes. I particularly like my scarf from Peru, and my hat…and so it goes on. Possessions! Scientists need to identify that hormone, that gene that requires us to acquire and eradicate it!

So, this Christmas I am lucky. I am surrounded by my beloved possessions, people, houses, trees, lakes, sky, starlings, orange street lamps shining on the Cavan Street where I live. Home Sweet Home. It is such an important place. Apollo House in Dublin currently houses forty homeless people in Dublin as a result of direct action. I hope 2017 and more direct action finds more people safe in homes across the world. A home and shelter is a basic human right. Given the refugee and numbers of displaced people flooding across the land in 2016, and the forces of Brexit and Trump, it seems a little timorous and vague to simply hope for such things. I take off my hat to the homelessness activists who are actually doing something for people forced to sleep in doorways and on benches. We need more such well organised, unafraid activity to take on the rapacious and possessive cruelty of our ‘civilised’ society. Sadly, I am upon the age of the recliner, but young people of the world, do your stuff!

Happy Christmas.


Betwixt and Between. A Year of Comings and Goings

For me, it has been a year of high cobalt skies, a universe of cloud and ocean, cold and vivid colours, boundaries, borders and demarcation. It is as if the days have swirled past, like pages magically turning in a Hollywood epic while I, as its central character, flew to the top of its spine and watched the story unfolding. I wonder if this is because I have turned a leaf, a corner, entered a new age of few imperatives other than space and pages, words and fiction and the fear, unease and guilt that accompanies the days of a writer (particularly the novelist – I find the poet in me more languid) or the real world has taken leave of its axis.


This year has divided me into extremes. I have been either cooped up and immobile with my leg up (after my hip operation at the start of 2016), or on the move. Since April, every month, sometimes two or three times a month, I have found myself in the long, rounded, high rise glass tunnels of Terminal One, walking, tugging, running betwixt and between faces, places and people,  on my way or on my way back, on the conveyor belt, the travellator, or escalator, up and down steps between Dublin and London, across and back between ‘home’ and home, between mother and daughter, friend, brother, son, husband, Brixton, Clapham, Kentish Town, Galway, Limerick, Manchester, Ipswitch not to mention the delights of Athens, and Marrakesh. Now, in the last month, I make the final journey of the year: another move home, the move from Gowna to town, from Drumbriste House to The Bungalow situated on the corner of two roads in Swellan, with a high suburban hedge, under street lamps, across from hundreds of other houses, a short walk from the shops, pubs, library. Another Home from Home.


It is odd. All of these journeys have been dependent on me making them but I feel separate to them, as if I might be one of my own characters, not quite real, still coming into being. I think this is partly due to the real world being almost virtually unreal. Its pages may be turning fast, wars, Isis, corruption, Brexit, Trump, but despite my own fervent activity, my journeys, my travels, I am feeling a silent stillness, a separateness. It feels like time is at a precipice. From next week, I will watch the pages turn, (both real and fictional), snug in my bungalow, and will begin to unpack the hundred brown taped cardboard boxes (12” X 12” X 18”). Visitors are welcome. I cannot guarantee my state of mind but I can guarantee tea, elderflower wine, and cake. Together, we can toast the characters of 2017 or curse them, whichever.sky