Regrets, I’ve had a few

suit

One of the highlights of English class in secondary school for me was being introduced to short stories. One that I remember vividly is Brendan Behan’s The Confirmation Suit, a story about regret that beautifully illustrates the dilemma of being caught in a social bind. When reading this story, most of us were fresh from doing our own Confirmation (a coming-of-age ritual in the Catholic Church in which a lot of importance was placed on the new outfit bought for the occasion). Behan couldn’t have found a more receptive audience (albeit posthumously) for this iconic Irish story.

The boy in Brendan Behan’s story was obliged to accept a kindly neighbour’s offer to make a suit for him for the big day. An elderly seamstress who normally made funeral habits, Miss McCann was not blessed with a great sense of fashion and the writer gets great comic mileage out of the child’s embarrassment and his father’s amusement at his predicament. This must be why the unexpected sad turn of events produces such a memorable punch.

This description comes half-way through the story:

When I made my first Communion, my grandmother dug deep under the mattress, and myself and Aunt Jack were sent round expensive shops, I came back with a rig that would take the sight of your eye. This time however, Miss McCann said there wasn’t much stirring in the habit line on account of the mild winter, and she would be delighted to make the suit if Aunt Jack would get the material. I nearly wept, for terror of what the old women would have me got up in, but I had to let on to be delighted, Miss McCann was so set on it. She asked Aunt Jack did she remember father’s Confirmation suit. He did. He said he would never forget it. They sent him out in a velvet suit, of plum colour, with a lace collar. My blood ran cold when he told me.

The stuff they got for my suit was blue serge, and that was not so bad. They got as far as the pants, and that passed off very civil. You can’t do much to a boy’s pants, one pair is like the next, though I had to ask them not to trouble themselves putting three little buttons on either side of the legs. The waistcoat was all right, and anyway the coat would cover it. The coat itself, that was where Aughrim was lost.

I’ve just finished reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I realised how personal the story was to the writer. She wrote the novel after her older brother died of obesity-related illness. Shortly before he died, when it seemed he might recover, Shriver considered taking him. She enquired about bariatric surgery at the hospital where he was being treated and even imagined bringing him home to recover in her house in New York. In the end her goodwill was never tested because her brother took a turn for the worse and died.

But Shriver went on to write a story about a woman who gives up her home and marriage to move in with her morbidly obese older brother to help him lose weight. The book is steeped in regret and raises that difficult question that often arises after the death of loved one: could I have done more?

In the story I have written, the main character has always had strong motherly feelings towards her younger brother and she feels enduring grief at his disappearance, for which she partly blames herself. In that sense it is about regret but later it explores the problem of how far it is possible to save another person bent on self-destruction.

I’ll leave you with the image of Behan’s boy standing in the rain wearing that silly suit. It encapsulates what is tragic about the end of childhood – the loss of innocence, the feeling of being misunderstood, the first taste of regret.

I needn’t have worried about the suit lasting forever. Miss McCann didn’t. The next winter was not so mild, and she was whipped before the year was out. At her wake people said how she was in a habit of her own making, and my father said she would look queer in anything else, seeing as she supplied the dead of the whole quarter for forty years, without one complaint from a customer.

At the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and I stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.

Ireland – far away, up close

Time to say goodbye
Time to say goodbye

Some things, like impressionist paintings, are only clear when you take a step back. Not having lived in Ireland for a decade there are certain things I am seeing with fresh eyes. As I near the end of a four-month sabbatical in Dublin and contemplate the return to my life in Switzerland, it’s a good moment to cast an objective eye on the homeland.

Cold comfort: I now understand why we like to live in terraced houes, in the city at least. Huddling together, as penguins know, is the best way to keep warm. I’m not entirely joking when I say that the only thing keeping me here right now is my electric blanket.

Irish houses have chronic insulation issues and heating – what time you turn it on, how big your bills are, how useless storage heaters are – is a big topic of conversation. This issue should be the central plank of any political party manifesto. I think the political leader who makes our homes affordably warm is destined to win the affection of the nation.

Gale force: A note from the second windiest country in Europe (after Scotland). The wind is wreaking untold devastation on the hairstyles of Ireland, a problem that does not get the recognition it deserves. You could have your hair set in iron cladding and it would still get blown to bits. If there was some way we could marry the wind resource with the home heating gap we would be set up for life. Anyone, anyone?

Comfort eating: You have to have something with those endless cups of tea. The Irish are the biggest chocolate, cake and biscuit munchers in Europe and the selection of crisps is second to none. Yes there may be public health implications but it is also worth celebrating the sheer wealth of delicious treats available.

Storytelling: I don’t think Irish people live more dramatic lives but they certainly have the ability to turn life experiences into good stories. This comes across a lot on radio – I’ve often been stopped in my tracks by the voices of people recounting something powerful. Amongst my own friends and family I’ve had evenings here where story after story is told which could provide the plots for several novels. Speaking of which, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are writing novels. The competition is going to be stiff!

Rule bending: Travelling with three children on the bus every day I have experienced plenty of instances of friendliness and kindness from bus drivers which never ceases to amaze me. There have been other situations where the ability to apply common sense or compassion over the rules has made life easier for me. It’s not something you come across as often in Switzerland.

The next twelve days will be all about letting go and saying goodbye again. But that’s OK. The trip has gone really well overall and I think I can say I found what I was looking for.

Getting away from it all

New horizon, old horizon
New horizon, old horizon

There are the restless years. The years of trying out jobs, hairstyles, places to live. That era of cycling home with your shopping bags swinging from the handlebars and spending everything you earn. You get caught in the rain, you never have a decent coat and you laugh a lot.

When you are living lightly, unencumbered by pots or pans, children or a hard-to-replace job, changing location is as simple as walking away. You don’t own anything you can’t carry, you don’t owe anyone anything. You book your flight and you go.

Then before you realise what has happened, the landscape of your life has changed. It takes a team of men a full day to move the furniture you have accumulated. You actually read through the quarterly statement from your pension plan. Gardening magazines find their way into your home and you become concerned about booking holidays early.

Middle age. There’s no getting away from it, that gradual drift towards Sofa, the god of comfort and inertia. Or is there?

One of the great things about my sabbatical visit to Ireland (now three-quarters over, tick tock!) is that feeling of having defied the pull of middle age just a little. Packing up and setting off for new horizons was a part of my life I thought I would never have back again, or at least not until my children were raised. But it has come to pass, and this time, after a decade abroad, I have returned to the original horizon of my youth, Dublin Bay – and it feels good.

Has anyone else found a way to feel free again? I’d love to hear about it.

Once upon a time in Westport House

Westport House
Westport House

Once upon a time I went to Westport House. I know this not from any particular memory but because there is a photograph from that day and it was a holiday that was later much spoken about. My mother wore a scarf on her head and a long skirt. I was one of three little girls, content in a world that did not extend very far beyond our family unit at that happy time.

The real event of the holiday was the death of Elvis Presley.

The sad news sparked an impromptu sing song in the hotel where we were staying. I remember the children being left to their own devices that night as the adults all descended on the bar to sing song after emotional song.

The other drama of the holiday was an afternoon at the beach when we became stranded by the incoming tide. We had had a picnic on some sort of grassy hillock and to get back to the car my father had to carry the two eldest children on his shoulders through the surging sea. My mother saved the baby and the picnic basket.

That little rescue scene is one of my happiest childhood memories. It comes from a time when our parents could protect us from anything and we liked nothing more than just being together.

By chance, or perhaps by some subconscious design, this week I found myself in Westport House again, thirty six years since the last visit. Our three little girls are now very close in age to the three little girls of 1977. And yes, we took a photograph on the steps of the house.

The stately home of the Marquess and Marchioness of Sligo now has a Pirate’s Park in the grounds, amusement rides and a mini train. But the house is as beautiful as ever and the sun obliged by coming out just before we left for this picture.

Switching the novel to sustainable energy

(M1energysolutions.com)
(M1energysolutions.com)
You know that feeling when you just make it to a socket at the last moment before your laptop dies? That’s how I felt crossing the threshold of the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday. It’s going to be OK.

This novel that provided its own fuel for the first year has been draining me since then and needs to be switched to sustainable energy. What better source than the positive energy of fellow writers? I want to get the manuscript into the best possible shape and send it on its way to make room for the next book. This course is the boost I’ve been looking for.

Somewhat dishevelled from the blustery walk up O’Connell Street, I held my paper cup of tea and looked around in excitement and wonder. These people, I realised, are just like me and finally we have come out of the woodwork. We’ve been squirrelling away words for months or years, storing up the stories we want to tell. Now is our chance.

I had the experience of reading out the opening of the book to a group for the first time and it went well. My relationship to the work is different now that it’s been exposed a little. That feeling of working in a vacuum is gone and I can see more clearly now what needs to be done. The feedback was encouraging and useful, under the kind and expert guidance of Conor Kostick.

Even though I didn’t have to use my one-line pitch last night, here is what I have come with. I realise I have two lines here but surely the concept is not that literal? It’s also possible that I have veered towards writing the blurb rather than the pitch. Do they necessarily have to differ?

Set in boom-time Ireland, this is a story about people, what they bring to our lives and what they take away. Haunted by the disappearance of her brother years before, when Laura is caught up in an emotional and professional disaster, she has to find new faith in family, friendship and love.

I may have to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Climb every mountain, or not

In a fit of irrational exuberance just before I left Switzerland I booked tickets for three events at the Dun Laoghaire book festival Mountains to Sea. I took one look at the line-up and lost the plot, so to speak. Margaret Atwood (exclamation mark, exclamation mark), I cried. Téa Obreht (exclamation mark, exclamation mark), I added breathlessly. Oh and look Jennifer Johnston at lunchtime (click on two more tickets).

A while later back in Dun Laoghaire and real life, it quickly became apparent that I couldn’t spend week two of my big trip to Ireland waltzing from literary event to literary event. There were other things to consider, not least of which was settling the children into their new school and temporary new home.

In the end all I can boast is that these writers I admire were just down the road from me, a mere eight-minute cycle or 24-minute walk away.

But every bookshelf has a silver lining. On Saturday afternoon, miraculously and unexpectedly, I did manage to attend a festival talk called New Voices – with my three year old. We had to hop in and out of the room a bit to keep the peace but I came home motivated and encouraged, mainly by the contributions of Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, author of Back to Blackbrick, and agent Caroline Walsh from David Higham Associates. My daughter was equally happy with her blue Mountains to Sea balloon.

It’s the first time I’ve heard a real live agent speak and it was reassuring to see that she was no big bad wolf. What struck me about Walsh’s submission advice was that it was all familiar. There is no secret formula for getting published. Agents are just looking for good work and a professional attitude. Walsh’s agency gets 60 submissions a week and they take on 12 new authors a year! Anyone who goes up against those odds has to be an optimist.

Moore Fitzgerald spoke about self-belief and how to hang on to it. A successful academic, what put her off writing fiction for so long was the perceived impossibility of the challenge. She warned against sharing too soon and reminded the audience that ragged first drafts are not meant to be compared to award-winning published works.

Next Monday I will be making my way to the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin city centre to start the Finish Your Novel writing course. By hook or by crook I will have my one-line killer pitch ready by then!

The great sea escape

Ever-changing story
Ever-changing story

Since I arrived back to live temporarily in Dublin I can’t get enough of the sea and its show-stopping other half, the sky. We are all products of our environment no matter where we come from and that makes me a coastal person. There’s a feeling of being on the edge of something vast and mysterious. The sea is an ever-changing story – welcoming one day and threatening the next.

Gazing out over the sparkling waves again, I am struck by how inaccurate the term insular is. On an island you are always looking out, not in. You are confronted with the limits of your existence, exposed to the beauty and cruelty of nature. You cannot help but dream about the world beyond the horizon.

The sea is a powerful presence. It calls us back when we go away. One day maybe we’ll find out what it has to tell us.

You’re looking fierce well altogether

2013-08-25 10.53.27

This phrase, which I overheard on the street today in Dun Laoghaire, adds great flourish and emphasis to the standard ‘you’re looking very well’. You can also be fierce upset or fierce busy in Ireland. In my first week back I am feeling fierce well altogether myself.

Maybe it’s the street where we are staying, ten minutes’ walk from my childhood home and from the sea.

Or the morning we spent on the sea shore, climbing the rocks and looking for crabs.

Being there for my little nephew’s birthday.

My membership card for the Irish Writers’ Centre arriving in the post.

Bumping into old friends at the Sunday market in the park.

Sitting out in the back garden with my mother and knowing that for a change we have time on our side.

A tall order for Ireland

Sandcove beckons
Sandcove beckons

Is there any way the next four months in Ireland can match my ridiculously great expectations? How many gallons of tea, Jamaica ginger cakes, meaningful conversations and seafront walks will it take to satisfy me?

Small recap: After ten years in Switzerland I have taken some time off to return to Dublin to write, spend time with friends and family and give my children a chance to be more than just visitors to Ireland.

I am finally going to connect to the everyday rhythm of Irish life again, without the pressured merry-go-round of arrangements and catching up that my shorter visits home have become. At least that’s the hope.

More than one person has warned me that what I am looking for cannot be found. They perceive me as longing for le temps perdu – the way things used to be. Could they be right? I do know it’s not the same country I left ten years ago and that time and circumstances have changed us all but do I really accept that?

So what is it I am looking for? There are concrete things like my mother’s Sunday lunch, family birthdays, a dip in the sea at Sandycove. On the cultural side I’m looking forward to my first book festival in Dun Laoghaire, an evening or two at the theatre, the writing course I’ll be attending at the Irish Writers’ Centre. My children will come home from school, happy I hope, with a few phrases of Irish and a stronger sense of their other identity.

But it is the people I have missed the most. Close friends and family in whose treasured company I passed the first thirty years of my life. People I’ve only managed to have snatched moments with for too long, not only because of the distance but because of the demands of a growing family. A reservoir of unshared stories and experiences has built up behind the dam. It’s in these relationships that the greatest potential disappointment or reward of the trip lies.

Fellow blogger Karen O’Reilly returned to Ireland with her family earlier this month for good after 11 years in France.

http://getrealfrance.blogspot.fr/2013/08/taking-leap-moving-back-to-ireland.html

A lot of the reasons she gave for her decision echo my own but in my case the move is temporary. I hope the time in Ireland will soothe the homesickness I feel and help me commit more fully to my future in Switzerland. Whatever happens I think the regret of not following through on this idea would definitely do more harm in the long run. With just over two weeks to go before we leave Switzerland, any last minute advice or warnings are welcome!

Green light for return to Ireland

Old-Suitcase-with-Travel-Stickers2-640x553

In the author description of Douglas Kennedy’s latest book Five Days, we are told that the writer divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin, Maine and Montreal. Is he serious? You have to wonder what kind of lifestyle that involves. A lot of fridges to clear and restock.

Most of us are confined to one geographical base at a time but that doesn’t mean we don’t dream of other possibilities. Last year I met an Eritrean refugee who risked his life crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, mournfully reconciled to living in Switzerland, while longing to go back home.

A lucky few have holiday homes and can shuttle between two different lifestyles and even climates. Wealthy Northern Europeans love to buy up properties in Spain, France and Italy. You can only admire their good sense.

This year I will be ‘dividing my time’ between Switzerland and Ireland, leaving Switzerland in August, ten years to the day since I arrived here to live, and staying on in Dublin until Christmas. The germ for this idea came around a year ago and the trip has come together thanks to a little serendipity and perseverance.

Last summer I had a conversation with my sister about my wish to live in Ireland again someday. Working out when my youngest child would be independent, I reckoned I could possibly arrange something around the age of sixty. This reflection shocked me to the core and started me thinking.

A short time before that on a flight from Dublin to Geneva I met an Irish woman who had lived in France for 20 years. She was married to a Frenchman and they had four daughters together. She told me she had twice moved with the children to Ireland for a school year, staying in her old family home. She was able to keep up her small travel business from Dublin and her husband, a teacher, used all his holiday time to visit them.

Moving forward to the end of last summer, one of my colleagues went to Florence for six weeks to do an Italian course, thanks to a creativity fund in work. I found out more about the fund that supports employees wishing to pursue various projects.

Now it just so happened that I had a very active creative project in progress – writing my first novel. I looked at courses in the Irish Writers’ Centre and found one that would be ideal for me. Everything was telling me to seize the moment.

My funding application was finally approved last week and I went ahead and booked the flights. What I have gained is the most precious thing of all – time. Time to write, time to spend with friends and family, time for my children to get to know their origins and time off from being a foreigner.

Wish me luck!