I’m going to walk my commute

The road less travelled © Clare O'Dea

The road less travelled © Clare O’Dea

It’s almost exactly 40 kilometres, or 25 miles if you prefer, and I’ve decided I’m going to walk it. I should say I’m not much of a walker. And yet I love it every time I go walking.

Yesterday evening I took a walk to the next village. It took just under an hour. Not a big deal, except it was the first time I had covered that short distance on foot. I probably do that five-minute drive to the local shopping centre three times a week, always in a rush. Never did I expect to become so car dependent.

This time I took the lanes that you don’t see from the road, the natural pathways from farm to farm, through woodland and meadows, fields of rapeseed in bloom. In was delightful, in the true sense of the word. That perfect fifty-minute stroll along country lanes with the sun going down over my right shoulder gave me an idea. Or it reawakened an old idea.

I’m going to walk my commute. It’s not my commute any more but it was for the best part of ten years until two months ago. I worked at the international news service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. The office is in Ostring, on the far side of Bern from Fribourg, where I live. Because it takes twice as long to get there by public transport, I drove to work, most of the way along the highway at 120km per hour. I got to know that route so well but I don’t know the country at all.

A lot of my life is governed by routine. That’s a good thing with children but it’s important too to have days out of the ordinary. My first proper self-employed project is starting next month. Meanwhile I’m getting tantalizing crumbs of hope for my first novel from submissions to agents, but I’d rather not sit around waiting for emails.

A walk like this will be good for body and mind; this specific walk even more so. I’d like to be able to say I walked it once, that I really know the way. Technically you could do it in a day but I think I’ll give myself two days. There’s no time like the present so let’s say I have until the end of this month to start and finish the challenge. I’m using the word challenge loosely here because it’s a beautiful time of year and, although the view has been a bit of a blur until now, a beautiful route too.

This blog has a small following, mostly self-employed people or writers who probably don’t have a commute. But I’m still hoping one of you might have a yearning to do something similar and join me in spirit. Any takers? If you do embark on a special walk, why not send me a photo at the address on the Contact page and I’ll include a mention in my next blog post.

Let me know if you have done something similar, or would consider it, or just like the idea. I’m off to buy hiking boots!

Every day is Mother’s Day

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I’m wary of making too much of a public fuss of mothers on Mother’s Day. At the hairdressers on Saturday they were giving out red roses to the mothers who came in to have their hair done. They do the same thing in restaurants in Switzerland. Even the woman on the Scientology stand ran after me in the street to give me a rose.

Ten years ago, when I was feeling very low after a miscarriage and the only non-mother at a family gathering, I was handed a flower in a restaurant on Mother’s Day and it nearly killed me. I didn’t know that I would be the mother of twins within a year. All I knew was that the whole country had chosen that day to lean on my pain and that carrying that flower home was a torment.

I know mothers do an important job and should be appreciated for that but, for all the drudgery involved, it is a job with substantial built-in rewards; let’s not forget we are looking after our own children, hardly the most selfless task in the world.

Why not make next Sunday University Graduate Day? A day when graduates can feel special and be rewarded for their, ahem, years of hard work. When I was a child, I sometimes complained that children were short changed. Why was there no such thing as Children’s Day? I would protest. My mother, annoyingly but quite rightly, just laughed and told me that every day was Children’s Day.

I’m not giving back the beautiful homemade cards and presents my children surprised me with on Sunday. Their excitement and pride in doing something thoughtful for me is also mine to cherish. But I don’t need public praise and congratulations on top of that. Besides, the significance of motherhood has nothing to do with a mass-produced flower.

Instead of trying to write something meaningful and original about motherhood, I’m going to leave you with this passage from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, set in the 1960s and written in the voice of Lexie, journalist and mother of baby Theo.

To distract herself, as ever, she worked. The women we become after children, she typed, then stopped to adjust the angle of the paper. She glanced at the paintings, almost without seeing them, the cocked her head to listen for Theo. Nothing. Silence, the freighted silence of sleep. She turned back to the typewriter, to the sentence she had written.

We change shape, she continued, we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl and – look! – they walk, they begin to speak to us. We learn that we must sometimes walk an inch at a time, to stop and examine every stick, every stone, every squashed tin along the way. We get used to not getting where we were going. We learn to darn, perhaps to cook, to patch the knees of dungarees. We get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us. We live. We contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet. We learn to look less in the mirror. We put our dry-clean only clothes to the back of the wardrobe. Eventually, we throw them away. We school ourselves to stop saying ‘shit’ and ‘damn’ and learn to say ‘my goodness’ and ‘heavens above’. We give up smoking, we colour our hair, we search the vistas of parks, swimming pools, libraries, cafés, for others of our kind. We know each other by our pushchairs, our sleepless gazes, the beakers we carry. We learn how to cool a fever, ease a cough, the four indicators of meningitis, that one must sometimes push a swing for two hours. We buy biscuit cutters, washable paints, aprons, plastic bowls. We no longer tolerate delayed buses, fighting in the street, smoking in restaurants, sex after midnight, inconsistency, laziness, being cold. We contemplate younger women as they pass us in the street, with their cigarettes, their make-up, their tight-seamed dresses, their tiny handbags, their smooth, washed hair, and we turn away, we put down our heads, we keep on pushing the pram up the hill.

 

Falling in love with fictional babies

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The baby was astonishing. He had little cloth ears, floppy as cats. The warmth of his round stomach could heat the world. His head smelled like a sacred flower. And his fists held mysterious, tiny balls of fluff from which he could not bear to be parted.

Meet baby Raqib, the adorable son of Nazneen in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I read and loved this book when it came out in 2003 and particularly remember being enchanted by this baby. It seemed that he was the first convincing baby character I had come across in a novel.

Babies are given birth to, carried around, fed, loved and admired in books, but it’s rare for a baby’s personality to emerge on the page. And babies are brimming with personality. They’re fun to be around, for their expressions and gestures alone. Back to Raqib.

Nazneen curled around him on the bed. He raised an arm, which reached only halfway up his head. He put it back down. The futility of this exercise appeared to anger him.

In the same scene, Nazneen’s husband Chanu is droning on about setting up a business. He asks: “What can you do without capital?”

Raqib tried to lift his head from Nazneen’s shoulder as if he knew the answer to this difficult question. Overcome with his burden of knowledge, he collapsed instantly into sleep. Squinting down, Nazneen looked at his month-old nose, the sumptuous curve of his cheek, his tight-shut, age-old eyes.

There is more of Raqib and every appearance he makes is so beautifully written you want to reach out and stroke that little cheek.

Often, the fictional baby’s role is to channel the thoughts of the parent or caregiver. Baby Jonah in The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell is that kind of baby. This scene takes place with his mother Elina out in the garden.

She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide; his lips part in a perfect round O. It’s as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.

There’s another ‘as if’. There is a tendancy to ascribe thoughts and emotions to babies that they aren’t capable of having. Also the idea that they have some ancient knowledge – I’m sure I’ve read that more than once but can’t find any references now.

But in real life as in fiction, babies are interesting in what they reveal about the people who love them. Take baby Matt in What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, whose parents tracked his development “with the precision and attentiveness of Enlightenment scientists”:

For a baby he seemed weirdly compassionate. One evening when Matt was about nine months old, Erica was getting him ready for bed. She was carrying him around with her and opened the refrigerator to retrieve his bottle. By accident two glass containers of mustard and jam came with it and smashed on the floor. Erica had gone back to work by then, and her exhaustion got the better of her. She looked at the broken glass and burst into tears. She stopped crying when she felt Matt’s small hand gently patting her arm in sympathy. Our son also liked to feed us – half chewed bits of banana or pureed spinach or mashed carrots. He would come at me with his sticky first and push the unsavoury contents into my mouth. We read this as a sign of his generosity.

The examples I found are all boy babies. I wonder if this is a coincidence or do we consider the archetypal baby to be a boy?

We’ve had childbirth on this blog, now babies. My next blogpost will look at new mothers or motherhood in fiction – and then I’ll leave the subject alone for a while. Promise.

Has anyone else come across any good babies in fiction? I can think of one obvious bad baby, also a boy, but I’m more interested in the sweet ones. I think it’s difficult to write a convincing baby. Nicki Chen, a fellow blogger and author, does it in her novel Tiger Tail Soup. I’ll dig that excerpt out as soon as I get my copy back.

Childbirth in fiction – delivering the goods

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Births, marriages, deaths. These are the building blocks of stories. But what does it take to write a good childbirth scene? Is it even necessary to describe how a fictional baby comes into the world? Not always, I would say. But sometimes, as shown by the examples below, the birth is much more than a biological event. It is an important driver of the story which has an impact on how the characters behave later on. We have to be there with these women in their hour of need.

There is a short story in Annie Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is called Them Old Cowboy Songs which contains one of the most tragic birth scenes imaginable. The mother is a teenage girl living alone in a cabin in a remote part of Wyoming in 1885 (were there any non-remote parts of Wyoming at that time? I’m not sure). Her young husband Archie has gone off on his last cattle drive before the birth, hoping to be back in time, having asked a neighbour to check in occasionally on Rose.

The next morning was cold and sleety and her back ached; she wished for the heat of summer to return. She staggered when she walked and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make coffee. She drank water and stared at the icy spicules sliding down the window glass. Around midmorning the backache increased, working itself into a slow rhythm. It dawned on her very slowly that the baby was not waiting until September. By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor. She wriggled out of her heavy dress and put on her oldest nightgown. The pain increased to waves of cramping agony that left her gasping for breath, and on and on, the day fading into night, the rain torn away by wind, the dark choking hours eternal. Another dawn came sticky with the return of heat and still her raw loins could not deliver the child. On the fourth afternoon, voiceless from calling for Archie, her mother, Tom Ackler, Tom Ackler’s cat, from screaming imprecations at all of them, at god, any god, then at the river ducks and the weasel, to any entity that might hear, the python relaxed its grip and slid off the bloody bed, leaving her spiralling down in plum-colored mist.

There follows a heart-rending scene where Rose crawls out of the cabin with her stillborn baby wrapped in a dish towel and tries to dig a grave with a spoon. I won’t say any more.

At the risk of mentioning Lionel Shriver once too often in this blog, I have to include an extract from the birth chapter in We Need to Talk about Kevin because the savage eloquence of Eva, writing here to her husband Franklin, is so remarkable.

So I made an effort, at which point I had to recognize that I’d been resisting the birth. Whenever the enormous mass approached that tiny canal, I’d been sucking it back. Because it hurt. It hurt a whole lot. In the New School course, they drummed into you that the pain was good, you were supposed to go with it, push into the pain, and only on my back did I contemplate what retarded advice this was. Pain, good? I was overcome with contempt. In fact, I never told you this before, but the emotion on which fastened in order to push beyond a critical threshold was loathing. I despised being spread out like some farm exhibit with strangers gawking between my canted knees. I detested Dr. Rhinestein’s pointed, ratlike little face and her brisk, censorious manner. I hated myself for ever having agreed to this humiliating theatre, when I was fine before and right at this moment I could have been in France.

In some countries, one in four babies is now being delivered by caesarian section and yet it’s not often you come across a description of a surgical birth. Maggie O’Farrell has one in her 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine. The birth is important in the book because things go drastically wrong just after this scene and the mother, Elina, spends most of the book recovering from the shock.

She could feel them, the two doctors, rummaging about inside her, like people who had lost something at the bottom of a suitcase. She knew it ought to hurt, it ought to hurt like hell, but it didn’t. The anaesthetic washed coolly down and then up her spine, breaking like a wave on the back of her head. There was a green canvas screen bisecting her body. She could hear the doctors murmuring to each other, could see the tops of their heads, could feel their hands in her innards. Ted was nearby, at her left, perched on a stool. And there was a great heave and suck and she almost cried out, what are you doing, before she realised, before she heard the sharp, angry cry, surprisingly loud in the hushed room, before she heard the anaesthetist, behind her, saying a boy. Elina repeated this word to herself as she stared ahead at the tiled ceiling. Boy. A boy. Then she spoke to Ted. Go with him, she said, go with the baby.

There are various other flashbacks of the birth as Elina tries to piece together what happened and come to terms with it. The other option is to skip the technicalities of the birth altogether, as Mary Costello does in Academy Street.

The pain struck at dawn. Willa came. In the hospital foyer her waters broke. She looked down at her drenched shoes and began to cry.

That evening when it was all over she thought she had scaled Everest, stood at its peak, exhilarated.

What, that’s it?
Actually there is a little more. Costello continues:

The next morning the enormity of it all hit her. She had brought forth life, rendered human something from almost nothing, and this power, this ability to create, overwhelmed her.

She did not take to the child. The light down on his skin resembled fur. She could not bear to touch the head, the unknitted bones of his crown. She thought of him as half-hatched, not quite finished. She was not in her right mind. Her body had been riven open, pummelled, her innards displaced. A disgust at her physical self took hold, at the engorged breasts, the bleeding. I am a cow, she thought. But cows are good mothers.

Nine and five years on I still remember the births of my own children in forensic detail and I remember feeling an urgent need in the early weeks and months to tell the story as often as I could (hopefully to a willing audience). Telling the story is a way of fully understanding and celebrating what has happened. It is too big an experience to fit into one day.

What about you? Do you think it’s desirable for authors to write detailed fictional accounts of labour? Have you ever written a childbirth scene or read one that stayed with you?

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

The Literaturhaus on Limmatquai in Zurich

The Literaturhaus on pretty Limmatquai in Zurich

Imagine a struggling writer standing over his kitchen sink burning page after page of handwritten manuscripts because he doesn’t want any record of “these travesties” to remain on earth.

That’s what’s Donal Ryan did with seven or eight (!) novels and one hundred (!) short stories before he became Ireland’s most successful debut author with the release of The Spinning Heart in 2012. I heard this account from Ryan yesterday evening at a reading in Zurich Literaturhaus. His honesty and Tipperary accent were a tonic.

In fact some of the early work that Ryan destroyed was festering in the hard drives of old computers and it was a case of delete and empty trash rather than burning. But what made him trash the old material and believe in his first published novel so much he submitted it “to every publisher in the English-speaking world”?

Ryan discarded the work he wrote in his twenties because it didn’t ring true. “The voices were too forced and contrived and I had a weird low-level nausea in my stomach when I was writing.”

Then, with The Thing About December, Ryan tuned in to the right station, as he put it, and found his voice. The book, written before The Spinning Heart, was published last year and tells the story of Johnsey, a vulnerable young man in rural Ireland, hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the changes life thrusts upon him after his parents die. The story is written in the close third person and Johnsey’s predicament is told in his own deceptively simple language. The writing is moving and eloquent, and funny when it’s not devastating.

The story is well described in this Irish Times review.

Ryan spoke about love a lot on Monday night and reading between the lines he appears to care deeply about Johnsey and what the character represents. Even his mother became fiercely protective of Johnsey and spoke of him as if he were a real person (rather endearingly, Ryan mentions his family a lot).

Ryan’s compassion is evident when he is talking about his characters. “Johnsey is a distillation of all the men I know who don’t speak. And I know lots. These are men who live alone in totally isolated farmhouses. I wanted to know what the inside of their heads would sound like.”

“All stories are about love, or the absence of love. All stories are based on declensions between those two states.” Ryan repeated this idea, which seems to be his motto.

I’m in the submission doldrums at the moment, that point when a writer begins to doubt their worthiness and the wisdom of committing so much time and passion to the whole enterprise. So of course I asked Ryan how he struck submission gold. He mentioned sheer luck and a scatter-gun approach but perseverance seems to have been the key.

Interestingly Ryan wrote The Spinning Heart (also set in Johnsey’s village but about a decade later, and written in 21 chapters of different first person narratives) swiftly and without a struggle while he was submitting The Thing About December, to take his mind off the rejections.

When he moved on to the submitting stage with The Spinning Heart he clocked up dozens of rejections. He kept print-outs of his email rejections in a folder and once, when asked by a journalist, made a rough count of forty seven, but there were more that didn’t make it into the folder, he said.

Ryan has been described as the best literary chronicler of the Celtic Tiger but in typical unassuming style, he says the fact that his two novels provided bookends for the Irish economic boom was accidental. “It was fortunate for me because it got me published. It was my hook.”

Donal Ryan has a collection of short stories coming out in December, also set in the same fictional village as the novels. He describes it as the best work he’s ever done. Meanwhile, work on his third novel is progressing painfully, he admits.

I left the Literaturhaus with a smile and with the feeling I was fortunate to have spent time listening to a great ambassador for Irish writing. It’s a reminder that whenever things get tough, it’s good to connect with other writers (if only from a distance) for inspiration and encouragement.

I’ll be back in Zurich next month to attend a talk by Siri Hustvedt. Can’t wait!

Lunchtime walk at the office

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It’s 1pm outside a monochrome office block on a season-defying day on the outskirts of Bern. If it’s autumn, the air shimmers in the heat of a ridiculously late Indian summer. If it’s winter, a false spring has sprung, only to scamper away again by evening.

The automatic doors sweep open and a motley but relaxed group emerges from the grand entrance of the building. The smokers outside are heard to snigger amongst themselves and a raucous voice calls out: “Et voilà, les anglais.” A disparaging remark is made about the lunchtime walk.

Les anglais are mostly not anglais but they do subscribe to a certain English decorum and do not dignify the heckling with a response. United in purpose, they stride away in the direction of the allotments, shedding jackets with practised ease, and commenting on the deceptively pleasant weather.

On their walk they will pass houses and tower blocks, an old farm and country house, little scraps of gardens tended by homesick foreigners, a hospital, a school and a motorway. All of human life is there, although because this is Switzerland there will not be many human beings in evidence.

The walkers will split into little knots of twos and threes. Discussion will turn from politics to family matters. Holidays are being planned or children are having problems in school. An elderly parent is ailing. The conversation has been going on for years, added to in small increments, and responsible for the familiarity and affection that has built up between les anglais.

There will be something new on every walk to provoke a moment of reflection: A hearse waiting at the back of the small hospital; grandparents on their allotment lovingly setting out toys around a baby on a blanket.

The walkers complete the loop all too quickly. There won’t have been time to talk to everyone about everything. But there will be another walk the next day, and the next. There will be small news and big news to share and always someone to listen.

Back in the office, the different members of the office family return to their stations. There will be coffee at three, a short break where laughter is the main currency. For now, the keyboard beckons: username, password, login.

This little tribute to office camaraderie is dedicated to my former colleagues of at least twenty nationalities at SWI swissinfo.ch in Bern. I spent the best part of ten years in the trenches at swissinfo, a happy soldier demobbed just last month.

When I get my ducks in a row I will officially embark on a new phase of working as a freelance writer and translator, final grand title to be decided. I welcome any tips on the organisational or motivational side of freelance work.

Here’s to old friends and new beginnings!

Ps. This post was partly inspired by this lovely article about ‘work family’ by Marion McGilvery writing in The Guardian.

‘A bored woman is a dangerous woman’

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You cannot be indifferent to Hausfrau, the new novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum set in Switzerland. It is a novel that will spark an array of contradictory reactions: You will loathe the main character Anna or you will weep for her. You will recoil at the graphic sex scenes or find them erotic; you will be intrigued by the psychological and linguistic analysis, or find it tiresome. Whatever happens, the power of the story will keep you reading to the end.

If you happen to be a foreign resident of Switzerland you will recognize the many the quirks and frustrations of living in this would-be paradise, ruthlessly exposed by Essbaum. But if you are in any way defensive of Switzerland, you will bristle at the Swiss bashing.

Hausfrau is the story of a woman who has lost her sense of self and abdicated responsibility for her life. She follows her Swiss husband back to his home town near Zurich to settle down and raise a family, but nine years on she still can’t settle in. She’s depressed and remains an outsider, to her husband, her children and her community – stifled by it all.

We already know that appearances can be deceiving but in Essbaum’s debut novel the gulf between appearances and reality is so wide it’s disturbing.

The world sees a well-dressed American mother living in an affluent bubble in Dietlikon, “the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led”. Anna Benz has accepted the age-old deal of husband (a banker, natürlich) making the money while she keeps house and looks after their three young children. The children’s school is metres away from their home and she has babysitting on tap thanks to her mother-in-law.

There is nothing Anna could not change in her life if she wanted to, as her psychiatrist tries to tell her again and again. Why the passivity, the indifference to her fate? That is the central question of the book and while we get many hints, it really remains unanswered because Essbaum provides scant details of Anna’s former life, apart from the fact that her parents were killed in a car crash.

The story begins when Anna is finally starting to make an effort by beginning a German language course and attending analysis sessions. At the same time she embarks on a reckless affair, seemingly on a whim.

Essbaum manages to successfully switch between different strands and moments in time – events at home, the language classes, memories, lovers’ trysts, therapy sessions, descriptions of Swiss culture, and a lot of Anna’s internal reflections. The scenes are short, some snapshots of just a few lines, but you instantly know where you are and the story is constantly moving forward.

The book is short too, a novella really, but it is not short on ideas and Essbaum manages to sketch interesting relationships through a few interactions. The children remain peripheral characters, as Anna is going through a phase of waltzing in and out of their lives.

I don’t know how readers with no familiarity with Switzerland will tolerate the level of detail, bordering on information dump that happens throughout the novel. I’d say most readers will find some element that doesn’t grab them – the analysis sessions, all the commentary on language structure and vocabulary, the cultural information, the sex scenes, the insomnia wanderings. But the whole is much greater than the parts because Essbaum has created a baffling compelling character in a story with powerful momentum.

Putting aside some people’s criticism of the moral message of the book – fallen woman pays for her sins – the story is gripping. Hausfrau was an intense and thought-provoking read and it left me with lots to think about.

I’d love to hear what other readers thought of this book, inside and outside Switzerland. Looking forward to reading your comments!

Irish nobles, a lost fortune and the Swiss connection

Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo

Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo

Irish history teachers are a mournful bunch. Their job is to tell children a series of sad stories, filling their heads with tales of dashed hopes and doomed endeavors. When the teachers come into the classroom, the children look up with baleful eyes, wondering what misery is in store.

The Flight of the Earls is one such epic saga of shattered dreams but little is known of the Swiss chapter in this story.

Short version: In 1607, a group of increasingly marginalised Irish nobles, their families and followers set sail for mainland Europe, looking for Spanish support to challenge English rule. On their way to Spanish-controlled Milan, they passed through Switzerland.

Do I need to add that things didn’t work out so well? The nobles died in exile, after being diverted to Rome by the Spanish, who had in the meantime switched to being friendly to the English. The loss of these great Ulster families marked the end of the old Gaelic order.

And what about the Swiss connection? Travelling with the group was a scribe, Tadhg Ó Cianáin, whose job it was to record the fateful events of the day. His account of the journey has survived and been translated into English.

Ó Cianáin said of the Swiss people that they were “the most just, honest, and untreacherous in the world, and the most faithful to their promises”.

A smaller group of 30 Irish men and women arrived in Basel in March 1608 and travelled from there to Lucerne. They then crossed Lake Lucerne heading for the Gotthard Pass. On St Patrick’s Day 1608 the party crossed the Devil’s Bridge near Andermatt in the lower reaches of the Gotthard Pass.

This was the toughest part of the journey at the end of a legendary cold winter, as Ó Cianáin describes.

“The next day, Saint Patrick’s day precisely, the seventeenth of March, they went to another small town named Silenen. From that they advanced through the Alps. Now the mountains were laden and filled with snow and ice, and the roads and paths were narrow and rugged. They reached a high bridge in a very deep glen called the Devil’s Bridge. One of Ó Néill’s horses, which was carrying some of his money, about one hundred and twenty pounds, fell down the face of the high, frozen, snowy cliff which was in front of the bridge. Great labour was experienced in bringing up the horse alone, but the money decided to remain blocking the violent, deep, destructive torrent which flows under the bridge through the middle of the glen. They stayed that night in a little town named Piedimonte. Their journey that day was six leagues.

The next day the Earl proceeded over the Alps. Ó Néill remained in the town we have mentioned. He sent some of his people to search again for the money. Though they endured much labour, their efforts were in vain.”

A little slice of Irish and Swiss history for you there. The photo above is a view of Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, a famous mountain associated with the man himself. Incidentally, traces of gold have been found there which indicate significant gold deposits but that’s another lost fortune which will never be mined because of the cultural value of the site.

Wishing everyone an enjoyable St. Patrick’s Day. I hope you’re inspired by these Irish stories. I’ll be celebrating in Bern on Tuesday with some of the Irish community in Switzerland. This year I will have a second national day to celebrate on August 1st as I just heard that my application for Swiss citizenship was successful!

Yours,
Dual citizen O’Dea

Children behind the gates – writing about historical abuse

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We know what children need – love, protection, guidance, understanding – and we know what a travesty it is when they are deprived of those basic needs. But is this a recent discovery? Looking back at the treatment of children in the care system in the middle of the last century, you might think so.

The 1990s was the decade of revelations about failings and injustice the Irish system. More recently Switzerland has been going through its decade of revelations of historical abuse. It’s a process that is being repeated all around the world and it’s heart-breaking because there is nothing you can do to help those children. It’s too late.

Did the authorities and caregivers in those times have no concept of children’s welfare and emotional needs? I would argue that they did, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on their own experience of home life. But there were limits to their ability or willingness to provide for those needs. And these factors have to be taken into account when writing about this period. If we turn those involved into evil caricatures, we are incapable of gaining any insight into our own failings as a society today.

Here is an article I wrote for swissinfo.ch earlier this month on this subject that really got me thinking.

So why was it that some children mattered less? What was stopping the authorities and religious orders from doing right by the children in their care? Some of the limits stemmed from prejudice – in particular the prevailing prejudice against ‘illegitimacy’ and against the ‘bad poor’.

The stigma attached to children born outside marriage was so strong, so well enforced by the church and its followers, that people could hardly see the child behind the stigma, if at all. The shame and secrecy let the fathers of these children off the hook and also made it possible for families to reject their ‘sinning’ daughters, even to the point of having them locked up for years.

As for poverty, widespread to an extent that we have so quickly forgotten, there were prejudices at work here too. On the one hand you had the ‘good poor’, hard-working, honest people, scraping by somehow, tipping their caps and not making any trouble. And then there were the ‘bad poor’, parents overwhelmed by the daily struggle to feed and clothe their children, families whose mothers lived on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose fathers turned to drink or crime, whose children appeared neglected. Sympathy for these families was not forthcoming.

That’s to speak of the willingness to care for children who were unwanted or rejected by society in one way or another. I also mentioned the ability to care for these children.

A well-run children’s home should have enough money to provide a good diet for the children, as well as clothes and play materials. In a cold climate it should be well heated. The staff should be well trained and recruited for their aptitude to provide loving care to children. There should be a compassionate discipline policy in place, with good oversight so that there is no room for abuse of any kind. But what if none of these requirements is met?

Let’s put the cruel sadists aside. They are in a category of their own and nothing excuses their actions. What about the ordinary inadequate carers? Two years ago I attended the presentation of a report into allegations of historical abuse at children’s institutions run by the Swiss Ingenbohl Sisters of Mercy. The worst allegations could not be verified but the authors of the report did find “excessive punishment” doled out by some sisters.

It also described the systemic misery for both adults and children living in the homes – long working hours without free time or holidays, large groups of children to look after with insufficient financial means in crowded living conditions and with insufficient infrastructure.

But the ill-treatment didn’t end at the gates. For my story I spoke to a remarkable man, Roland Begert, the son of a Swiss gypsy (Jenisch) woman who was deserted by her husband. He was given up by his mother as a baby and grew up in the system, first with the nuns and afterwards living with a farming family as an unofficial child labourer.

Roland Begert is forgiving of the tough discipline and lack of affection shown by the nuns in the children’s home where he spend the first twelve years of his life. What hurts him most, looking back, was the attitude of the people in the town to the ‘home children’.

The townspeople warned their children not to have anything to do with the ‘home children’ and the local children obliged by throwing stones at them. Roland’s excitement at being sent out to the town school quickly ended when the teacher started bullying him mercilessly.

So while the townspeople loved and protected their own children and did their best to give them a good start in life, they participated in a horrible double standard. Society was complicit in banishing the ‘home children’ from the mainstream in the first place and the community actively kept that exclusion in place.

Writing about failings in a system that happened fifty years ago does not serve any purpose if it stays in the realm of storytelling, with a cast of wicked witches. We have to try to understand the broader mechanisms of society that caused so much suffering if we have any chance of avoiding the same mistakes.

I think a lot of lessons have been learned. One huge problem was that, until recently, society did not allow for children to be raised by one parent, whether for practical or moral reasons. Marriage breakdown or the death of one parent left children in a precarious position. Access to contraception has also helped many parents limit their family size to a level they can manage.

But there are still children behind the gates in society, for example the children of asylum seekers living in direct provision. Few countries today can claim that they have a best-practice care system in place that guarantees the wellbeing and protection of their most vulnerable children. Even Switzerland, which prides itself on ‘Swiss quality’, still does not have an exemplary system, as I discovered recently when researching an article about foster care.

The stories from the past are important and they have to be told. But they have to be told in a fair way and they should never be used to make us feel complacent about our own problems.

Five lessons to bring to your second novel

Winter talk © Karen Ramseier

Winter talk © Karen Ramseier

I’m not going to go into all the mistakes I made and then had to spend untold hours fixing on my first novel. I have covered all that at length on this blog over the past year, probably best summed up in this post: Breaking every rule in the book.

Now with my second novel under way and the first one in flight, I can sit back and see what I am doing differently this time. There are probably sub-conscious things too, but here are the lessons I am consciously applying to manuscript number two.

1. What’s the big idea?
Before the novel, comes the idea, and the stronger the idea, the better chance you have to write a good story. Victoria M. Johnson explains this succinctly in this excerpt from her book The Last Techniques I Learned Before Selling Fiction.

Johnson says you have to start with an interesting, unique and universal idea. Something that will carry you, and the story to the finish line. It has to be something that will resonate with a lot of people, tap into the readers’ instincts and emotions.

2. Where are you going with this?
Once you have your idea and have allowed it to incubate in your mind long enough, it’s time to invest in some concrete planning. On my first book I meandered so much I ended up with ox-bow lakes. Yes, I got there in the end but it would have been helpful to have a clearer idea of the destination from the start.

You can take it as a warning sign if you are not easily able to answer the question: What’s the book about? You can be hit with THE QUESTION anywhere, so it is worth taking the trouble to figure out the answer, preferably very early on in the writing process, or you’ll end up like me last year .

You can take this approach even further, as I discovered when I stumbled across a post on Twitter recently about the Snowflake method, developed by ‘America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing’, Randy Ingermanson. He’s also written a book about this and the gist of it is managing your creativity and getting it organized into a well-structured novel.

Ingermanson suggests that you take an hour to write a one-sentence summary of your novel – before you begin writing. Then write a one-paragraph summary, one-page summary, and so on, until the plot is all sketched out and ready to be written scene by scene. I wouldn’t be able to work in such a regimented way but it’s interesting to think about.

3. Think technical
Tense and point-of-view cannot be left to chance. The first piece of advice I received from Conor Kostick at the novel writing course I attended in the Irish Writers’ Centre was that the first person narrator was ideal for a debut writer as it covers a multitude of sins. “If there’s any way you can possibly switch your novel to the first person, do it,” he said.

4. Less is more
Dickens invented enough characters to populate a small town. This is not a feat that needs to be repeated. The better we know our main characters, the more we care about what happens to them, so concentrate on spending that time with them and making their struggle matter. The same goes for the sub plots. If the reader loses sight of the main storyline, it’s time for some trimming.

5. Be prepared for the long haul
I attended a talk by the Irish short story writer Claire Keegan last year in which she revealed that she writes up to thirty drafts before she is satisfied with her work. Gasp. Good writing does not spill out onto the page, it has to be crafted with skill and patience. Writing is rewriting, I now realise.

Keegan doesn’t show her work to anyone because she is so sure of her own writing barometer, and rightly so in her case. For most people input from the right readers is goldworth, to mimic a German word. But it is important not to be too easily swayed others’ opinions. Show the manuscript to the right people at the right time with the right expectations.

Just to add a little insight from another language culture about the secret ingredient publishers – and readers – are searching for. I read an interview today in my local Swiss paper with editor Daniela Koch of the Rotpunktverlag in Zurich. Only one in a hundred submitted manuscripts gets picked up by her company.

What keeps her reading a new submission? Emotion. “But it’s usually not the story itself that moves me, but something in the language. The way someone tells the story, how the atmosphere is created.”

For a first novel to work, she told the Freiburger Nachrichten newspaper, writers need more than linguistic prowess, they also need to have a feeling for what’s doable.

“The authors must have a sense for which themes they can handle and which ones they can’t.”

Some of this blog’s followers are on their second or subsequent novels. Others are avid readers. I’d love to hear what lessons you have picked up along the way.

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