Yecheilyah asked some penetrating questions. My responses reveal more about me than I’ve given to any other interviewer. I’ll probably move this to the ‘about’ section of the site in a few days. Meanwhile, you might like to hop over to her site and discover some of the other authors she’s interviewed and read her delightful poems.
Welcome to Introduce Yourself, a new and exciting blog segment of The PBS Blog dedicated to introducing to you new and established authors and their books.
Today I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Frank Parker. Welcome to The PBS Blog! Let’s get started.
What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Frank Parker. I was born and grew up in Herefordshire, a small rural county next to the border between England and Wales. I lived for the first decade of my life in a small stone cottage beside a stream with a couple of waterfalls. We were surrounded by traditional hay meadows and grew all our own vegetables in a medium sized garden. My parents were from London originally. They were married shortly after the commencement of World War II. Dad was an airman. Two years after I was born he was killed in…
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An Affair With my Mother by Caitriona Palmer (Memoir)
A Second Life by Dermot Bolger (Fiction)
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.
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.
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.
Lots of stuff for readers and writers here, and it’s all in a terrific cause!
I’ve never liked tower blocks. I had a friend who lived on the 13th floor of what used to be called a “hard to let” block in east London. She loved the view from her balcony, and kept flowerpots tethered in five unblowoffable ways to the railings, but even stepping on to it made me feel weak at the knees. Perhaps my knees were already weak when I arrived, because I always used to walk up the stairs. The lift was creaky and claustrophobic. Supposing it got stuck? Supposing someone scary got in it with you?
Cuttings from the “I”, “The Guardian” and the “Evening Standard”‘ June 17th & 19th 2017
Even posh tower blocks – skyscrapers, rather, penthouses, high rise living and the other more affluent synonyms – worry me. The only time I visited New York, I was less scared sleeping on the 34th floor than I’d anticipated…
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A recent blog post from Allison Maruska highlighted the dilemma that some writers face when exposing themselves via their blogs and social media. If potential readers get wind of my political beliefs will they decline to purchase my books?
Do the people I hope will buy my books need to know my thoughts on Donald Trump or just how many cups of coffee I drink whilst working on the next novel in the series? My views on creationism or climate change, or only how my latest research trip is going?
My question to people who struggle with these dilemmas is: “why do you write?” Because the truth is that all writing, if it is to mean anything, is of necessity political.
Is anyone in any doubt about Dickens’s politics? Or Orwell’s? Did Wells’s well known Socialism put people off his writing?
Of all genres, Science Fiction is, perhaps, the most obviously political. It’s basic plot involves an individual or group struggling against a regime with which they disagree. However the author chooses to present the two sides, which one is portrayed as the embodiment of evil and which as all that is good and just, he or she is making a political statement.
Neither the writer nor the reader can relate to the situation in an imagined world except by comparison with parallels in our own world. And it is how the author handles those parallels, how, for example, he portrays fear of “the other” as natural or irrational, that reveals his or her political stance on problems in the real world.
Which features of an invented religion are based on the beliefs of certain religions in our world? Are they shown to offer clear benefits to those who practice them, or are they revealed to be the cause of unnecessary suffering?
Even in romantic novels, which might be deemed by some as trivial, the protagonists have conversations and disagreements. The nature of those disagreements reveal, whether intentionally or not, the author’s world view.
When it comes to blogging, if your aim as an author is to show your readers the kind of person who wrote the book or books that you are publicising; if, in doing so, you hold back some essential part of yourself, are you not being dishonest? And if the reader discovers, through reading your book, a set of beliefs he despises is he not just as likely to reject you and your writing as if he made the discovery through your blog?
You might think you are protecting your “bottom line”, and, by extension, the welfare of those who depend on your income for their own security. The truth is, I contend, that you are not being true either to yourself or to your hoped for readers. If you are afraid, as Frank Sinatra put it, in Paul Anka’s words, to “state [your] case of which [you are] certain”, perhaps you are not meant to be a writer.
I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.
There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.
Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.
And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.
His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.
I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.
Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.
I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.
You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.
Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?
I really believe that recent advances in medical science have raised all manner of ethical issues that simply would not have arisen in the past simply because options such as those under consideration here would not have been available. In some ways this story on Stevie Turner’s blog today, and the issues it raises, touches on the subject matter of my post yesterday reviewing Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air”. If you’ve not read it, I do recommend it. As a neurosurgeon the author had to face such issues on a daily basis. As a patient he had to face them in his own life and its ending.
On my BBC News app is a photo of a baby boy who has been hooked up to a life support machine since October last year. He suffers from a rare disorder that affects the genetic building blocks that give energy to cells. Doctors have told his parents that he cannot hear, move, cry or swallow, and that he is only breathing because the machine is doing it for him. Also his brain is failing to learn to see because he cannot open his eyes for long enough.
Specialists at Great Ormond Street have told the baby’s parents that he should be moved to palliative care only, but his parents want to take him to the US to undergo a trial treatment. Judges have ruled that the baby should receive treatment until today only, but now the European Court of Human Rights is currently considering the case after the parents’ appeal…
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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.
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.