Travelling the E8 route

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Last Saturday I started a long-term quest to complete the Irish leg of the E8. This is one of eight routes that join up waymarked trails throughout Europe. Having already completed the Wicklow Way and part of the South Leinster Way (the first two trails) I started the East Munster Way and will continue heading west to Valentia/Dursey. I don’t have the time to do this all in one go, so it will be done in sporadic bursts of daily or weekendly hiking throughout the year(s).

Since the route is linear, and therefore unconducive to driving, I will be using public transport as much as possible. I believe it’s important to describe how I do it in order to promote car-free travel as much as I can. Some of the routes are remote so taxis may come into play for those ones.

Many of these tracks are underused so I hope I can encourage others to give them a go! I would like to thank the bloggers and hikers at Tough Soles for providing the inspiration.

Review of The Watermelon Boys by Ruqaya Izzidien

watermelon-boys

Published in paperback by Hoopoe Fiction, August 2018

The recent shenanigans over red paint being thrown over a war memorial soldier made out of scraps of tin in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, highlight how much pearl-clutching is still happening over memorialising WWI. To my mind, it’s unedifying to wring one’s hands over paint on a statue when WWI was an unrelenting, unrestrained, bloody, horrific, unnecessary sh*tshow from start to finish. This desire to sanitise, make decent, something that is indecent both in conception and execution – I don’t understand it. Thank God, then, for Ruqaya Izzidien’s debut novel which reminds the reader of exactly that. The Watermelon Boys explores the effect of that war on a family in Mesopotamia (Iraq, as is) and a young boy growing up in Wales and it is heartbreakingly beautiful and sad.

Through the eyes of Ahmed in Baghdad and Carwyn in Wales, we see how imperialism in its ultimate form – the war to end all wars – destroyed (destroys) societies, lands, peoples – as well as the souls of the men it coerces into fighting on its behalf. This poisonous legacy is the grandfather of the Gulf Wars and the great-grandfather of terrorist movements and protracted wars in the region. Izzidien paints an evocative picture of society in Baghdad, where Jews and Muslims live together as friends, before the Arabs are betrayed by the British after the war is over. Carwyn, forced into volunteering by a brutish English stepfather, is beaten by his schoolmaster for speaking too many words of Welsh. Their plights are not the same, but neither are they are altogether different.

Ahmad is in many ways a quiet hero, retaining his values and integrity in spite of the viciousness of war around him and the losses he suffers. He is sustained by his wife Dabriya, a courageous woman, but even she cannot banish his memories of war. The battle scenes in which he is involved are impeccably described and Izzidien’s hard work is clear to discerning readers. There are moments of sharp humour and observation among the tragic arc.

The novel, although powerful, is not to my mind perfect. The younger characters felt interchangeable, and the romance between Amina and Yusuf didn’t move me that much. Also, the author has an understandable tendency to over-editorialise in the last section when the English are selling out the Arabs and demanding to be thanked for it. Allowing the abominable facts, and the characters’ reactions to them, to speak for themselves would strengthen the outrage, not diminish it as Izzidien seems to fear it might. But those caveats aside – and some of the best-written books I’ve read have greater flaws – this is a powerful, beautiful novel, demanding to be read by anyone interested in WWI fiction, and those who are not.

White Feathers Audiobook

I think it should be OK to announce this as Amazon have already put it up on their links for pre-order (though only for an audio CD.) White Feathers will be coming in audio format early in the new year, projected time end of February.  The novel will be read by Amy de Bhrun and I am very excited to hear Eva’s story being spoken rather than just being on the printed page. I’m excited, also, to see White Feathers reach a new market and hope it fills the ears of many listeners.

In the meantime, if you are stuck for Christmas ideas, why not order your loved one or friend a copy of a novel which, according to one of the reviews, “was so intense and addictive that my tea went cold and unnoticed – rain lashed the windows as I read and read and read”. Now as WWI passes deeper into history, it’s all the more important not to sanitise it. Stories can keep the past alive. I am working on more of them.

I will update here once all audiobook formats are available for ordering or pre-ordering.

6th November 2018

Today is the day of the US midterm elections. These are probably the most important elections in the voters’ lifetime. They matter here too. I have the strange feeling that with this tremendous event, and then the Armistice anniversary, we are entering a “thin space” where the gap between humanity and the numinous world is not so vast, and where we get a steer on the wheel of Fate, some great guidance or warning.

I wrote a little historical story a year ago which I would encourage people to read, share and enjoy on this day. It is relevant to current events, and has a little twist which I think will amuse, and perhaps bring some hope.

What is Written, is Written

 

#WhyImVotingYes – Writing A Woman’s Choice

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In Ireland, we are due to vote on Friday on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This piece of text was introduced in 1983 by secretive, right-wing, Catholic pressure groups who exerted all the leverage they could on the government and the people in an attempt to copperfasten the Constitution against any attempts to introduce termination of pregnancy. In the decades since, this unnecessary clause has caused women’s deaths, not to mention untold misery to thousands, while the very act it is trying to ban is merely exported.

So many women have testified here about the damage the Eighth has done. As a citizen, a woman, and a person of conscience, I can only vote Yes to repealing it. A wonderful community has galvanised around our cause. We have Together for Yes, Doctors For Yes, Lawyers for Choice, Psychologists for Yes, Men for Yes, and now Farmers For Yes bringing up the cavalry. (Thanks Lorna. Anyone Irish and on the fence about their vote, check out her post!) For my part, I want to talk about my experience writing abortion in my work.

Writing Women’s Choices

In 2014, I had a novel published which did something then unusual in Irish literature: it contained a storyline where a character under extreme duress seeks an abortion, then undergoes it, and continues with her life without major regret. Up till very recently, this was quite rare; the only other case I could think of was Maeve Binchy’s Light a Penny Candle (supremely ironic, given her brother, a law professor, is one of the founding members and leading lights of the anti-choice movement in Ireland!) To my mind, Binchy handles the scene between Elizabeth, who is procuring an illegal abortion, and Aisling, who in spite of her disapproval offers her support, with nuance and thought. There was wistfulness on Elizabeth’s part, rather than sentimentality; she does not doubt her decision, but sometimes thinks about what would have happened if her partner had been more supportive.

In White Feathers, the abortion takes place during wartime England in 1915. I was going to say that laws there were much harsher than the present, but actually…not in Ireland. The legislation that affected Eva and Lucia would have been Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Having an abortion, or procuring one, could be punished with life imprisonment. This statute was not repealed in Ireland until May 2013, when a ramshackle Act was passed through – ramshackle because the root of the poisonous tree, the Eighth Amendment, was still in place. It was like putting a dressing on an infected wound.

The same law, 100 years on

I got my offer of publication on August 4, 2013. I had submitted my last unassisted draft in April of that year. From the very start of writing the novel to the day I hit “send” on the last draft to my agent, the provisions of the 1861 act on abortion were still law in Ireland. Both then and now, Eva and Lucia would have broken the law – and both would be liable to heavy sentences, heavier than rape. I think it really says something when I’m writing a novel set 100 years in the past and we were still stuck under the same law! Historical fiction is meant to be historical, lads. The clue is in the name.

When I got my notes back from the editor, she and I worked very hard on those scenes, to get the right amount of nuance and conflicting emotions. To establish, in a nutshell, that such an experience, being so physically difficult, was not nothing, but did not have to cast a shadow over everything else either. That the girl in my story very much wanted an abortion and did not, on balance, regret it. I also found it hard to write the part where she had to confide in someone she loved and valued. I had to run through his reaction in my mind, balancing the need to not be burdened with judgement with the requirement to be true to the customs and worldview of wartime England in the early twentieth century. Which would have viewed abortion as quite shocking.

Reaction

I did not receive much post-publication feedback on that particular storyline, though I suspect it might have “marked my card” behind the scenes. A few friends told me that they appreciated the sensitivity and even-handedness of it. One powerful medium obliquely rebuked me for it, chiding me for allowing the character a jocular thought about being pregnant “after all she has been through”. The idea that she might not be haunted day and night, that she might have felt like a prisoner while pregnant, that she have been able to look back on the whole episode with wry relief and even joke about it – this was obviously still not an acceptable viewpoint to hold in Irish literature, even three and a half years ago, never mind back in the good old days. I still had to pay a penalty for putting it out there, earning a harsher dressing down than many of my colleagues lauching their debuts.

However on balance – I wouldn’t change a word. Not one word. I’m proud of that storyline and glad I wrote it. And I hope that come Friday, the conditions that surrounded the characters in a historical novel…will be relegated to history in Ireland, for once and for all.