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.

The desolation of domestic life

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It’s ok, I’m not talking about my own domestic woes. I’ve just been reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, a collection of short stories set in Dublin and written between the 1950s and 1970s when Brennan lived in New York.

In between stories I started the wonderful Academy Street by Mary Costello, in which the main character Tess lives in New York through that same period and beyond. I lived under the melancholy spell of that book for three days, snatching it greedily back up at every opportunity. Academy Street gives the illusion of moving slowly without much drama but before you know it you have been through Tess’s entire life, a patchwork of tragedy, transient love and inertia.

For more on Academy Street I would recommend this fabulous review by fellow blogger and author Anne Goodwin, whose first novel is being published later this year.

Tess, with her emotionally debilitating upbringing and tragic lack of self-belief, could be a character from one of Brennan’s stories. But while Brennan reproduced on paper the “petty social intricacies of the city she had left”, she was living the high life in New York, working as a columnist for The New Yorker and enjoying the kind of success and freedom most girls of those times only dreamed about.

After a disastrous marriage, Brennan had a breakdown and her illustrious career – and her life – fell apart. She spent the last fifteen years of her life plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, homeless at times, and died forgotten and penniless in 1993.

Some of Brennan’s characters appear in several of her stories and a lot of the action takes place in one particular house in a suburban street on the city’s south side, in Ranelagh to be exact. This is the house where Brennan grew up, where her family went through precarious times while her father was on the run during the Civil War. In the new Free State, he was on the winning side and the family moved to Washington when he was appointed Ireland’s envoy the United States. Maeve Brennan never moved back.

There is a play, Maeve’s House, based on Brennan’s life which I wish I had seen. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also staged in New York in 2013. The play owes its existence to an amazing coincidence: the actor performing the one-man show also lived in the house were Brennan grew up. Eamon Morrissey’s family bought the house in Ranelagh from Brennan’s parents when they moved to the US.

Morrissey was surprised to discover in one of her stories an exact description of his childhood home and he contacted her at the magazine; they arranged to meet in New York.
Here’s a review of the New York show.

To get back to the stories. Some are gently moving while others are steeped in despair, portraits of people trapped in prisons of their own making. The title story The Springs of Affection (1972) is the longest in the book and it features one of the most vividly drawn and unlikable characters I have ever come across.

Her name is Min and she is the last surviving member of her family. A seamstress by trade, Min has lived a life of unrealised dreams, defined by envy and spite, but she finds herself on top in the end, triumphant in her longevity.

“Min sat beside her own gas fire in her own flat in Wexford and considered life and crime and punishment according to the laws of arithmetic. She counted up and down the years, and added and subtracted the questions and answers, and found that she came out with a very tidy balance in her favour.”

Min’s brother Martin and his wife Delia are described with scathing disapproval by Min in her recollections. We meet the couple in several of the other stories, notably in The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary (first published in The New Yorker in 1966), where their domestic misery is writ large. When Martin returns home late after ignoring their anniversary, he finds refuge in his family’s slumber.

“… If this night could only last a week, or two weeks, I might have time to get everything straightened out in my head, and then I would know what to do … If they would only sleep happily like that for a long time, he might find himself able to thing again. But the coming of day, a few hours off, rose up in his mind like a towering wave that was all the more awful because it would be succeeded after twenty-four hours by another wave, and then another. There was no end to the days ahead, and the ones furthest off, years from now, were gathering power while he stood waiting on the landing. It was a merciless prospect. There was no way out of this house, which now seemed to contain all of his future as well as a good part of his past.”

Oh the unhappiness! I need to take refuge in the present. It’s January so I will leave you with a few photographs from last year and a snapshot of my wish list for 2015:

1. Spend more time in this country:
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2. Become a citizen of this country:
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3. Find inspiration for writing, write more and write better!
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4. Finish the first draft of my second novel.
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5. Stop and smell the roses (or whatever nature has on special offer).
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Happy New Year folks!

Paper candles burning bright

Many years ago my parents procured a shop-sized roll of Christmas wrapping paper whose pattern became the unmistakable trademark of our family Christmas. When I first remember that roll it was too heavy for me to lift. By the end of its life several years later the thick cardboard core was covered with just a few thin layers of paper that no one wanted any more.

The pattern was distinctive: Candles blazing on an orange background. Endless candles burning throughout my childhood, bridging the gap from primary to secondary school. Some years even my school books were covered in that paper.

The cardboard box that held the stones that held up the Christmas tree was also covered in that paper. And in the strange way that memory is both reliable and unreliable, when I close my eyes I can still feel and see that paper, and yet what I see is more the essence of the paper than anything I could accurately reproduce.

But when I begin with the paper, I can gradually see everything else as it was in my childhood home at Christmas: the white tablecloth, the serving dishes of celery and carrots, the gas fire, holly on the picture frames, the World Book encyclopaedia, the piano, the brass and wooden ornaments on the black mantelpiece. Voices calling in the hall and cousins arriving and the smell of red wine.

In this way I can always go home for Christmas. If I could find a scrap of that paper somewhere, maybe through some alchemy I could use it to travel back in time, or maybe the spell would be broken forever.

Wishing a joyful Christmas or happy holidays to all the regular readers of this blog and to any newcomers.

Ps. Last week I was delighted to hear that a piece of flash fiction I wrote, Morning Fire, was published by the RTE Radio 1 Book Show as part of a short fiction competition. The book 100 Words 100 Books is available from O’Brien Press.

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To the disgruntled aunt on the train

Really I should be writing to the nephew of the woman I overheard complaining on the train yesterday. You see the nephew hosts Christmas dinner in his house, as the disgruntled aunt explained to her travelling companion (a woman of few words), and anyone else in the carriage who spoke Swiss German. He invites the extended family, including his disgruntled aunt, for a fondue chinoise on December 24th.

(Cultural note: fondue chinoise is not remotely traditional but it has become really popular as the seasonal celebratory meal. You have a big platter of thin strips of raw meat and each person spears their piece of meat on a fork and cooks in a hot broth set up over a flame on the table. This is eaten with French fries, salad and a selection of up to five mayonnaise based sauces for the meat.)

Now the disgruntled aunt usually contributes lamb’s lettuce (Nüsslisalat) to this meal and she brings a lot more than is needed, a kilo in fact. So the nephew has at least 500g left over and can eat lamb’s lettuce all week. Lamb’s lettuce lasts for ages.

But this year the nephew is asking the guests to chip in to pay for the meat. The aunt is outraged, what with all the extra lamb’s lettuce she’s been providing , not that she ever got a word of thanks or recognition for that. And lamb’s lettuce is not cheap.

In revenge this year, the loud aunt will contribute only 500g of lettuce and certainly no money and we’ll see what the nephew thinks of that.

There is a separate row simmering in the family over the Christmas songs. Another relative takes it upon herself to print out a booklet of Christmas songs for everyone to sing together and there have been mutterings about the songs being too old fashioned, and there is one in particular that the loud aunt cannot abide and she has asked the other relative to strike it out because she simply cannot bear it.

The disgruntled aunt provided some entertainment for her fellow travellers today but also a little food for thought. Why is the nephew hosting a party he cannot afford, inviting people who are less than grateful? If he can afford it, why is he asking for money? Is this the kind of Christmas gathering these people should be having? How many other people are chained to arrangements that they are dreading? And of course, wouldn’t this gathering make a very entertaining Christmas film?

All this reminds me of a sweet poem by Frances Cornford which I first heard earlier this year from a colleague of mine who recited it at a very apt moment, the details of which I can’t remember now.

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much.

This post is in tribute to Maeve Binchy, the great advocate and champion of listening in to conversations.

Husbands in books, from bad to worse

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.

It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.

This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.

I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.

He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.

And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.

The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.

It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.

There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.

Any other contenders folks?

The Secret History opens a door to the past

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You don’t have to have murdered someone in your college days to go through a spell of nostalgia after reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This haunting book captures the clannishness, the impressionability, the uncertainty and excess of those years. It is a story about the defining experiences we would rather forget, if only we could.

Of course the Greek-quoting, champagne-swilling lifestyle enjoyed by the six main characters in The Secret History is far removed from the experience of the average student. The rarefied atmosphere cultivated by these privileged classics students belongs to a lost era; this is how we imagine things were when only the rich and brilliant entered the hallowed halls of university.

Told as a memoir from the perspective of the latest addition to the exclusive group, the novel reveals how, and ultimately why, five of the six “clever, eccentric misfits” end up colluding in the killing of their friend.

The book, set in an elite college in Vermont, takes up the mantle of The Great Gatsby so overtly that the students, in tweeds and cashmere, could be the grandchildren of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the narrator Richard a direct descendant of Nick Carraway.

Those formative years between adolescence and adulthood are fertile ground for fiction and The Secret History draws on other classics such as Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment and Brideshead Revisited, sometimes by direct reference.

But nothing in the 600 plus pages of The Secret History happens by accident. The novel is so well crafted it screams good writing. There is so much to enjoy – from the biting satire in the depiction of the family of the murder victim Bunny, to the heart-wrenching descriptions of tortured souls and the beautiful passages on the changing seasons. My only criticism would be the sense of repetition in the countless scenes of heavy drinking and hangovers. But knowing the writer, that was probably deliberate.

Like many people, I was inspired to read The Secret History after the long-awaited and much-fêted appearance of Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (don’t say anything, I’m only on page 304). Somehow I missed The Secret History when it was first published in 1992, even though it was right in the middle of my college years.

I’d love to hear your impressions of this book or any thoughts on the folly of youth. Among the small readership of this blog are three people I went to university with who have remained good friends to this day. I believe that the decision we made in 1989 to study Russian was one of the most significant and far-reaching of our lives. Or maybe I’m just carried away by The Secret History.

Here’s what Donna Tartt’s narrator Richard Papen has to say on the question. Read the punctuation and weep!

I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was the first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent adulation of the rest of the Greek class – have stayed with me through the years.

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

Are you writing in the right language?

You hear a lot about voice in fiction. Agents and publishers are looking for new voices. New writers still haven’t found their voice. Reviewers rave about the novel’s voice. And the rest. But what about writers who go so far as to write phonetically in the dialect of their own community? How’s that for voice?

Recently at Bern Literary Festival I had an interesting conversation with two writers about language and translation. One was a Swiss writer whose breakthrough success came when he finally wrote a book in his own dialect. His name is Pedro Lenz. The other was his translator, short story author Donal McLaughlin from Glasgow.

Swiss Germans like Pedro Lenz speak dialect all the time, unless they really have to speak standard German for some formal reason, or to communicate with a non-Swiss German speaker. Many never feel fully at ease in standard German (also known as high German). And yet most Swiss German writers write in high German because that is considered the ‘proper’ language.

In the case of McLaughlin, whose childhood was split between Derry and Glasgow, there was more than one leap to be made to get to grips with the standard English taught at school. Europe, despite all its disappearing dialects, is still full of this kind of linguistic tension.

The meeting with Lenz and McLaughlin was one of those rare occasions when my day job intersected with my interest in writing fiction. I put together a podcast for swissinfo.ch which was published last week. I’m including it here if you would like to listen to the conversation. There’s also an article based on the same subject.

And for those who’d like to test their knowledge of Glaswegian, here are some phrases from the Glaswegian book Naw Much of a Talker (Original title: Der Goalie Bin Ig). Maybe you have some great lines or vocabulary to share from your own home-grown style of English?

Kid ye slip me a fifty tae Monday? (Could I borrow fifty [pounds] ‘til Monday?)

Ah get ma kick fae the present (I get my kick from the present)

It’s guid craic, listenin tae a French-speaker tryin tae speak German (It’s good fun, listening to a French speaker trying to speak German)

Marta but was greetin aw the way home. (Marta was crying all the way home)

Looks like his wife picks stuff ootae her stupit catalogue fae him – ivry couple ae years. (Looks like his wife picks stuff out of her stupid catalogue for him – every couple of years.)

Children in school, mothers on stand-by

I’m not saying there is a conspiracy in Switzerland to make life difficult for working mothers of primary school children, but if there were a conspiracy it might account for my experiences over the past four years, and look something like this:

Strategy 1: Mix it up
Have children start school (kindergarten) at the age of four but give them an erratic timetable. For fun, have the children come in three mornings a week, obviously not consecutive mornings, and throw in an afternoon just to keep it interesting.

I’m not making this up. My four year old has school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Thursday afternoon for two hours. That’s it. Every night she asks, do I have school tomorrow? And every morning, do I have school today? Keep ‘em guessing.

Strategy 2: Complications
In the first few years, give different classes different afternoons and mornings off each week. That way, families with more than one child will be kept on their toes with multiple childcare gaps and a different timetable for each child.

Strategy 3: The lunch trap
Close down the school for two hours in the middle of the day so that the timetable looks like this: Morning: 7.45a.m. to 11.30a.m.; Afternoon: 1.40p.m. to 3:30p.m.

Let the parents worry about where the children will eat and who will look after them. Provide a minimum number of places in an after-school programme nearby. Sit back and watch the parents scramble for these places, at their own expense.

Strategy 4: Rise and shine
Start school at an ungodly hour of the morning, so children are too sleepy to eat breakfast and parents are grateful for the children having random mornings off during the week to recover.

Ok, the early start is part and parcel of Swiss society. It’s the norm for people to start work before eight so we all have to go to bed early and get up early.

But the rest? I hear the argument sometimes that these timetables are geared towards children, based on the notion that starting school is a big change for children so they should be eased in gradually.

But I find it hard to believe such a lack of routine is good for children. What about the body clock? And I know it is not good for parents trying to organise childcare.

For stay-at-home mothers who are attached to their role, these timetables have one advantage. It makes them indispensable. They can rightly point out that they hardly have time to turn around, do the shopping and start cooking before the children are home again.

But what if this is a gilded cage? I want stay-at-home mothers to be valued, not shackled to the home. Is it good that mothers who have already put in a huge effort in the baby and pre-school years are so restricted they cannot think of taking on another activity during the 20 to 30 hours their school-gong children are away during the week?

Is there any other country clinging to this home-for-lunch model? In Ireland the four and five year olds attend school from 9a.m. to 1p.m., Monday to Friday. They eat a packed lunch at the 11a.m. break. From the age of six or seven (first class), the school day runs from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m.

This is not about treating schools as a babysitting service for selfish career-mongering parents (a view I’ve heard expressed), it is just a simple plea to stop pretending that the two worlds – home and school – have nothing to do with each other.

I should point out that my children like coming home at lunch on the days I am here but I wouldn’t consider it a hardship for them if things were different. They were just as happy doing five-and-a-half-hour days when they attended school in Dublin for a term.

More and more Swiss schools are adapting, and have begun to provide supervision and hot meals at lunchtime but it is still a minority. Maybe mothers will be able to ‘lean in’ a bit more when this becomes the norm.

Like most mothers of young children in Switzerland, I work part-time, and accept the trade-off that my career will stall for the time being, in return for spending more time with my children.

But to “escape” into the earning world even for 20 hours a week without live-in childcare requires some creative solutions. Last year I traded childcare with a neighbour, both of us taking on each other’s children for a 10-hour day. Luckily my husband also leans in to childcare duty and we have great support from family living nearby.

To repeat what I said earlier, it’s not that there’s a conspiracy to make life difficult for working mothers. It is just that the system evolved to complement a traditional situation which is no longer the reality for many families – and in some regions the winds of change have not yet arrived.

It’s complicated enough for two-parent families. Last week I heard a Swiss parliamentarian say that the majority of social welfare recipients are households headed by one parent. How many more of them would be able to hold down a job if their children weren’t coming and going every few hours?

So what do you think? Am I being unfair to the Swiss way of life? Would you swap your system for ours?

You’ll find more background on this topic in this article I wrote for swissinfo a couple of years ago: Swiss mothers hold back from having it all.

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