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I HAD A DREAM

I recently read and reviewed the first book in this series. I can certainly recommend Ms Clarke’s Africa writings to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of that continent and its many and varied cultures.

lucinda E Clarke

I had a dream last night, not as earth shattering as Martin Luther King,

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

I’m not that famous and important, and frankly although I was standing on a stage too, no one was listening to me. Sad isn’t it?

Now most of us might dream of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature and then being interviewed on a national Breakfast Show, simpering as the interviewer gushed about our brilliant book – right?

Well, my dream wasn’t like that. The stage morphed into a television studio and my interview went something like this:

tv STUDIO

INT: So, I understand Lucinda that hardly anyone bought your new book?

ME: Well a few did …

INT: Looking at this pre-order number on Amazon, well it’s a disgrace.

ME: I have at least 3 fans! I’m sure they ordered one and DH promised he would …

INT: I presume you told people about it?

ME: Oh…

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Writing About Adoption

An Affair With my Mother by Caitriona Palmer (Memoir)

A Second Life by Dermot Bolger (Fiction)

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I wanted to read these books when the opportunity came, in order to see if my treatment of the subject in Honest Hearts and Transgression was authentic. Both books deal with adoption as experienced in Ireland in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This was a period during which any young Irish woman who conceived out of wedlock was regarded as a pariah. Her child was taken from her and provided with a good, usually middle class, home. The mother would be ostracised by her family and told by the nuns who ran the mother and baby homes, and arranged the adoption, that if anyone were to discover her secret no man would look at her.

Bolger’s book is fiction and set in the mid 1990s. The male protagonist has a near death experience at the start of the book and this triggers a need to discover more about his birth mother. The book was first published in 1993 but underwent a complete re-write before being reissued, in the edition I read, in 2010.

Palmer is a successful journalist. She began the search for her mother whilst in her twenties in the late 1990s. She was eventually able to set up a meeting with her birth mother. The problem then was that the mother was married with a family. Neither the husband nor the children knew about her earlier indiscretion. She was so terrified of them finding out that meetings between mother and daughter were conducted clandestinely, hence the title. These secret meetings went on for 15 years during which the daughter continued to seek information about both sets of biological grand parents.

Angry

When Bolger’s fictional protagonist finally tracks down his birth mother it is only to discover that she is dead. The only member of the family who has remained in contact with her is an older sister who does agree to meet her nephew. She is able to provide details of the events surrounding his conception and the subsequent forcible transportation of the pregnant nineteen year old to the mother and baby home. He visits the home and later meets the older brother, now a priest. He is angry at the role this man played in the cruel treatment of his mother.

These visits provide Bolger with an opportunity to present both sides of the argument about such treatment: the culture in which the woman was deemed to have sinned and it was necessary to protect the child by giving it a second life in a “decent” home.

Both Bolger’s protagonist, and Palmer, struggle with feelings of rejection; feelings that, in Palmer’s case, are not relieved by her mother’s insistence on secrecy. Both the fictional and the real mother are consumed with a need to know that their secret child is faring well. A need that is satisfied in Palmer’s case though not in the case of Bolger’s fictional mother. I believe my own handling of that aspect of adoption was adequate.

What is notable in both these books, and in the culture they depict, is an absence of any serious condemnation of the behaviour of the men who were responsible for these young women becoming pregnant. In Britain in those years, a man who was responsible for making a young woman pregnant was expected to marry her and most did. Knowing this, few took the risk unless ready to face that consequence.

Similarities

Like Bolger’s fictional protagonist, Palmer visits the village in which she was conceived and the mother and baby home in which she was born. Palmer’s book was written six years after Bolger’s re-write and over two decades after his original. And yet, comparing Palmer’s real life experience with Bolger’s imagined one, one is struck by the similarities. Of course, Palmer’s is not the first real life account of these situations which were all to common in Ireland. The most well known is perhaps Philomena Lee’s 2009 account of her search for her son, aided by the British journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan in the film Philomena. Palmer recounts a meeting with Philomena Lee.

There are other similarities: Bolger’s protagonist is a freelance photographer with a journalist friend who can help with his search, Palmer is a journalist with similar contacts. Palmer resides in Washington so, after the first few years, communication with her mother is mostly by e-mail. On the other hand, the duration of the search by Bolger’s protagonist is only a matter of months whilst Palmer’s spans several years.

Bolger enlivens his tale with a ghost story whilst in Palmer’s memoir we are treated to an account of her time in the former Yugoslavia working as PR consultant for an NGO.

Both books are thoroughly readable and provide valuable insights into a period of Irish history that has been the cause of much anguish for a generation of women.

Meditations on Mortality

I was given this book by a stranger. Not a complete stranger as I almost wrote, for we had met twice over breakfast. Allow me to explain. If you saw my posts from the first couple of days in June you will be aware that I spent a few days in North Kerry taking in some of the events of Listowel Writers’ Week. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast establishment just outside Ballybunion. The other guests at breakfast on Thursday and Friday morning were Andrew, a professor of English from Santa Clara University in the last days of a six week sojourn touring around Ireland. In the course of conversation he revealed that Emma Donaghue’s father had been one of his professors.

The other guest at breakfast on those first two days was a lady named Elaine, down from Dublin for a few days. On Friday morning we talked briefly about the book shops in Listowel and the importance of independent book shops generally.

Saturday morning she had departed before we arrived in the small dining room. Andrew handed a paperback book to me, saying that Elaine had left it for me. A surprising and delightful gesture. I’m truly sorry that I did not have the opportunity to thank her. More so now that I have read it.

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air” is both a memoir and a meditation on the meaning of life and death. The title is suggested by a verse from Baron Brooke Fulke Greville’s “Caelica 83”

Kalanithi’s family migrated from India to New York and thence to Arizona. They were a medical family but young Paul was more interested in literature than medicine. On obtaining a degree in English literature he realised his quest to discover the workings of the mind: the way it defines our personality and the way we relate to our fellow beings, required an understanding of how the brain functions. This, in turn, led him to neuroscience. Becoming a neuro-surgeon, he completed his residency and was ready to become head of his department when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

As a septuagenarian I am well aware that I have an ever reducing amount of time left. At the same time it is important to remember that death can arrive at any time. When I was in my teens three contemporaries lost their lives in tragic circumstances – a drowning, an accident with a shot gun and a motorcycle accident. Over the years since, too many friends have been taken by cancer. And yet there are people whose abuse of their bodies in their twenties ought to have finished them off decades ago but they are still living life to the full in their seventies.

Nevertheless, to be told in your mid-thirties that your life is about to end must be devastating. Kalanithi still harboured a yearning to write. In remission following treatment he is faced with a decision: have I long enough to go back to the work I love and that is changing lives or only long enough to write my book?

To say more would be to spoil the book for other readers.

There is medical jargon here, including words used in the USA to define the various levels of seniority in the profession that have different titles on this side of the Atlantic. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary. This, however, is a minor criticism.

People talk a lot about “bucket lists”: the things you’d like to see and do before you die. Too often these take on a selfish tone with a desire to see some of the wonders of the world, whether created by ancient civilisations: the Pyramids, say, or Machu Pichu; or by nature such as Ayer’s Rock or the Grand Canyon. Kalanithi’s book reminds us that it is what we leave behind us that is most important; what we’ve achieved, not where we have been or what we have seen. Life, he tells us, is essentially about striving. I would add that there are, in this 21st century world, far too many who are more concerned to avoid that struggle than to take part. Kalanithi was not one of those. He epitomises the work ethic that characterises Indian as well as the best of American and European culture. As such, his story is one of the most inspiring you are ever likely to read.

Inconceivable Realities: Writing of Past Horrors

Horror is a popular genre. Fantasies involving zombies, mummies or vampires are as widely read today as they ever were in the past. But history is filled with real horrors. Which raises the question: is it ever possible for a novel to do justice to real life horrors such as The Great Irish Famine?

Part of my research for my novel set in the period of the Irish famine of 1845-51 has consisted of reading a massive volume entitled Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine.

Produced in 2012 by Cork University Press, it is a monumental work, consisting of a series of essays by academics, that seeks to analyse the events of that period from the perspective of a geographer. That is not to say that geography is the sole perspective of the book, but it is, as the title suggests, the dominant one.

By studying census returns from before and after the famine, alongside a range of other documents, the authors seek to establish the extent to which each part of the island was effected. The proportion of population lost to death and migration in each of the four provinces and, within those provinces, in example parishes, is exposed to detailed examination.

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Simple memorial to those who died in Abbeyleix workhouse, The author’s photograph

At the same time it attempts to place the events in a political, religious and social context with, for example, detailed descriptions of the Poor Law Unions and workhouses. It quotes extensively from contemporary eye-witness accounts. Its examination of the mass migrations that took place during the period does not stop at conditions in the vessels that carried the human cargo. It provides detailed accounts of the immediate destinations and subsequent dispersal within mainland Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Among the 58 contributors is Chris Morash who was, at the time of publication, head of the Department of English at NUI Maynooth. He is now Vice-Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. In an essay near the end of the book, Morash discusses the difficulty of portraying such events as the famine in fiction. He cites an essay by Stephen Marcus. Writing in 1963, Marcus noted a similarity between writing about the Irish famine and accounts of the concentration camps at the end of World War II. “Reality,” he asserted “had grown so monstrous that human consciousness could scarcely conceive or apprehend it.” He adds that “however mad, wild, or grotesque art may seem to be, it can never touch or approach the madness of reality.”

Picasso's

Picasso’s “Guernica”: grotesque art attempting to depict the reality of war

Difficulties

The writer of fiction about this period, according to Morash, is trapped between two irreconcilable difficulties: if he or she concentrates on the suffering of one individual, or a small group of related individuals, there is a danger that the scale of what took place is overlooked. On the other hand, any attempt to illuminate the scale of suffering runs the risk of failing to give due weight to individual circumstances. And the scale of the 1845-51 famine is such that there could not have been any one of the 8 million citizens living on the Island in 1845 who was not touched directly by what occurred.

Moreover, there were many more in mainland Britain and further afield who knew what was happening, from accounts published in newspapers and magazines of the time, and, in the case of politicians and bureaucrats in a position to influence the turn of events, from reports sent in by officials on the ground.

During the course of the past year or so I have read several novels that contain accounts of either World War I or II. Among them was Judy Picoult’s The Story Teller which contains harrowing descriptions of the treatment of Polish Jews by the Nazis. The narrative concentrates on the life of one young woman and her family, but the scale of the events is made clear by her encounters with others and her progress from relative normality in prewar Gdansk, through small humiliations, to forced removal to the ghetto where the family struggles to survive before being separated and transported to a series of concentration camps. Such events, which were the day-to-day experience of millions in 1940s Europe, certainly fall into the category of ‘inconceivable reality’ identified by Marcus.

My present reading, aside from famine research, is Glory, Rachel Billington’s 2015 novel set partly in Gallipoli in 1915. It includes episodes in the English country house home of a senior officer drafted out of retirement to participate in the ill-fated British and Commonwealth invasion of Turkey. Military hospitals in Egypt and Malta also feature.

Horrific scenes

The horrific scenes of death and injury on the battlefield are offset by the comparative normality of village life in early twentieth century England. But, inevitably, normality at home is disrupted, too, with the family seat converted into a convalescent home for injured soldiers. Once again we are in the realms of ‘inconceivable reality’, both in terms of the horrors experienced by the men at the front, the nurses in the hospitals, and the crass stupidity of the politicians and generals who utterly failed to see the folly of the enterprise.

In her portrayals of the upper classes in World War I England, and the contrast evident with the ordinary working people who volunteered out of a sense of patriotism and, in the case of many young officers, a desire for adventure, she brings to life a world – that of my grand-parents – often romanticised through such literary flotsam as Downton Abbey but in which the reality was far harsher than we can imagine.

That, then, is the task I face in my attempt to craft a novel set in a period of history which has cast a long dark shadow over the British Isles. As I see it at this early stage of development, my central character’s journey must match that of Jody Picoult’s heroine, whilst the context follows a similar path to Rachel Billington’s novel in its attempt to portray both the big picture, including, as it must, the indifference of politicians and officials, alongside the personal suffering.

If reading fantasy horrors, watching zombie movies, or, indeed, the horrors of modern warfare shown nightly on our television screens, dulls our senses, then it is surely the duty of the writer of historical fiction to remind readers of the real horrors endured by ordinary people. We have to make the unimaginable real if we have any hope of ending the indifference, born of a lack of empathy, that made those times so much worse than they needed to have been.

Terror and Liberalism: a book review

Should we be worried? (My answer is at the end of this post)

Should we be worried? (My answer is at the end of this post)

A few days ago one of my Facebook friends shared a meme that listed all the towns and cities in Britain that have Muslim mayors. The clear message was that this is a trend that ought to worry us. I thought of that message whilst reading Paul Berman’s 2004 polemic Terror and Liberalism. He has a lot to say about the complacency of Liberals and their failure to recognise the true nature of past manifestations of totalitarianism.

It is, he acknowledges, easy, perhaps too easy, to attribute the actions of Islamist terrorists to some rational cause. A reaction, perhaps, to injustices inflicted by Western capitalist exploitation. Berman contends that the rise of Islamism is not that simple. Instead, it is yet another manifestation of the totalitarianism that was thought to have come to an end with the fall of the Berlin wall and the spread of democracy into Eastern Europe.

His book traces the history of totalitarian movements throughout the 20th century. The Fascists in Italy, Spain and Germany; the Communists in Russia and its post-WW2 satellites; in China, South East Asia and North Korea. All are characterised by the insistence that the ideology espoused by the state must be maintained at all costs. Millions of lives are sacrificed in pursuit of the establishment of a worldwide system of control.

Liberal democracy stands against such single-mindedness, insisting on freedom of thought, speech and religion, and respect for the rights of others. No single religion or ideology is permitted to have excessive influence over the state. Elections, parliaments with two or more houses, strong opposition parties able to resist unpopular policies, all ensure that the people are governed by consent. It’s not perfect, often subject to the influence of special interest groups, but debate and dissent are permitted, even encouraged. Most importantly, there is total separation between state and Church.

In Britain and Ireland, the two jurisdictions with which I am most familiar, this separation dates back to the years after the English civil war in the mid-17th century. But it is a debate that is much older. Henry II’s dispute with arch-bishop Becket, in the 12th century, was about the most appropriate distribution of power between the Church and the king. The king believed that his will was supreme within his realm. Becket insisted that the king should defer to the Pope. Although Becket was murdered for his views, he won the argument and Henry made penance and sought the Pope’s forgiveness.

Berman cites a number of Islamist texts in support of his argument that it is a totalitarian philosophy, determined to spread a pure form of Islam across the world. A fundamental aspect of this form of Islam is that religion is an integral part of the state and that religious laws are the only laws permitted to prevail. For the true follower of a totalitarian philosophy the greatest honour to which one can aspire is to kill and be killed in the struggle to achieve this objective. That, according to Berman is the only explanation for Islamic terrorism. It is no use looking for rational explanations for the guiding belief is completely irrational.

The book was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and revised shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq which Berman supported for reasons very different from those given by lying politicians like G W Bush and Tony Blair. He believed then, and apparently still believes, that it was necessary because Saddam Hussein was a dictator who exhibited the same totalitarian behaviour as the Fascist and Communist dictators of the past. His hope was that the removal of Saddam would provide an opportunity for democracy to take hold in Iraq. The evidence of the years that have elapsed since the invasion suggests that the opposite happened – the totalitarian Islamist tendency, in the shape of ISIS, has been the gainer. There is little sign of democracy arriving in Iraq or in any of a raft of Middle Eastern countries.

Five years ago, the so-called Arab Spring, with the overthrow of dictators like Qaddafi, might once have been looked upon as a triumph for democracy. Again, however, the result is escalating civil strife in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and, of course, Syria and Iraq.

I googled around to try to see what Berman has had to say about these events and found surprisingly little. His most recent article concerns the French ban of the ‘burqini’ (now lifted). There is one other thing I need to say about this book and its author. My googling revealed many admirers and a few detractors. Most of the latter argue that because he is a Jew, nothing he says about the Middle East can be trusted.

It is not Berman’s Jewishness that ought to concern us. Of far greater importance is his liberalism, a philosophy that I share. Somehow we have to find a way to further the idea contained in his final two sentences: “… freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for freedom for others.”

It is in that spirit that we should respond to the idea that a handful of the people holding elected office in British local authorities are Muslim. We should be proud that it is more than 120 years since the first Asian was elected to the British House of Commons. He was, after all, a member of the Liberal Party.

The Ultimate Tribute

If you are a true fan of an iconic band you probably take a dim view of any outfit purporting to be a ‘tribute band’, deeming them to be a pale imitation of the original. If you are a fan of The Eagles or of Fleetwood Mac then you would be surprised and delighted by the quality of the show presented by an Irish band called The Illegals.

I saw them for the second time last night and was blown away by the three hours of musical magic they provided for a packed audience in our local theatre.

The band is fronted by Naimh Kavanagh and her husband Paul McGahy. Niamh is, perhaps, best known in Ireland for her success in winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993. She also featured heavily on the soundtrack of the movie version of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments.

Last night’s show opened with a pictorial tribute to Glen Frey, The Eagles’ founder member who passed away in January this year. There have been a number of changes to the set list since I last saw them, but essentially what is offered is a selection of the best tracks from both bands. Whether channeling Linda Ronstadt or Stevie Nicks, Kavanagh’s voice has the power and versatility required to render such classics as Desperado and Songbird. Close your eyes and you could be listening to the real thing.

The same has to be said about the instrumentalists, two of whom double up as male soloists. Unfortunately I cannot name all of them here because none of the publicity material I’ve searched mentions their names, and I did not make notes when Kavanagh, in her role as MC, acknowledged their various contributions to the overall sound. Suffice to say that the familiar guitar solos/duets that feature in such classic numbers as Hotel California are rendered faultlessly.

The band does not have a website, despite having delighted audiences in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years. They do have a Facebook page and there is an outdated entry for Niamh on Wikipedia that makes no mention of The Illegals. Their reputation is based on word-of-mouth and personal recommendation.

The show is anchored by Kavanagh’s amusing introductions and asides and represents a superb evening’s entertainment. The Facebook page has a list of upcoming gigs. There could be one near you soon. Do go. You will not be disappointed.

Home – what does it mean to you?

This post was suggested by The Writing Reader’s prompt #1753, the first line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Urishay Castle. © Copyright John Thorn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Last night I dreamed I was back in Urishay, a small community of farms and cottages in the hills above the Golden Valley, close to the Black Mountains that mark the border between England and Wales. I was a babe in arms when I first arrived there with my mother and grandmother. It was to be my home for the next 14 years.

Our cottage had thick walls of local stone. A stream ran in a deep ravine with two waterfalls behind it. Cattle grazed the surrounding fields for a large part of the year. In summer sweet smelling hay was harvested to provide winter feed for these animals. It is a place full of memories of warm summer days spent roaming the lanes and hedgerows. There was an orchard with ancient apple and pear trees. I remember well the delicious, golf-ball-sized, pears that grew in abundance on two or three of these gnarled trees, fruit that were as attractive to wasps as to us children.

Home is a strange concept. I have lived in many other places since, but that cottage in Urishay will always be ‘home’ to me. So, too, will the boarding school at which I resided for 40 weeks of every one of the six years between the ages of 11 and 17. I have been back a number of times recently and it fills me with memories of my youth, as do the many exchanges between myself and other former pupils on a Google forum created for the purpose.

Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Cathedral

The city of Hereford, Coventry, Cleethorpes and a small village in East Yorkshire have all been home to my wife and I at various times during the 50+ years of our marriage. Over the past few years we have created a home with a beautiful garden in a lovely part of the Irish Midlands. One of the new friends I have made here in Ireland recently published a book entitled Home. His experience of home is very different to mine. He remained in the same small town throughout his life, apart from a brief period in university. Now retired from a teaching career in the town in which he was born, he has spent the past few years researching the history of the town. He created a website filled with photographs of the town’s buildings, each one accompanied by details obtained from census returns of the various inhabitants and their trades.

Home contains much of this same fascinating information that documents the life of an Irish market town from its inception as a defensive fort at the time of the Tudor plantation of Ireland to the meteoric expansion of the ‘tiger’ years and their accompanying construction boom.

An image from Portlaoise Pictures. Copyright John Dunne

But in his book my friend has preceded the historical facts and anecdotes with eleven delightful short stories about fictional characters and their lives in the town in the 1960s and ’70s.

It is this fascination with the way life was lived in one’s youth that, perhaps, most accurately defines the real sense of ‘home’. For me it is the rural backwater in the Welsh Marches and the boarding school among the heathland of Surrey. For my friend it is the market town with its music, its shops, its prison and its small cinema. My friend’s home town is not merely the backdrop to his short stories but a solid character whose history shapes its inhabitants, creating that unique quality that makes them different from the citizens of any other place.

Castle Dunamaise ruins #2 webThe castles and hills of the Welsh Marches mirror those to be found around my new home in Ireland. The same people built both sets of castles. A few years ago my own research centred on these people and their involvement in the history of both places. This led to the creation of the Hereford and Ireland History section of this website and Strongbow’s Wife, my novel about the young woman who became the wife of the man who answered her father’s call for assistance in his ambition to become High King.

Urishay features as the setting for my own second novel, Summer Day, in which a boy believes himself to be responsible for his father’s death. Many of the characters who feature in various ways in the tragic events of the day that follows are loosely based on the real people who inhabited the district when I was growing up there. And I’m guessing the characters in my friend’s short stories are based on real people and events he experienced in his formative years.

Home is available from http://www.portlaoisepictures.com/purtockpress.htm

Strongbow’s Wife can be purchased from Amazon. A soft cover version is also available via this link: https://www.feedaread.com/books/Strongbows-Wife-9781786109910.aspx

Summer Day can be purchased from Amazon via this link: https://www.amazon.com/Summer-Day-Frank-Parker-ebook/dp/B007ZBK4UI?ie=UTF8&ref_=asap_bc