Dead or gone?

We’ve had a bird box for several years. It was a housewarming gift from a friend. There it sat, an A-frame wooden box with a tiny porthole in the front so small we couldn’t imagine any creature getting in there, let alone getting out. So it became an adornment, a pretty fixture without function, until this year when we discovered we had squattters – a couple of blue tits. Neither of us is what you might call an ornithological expert. (There’s a distinction in the bird world between the folks with the binoculars – bird-spotters who are known as birders, and bird-lovers, more commonly called bird-watchers.). We just about scrape into the latter category.

Like everyone else we’ve become more attuned to the world of our backyard since lockdown, and more aware of birdsong in general since the background hum of traffic was so drastically reduced. But that was as far as our interest went, until the blue tits took up residence.

Slowly but surely, we found ourselves watching the nest activity with as much interest as the latest Netflix box set. Not only did our focus narrow and become more concentrated, but we became proprietorial and protective of the precious cargo in our bird box. We stopped putting out food because it only attracted the bigger birds – pigeons, blackbirds, crows – and we wanted to keep our nest a secret, and safe. We noticed how vigilant the parent tits were, never approaching the nest without first doing a 360 degree scope to check that they weren’t being watched. We found ourselves doing the same.

The blue tits’ presence gave us a stake in the life of the garden which up to this had been about plant care and control. Overnight, we became invested in the part of our environment we had no control over.

All through May we watched the frantic activity of the blue tit pair. The female usually lays a clutch of 7-12 eggs which are incubated for up to 16 days, during which time the male will feed the female. After 20 or so days, the birds are hatched. The chicks are born naked and blind and need to be fed continuously involving thousands of foraging trips in and out of the nest. It’s estimated that each chick can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.

And then the day we were waiting for arrived – when the fledglings left the nest. There were only three of them and we didn’t see them tumbling out of the tiny porthole in the box, but we discovered them on the ground trembling behind our pots, or camouflaged in the branches of plants. They were not much more than three yawning beaks surrounded by a circumference of plump yellow fur on spindly legs. They cried almost soundlessly, opening and closing those beaks with the expectation that mother or father bird might drop a morsel in there. The parent birds duly obliged.

We were looking forward to several weeks of watching them grown and thrive, but the next morning they were gone. We couldn’t believe it. Had they become victims of predators – cats, crows, magpies? (Our one raised bed and our dozen or so pots didn’t provide them with much cover. ) Or had their parents moved them elsewhere to protect them?

The answer is we don’t know. The young can stay with their parents for a few weeks after hatching. But the blue tit mortality rate is very high. Two-thirds of fledglings do not survive their first year. Of a family of 2 adults and 10 young, only one adult and one young bird will typically survive to breed.

Of course, we want to believe “our” blue tits are now fully grown and living independent lives elsewhere but the Covidian stealth of their disappearance suggests otherwise.

It’s fair to say we were bereft. There was something bleak and disowning about looking out into the burgeoning yard and not seeing “our” friends there. The daily ritual involved in hatching and rearing had become an absorbing occupation for us, a show put on for our benefit and to find the place tenantless reduced our yard to backdrop again, rather than habitat. For a while we felt shut out of the secret life of our own garden.

We’ve thought of taking the nesting box down. Could we bear to face the whole rigmarole next year should the blue tits return? For the moment, we’ve left it where it is. After all, this is nature “red in tooth and claw” – to quote Ted Hughes – and now we’ve progressed to being bird-watchers, we know the drill.

Who said knowledge is power?

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In February it was quietly announced that Warren Plath, brother of the infinitely more famous Sylvia, had died in the US. He was the last surviving family member of Sylvia’s generation. Warren Plath had virtually no presence on the internet and the notice of his death – aged 85 – made no reference to his connection to the internationally known poet. It would be tempting to think this might mark the end of an era though the interest in Sylvia Plath shows no sign of abating, even now 48 years after her death.

For my generation, Plath was one of those writers whose work was handed around like samizdat. Her poetry collections, The Colossus and Ariel, and her novel, The Bell Jar, were staples on our bookshelves . In my early 20s, I devoured Letters Home, her correspondence between 1950-1963, edited by her mother, Aurelia. (It was Plath’s fate to be “edited” by those close to her. Much of the controversy about her legacy centres around her estranged poet husband Ted Hughes’ management of her work after her death by suicide in 1963.)

Plath’s letters had a certain resonance for me. I, too, was the daughter of a widow and recognised the push/pull relationship with her mother when I first read her letters in the early 1980s. (Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father died when she was 8.)

In a widowed family (since widowhood happens not just to the wife) the need for approval is concentrated on the mother. It’s often twinned with an underlying anxiety of what might happen should the remaining parent die. On the other hand, the daugther of a widow learns to withhold worries and tailor expectations – especially financial ones – for fear of overburdening her mother.  Signs on, even through much of her inner torments while at Smith College, and later in Cambridge, Sylvia’s letters to Aurelia were determinedly cheery.

Aurelia Plath was ambitious for her children and wanted the very best for them, despite – or perhaps because of – their straitened circumstances.  The dynamics of the widow’s family are all too evident in Sylvia’s young letters. She depended utterly on Aurelia, leaned on her for emotional and financial support, wanted to please her, but resented what she called her “hovering”. Her mother gave her conflicting messages – to excel and to conform.

Lest it be forgotten, the widowed mother often longs to be free of her double responsibilities as well. In the 1970s, Aurelia wrote: “I worked to be free of her (Sylvia) & at least live my life – not to be drawn into the complexities & crises of hers.”

After her first suicide attempt in 1953, Plath was given electric shock treatment at McLean, a high-end private hospital in Boston. Her stay there was funded by the author Olive Higgins Prouty, who was a mentor of Sylvia’s, since Aurelia could not have afforded it. (Mrs Prouty paid $2500 over several months to the hospital, a tidy sum at the time. She had not realised Sylvia’s stay would be so long when she first offered help.)

The most recent Plath biography Red Comet; The Short Life and Blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, drawing on new evidence, suggests that the decision to administer ECT was partly to do with Mrs Prouty’s threat to withdraw financial support. If Sylvia had opted for psychotherapy, for example, her stay at the hospital might have been extended for a year, or more.

Plath’s psychiatrist at McLean, Dr Ruth Beuscher, over-ruled the concerns of medical colleagues at the hospital, claiming that Sylvia’s “over-riding sense of guilt and unworthiness could only be purged by the ‘punishment’ of shock treatments”.

The medical necessity of the treatment seems to have been very far-down the list of priorities.

Ironically, after two of six sessions, Sylvia’s depression began to lift, even though the treatment was then in its infancy. ( Plath had been given ECT at another hospital earlier that summer which had been administered without muscle relaxants or anaesthetic.). She told friends it was like being murdered. She would never forget the effects of it: “I need more than anything. . .someone to love me, to be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room.”

After her death, Ted Hughes claimed the controversial treatment “pervaded everything she said and did”. Nowadays we’d call that PTSD. Little surprise that one of the dominant tropes in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about her experiences at McLean, is the image of the Rosenbergs going to the electric chair in 1953. And the metaphor continued to appear in her work. In a diary entry of June 1958 she described her life thus: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

Although she was never diagnosed as such, Plath is often referred to in retrospect as manic depressive or bipolar.  But in many ways, it was the electric shock treatment that moved her into what Susan Sontag calls “the kingdom of the sick”. It medicalised Plath’s depression, turning it into a “condition”. But a reading of her early journals reveals nothing more than a young woman with a bad case of life.

She was 20 when she made her first suicide attempt, and her diaries from that time show what we might nowadays consider as typical existential angst, replete with the solipsistic striving of a high-achieving perfectionist and the disappointments of an idealistic young adult.

“I can’t deceive myself out of the bare stark realisation that no matter how enthusiastic you are, no matter how sure that character is fate, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the flash cheerful brilliance of the electric light,” she confided in her journal.

But they also show a woman in a pre-feminist era struggling with her female and her artistic identity.  “I’m just not the type who wants a home and children of her own more than anything else in the world. I’m too selfish, maybe, to subordinate myself to one man’s career.”

Even at that stage she was grappling with how to combine being a poet and a woman.

Sylvia Plath was facing those same choices in 1963 when she killed herself. She was a single parent, recently traumatically separated from Hughes, struggling to fend for two small (and at the time sick) children on her own – an unconscious mirror image of her mother? – while in the grip of a severe depression and the worst winter England had endured in decades.

She had an appointment at a psychiatric hospital set for the week following her death so help was at hand. But she was also consumed with dread that she might be forced into electric shock treatment again, something she knew she couldn’t face. It was almost as if the “cure” had become the illness.

However, she had resolved one of those choices. She left behind on her desk the completed manuscript of Ariel, her ground-breaking second collection of poems, which was published two years later to great acclaim and established her as a poet of standing.

As a tyro writer, I admired Sylvia Plath for how much she wrote. Her collected letters have been reissued in two massive volumes in 2017 and 2018, there are her journals and calendars, along with poems and fiction from an early age. She was constantly engaged with her interior life ( perhaps, sometimes, too much) and always observing – images and ideas from her letters turned up in poems, as did passages from her journals. There is no doubt how vividly she lived on the page. This wealth of material has also meant that Plath is a biographer’s dream. The sheer volume of material written about her amounts to a kind of pathology – or is it Plathology?

To which, I suppose, this blog is adding its two cents’ worth.

Above: Self-portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, 1946: Estate of Robert Hitter

Caravaggio at the Capitol

Even though it’s nearly two months  since a mob of Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, the images of those events still have the capacity to chill.  I was particularly struck by this image by Mostafa Bassim taken right at the heart of,  and in the heat of, that monumental clash between the forces of law and the ranks of  disorder. 

With due process now taking place and a new, saner administration in power, I found myself returning to  this image, not as a record of public history, but to admire its painterly qualities.  It kept reminding me of something else, and  then I realised what it was.  The composition, the colour palette, the intensity of the emotions, those faces picked out in the crowd, seemed to chime eerily with Caravaggio’s The Taking of  Christ,  his landmark biblical painting which depicts the moment when Judas Iscariot betrays Christ with a kiss.

Caravaggio painted The Taking of Christ ( National Gallery of Ireland) in 1602.  Its immediacy and impact is achieved by his unusual  technique of placing his figures close to the picture plane.  His trademark use of theatrical chiaroscuro  ( light and shade) also gives the scene a vivid sense of drama.  Some of  these artistic tropes  are evident in Bassim’s  photograph.  

The composition of both images is  strikingly similar.  The eye is drawn to the open mouthed, bare-headed protester,  centre left in Bassim’s photo, who’s also the focus of the police’s attention.  He’s  in exactly the same position as Caravaggio’s figure of Jesus. Look at those  black-helmeted riot police who are dead-ringers for the Roman centurions in their gleaming armour in Caravaggio’s work. 

 Caravaggio employs a minimal caste in his painting, suggesting a larger crowd outside the frame.  Bassim includes the crowd in his.  The low point of view Bassim employs, allows him to capture the claustrophobic crush of hand-to-hand combat at ground level while acknowledging  the flooding light from the dome of  the rotunda  creating a loftiness of effect; the “actual” struggling with the “ideal”. 

Caravaggio often painted himself into crowd scenes and in this one, he’s tagging along at the edge, the bearded young man in the top right of the canvas, peering over the heads of the others  to get a good look.  In Bassim’s  image, the “Caravaggio” figure is the fair-headed young man who exhibits a similarly intense curiosity in the bottom left of the frame – though it’s probably fair to assume that  if he’s in the Capitol building, he’s probably more than a disinterested witness. 

A red motif runs through both images.  Caravaggio adds heat and drama with the unfurling red cloak  that forms a canopy over the heads of Christ and Judas,  and continues the trope in  the red uniforms  of the soldiers and Jesus ‘s red tunic.  The equivalent in Bassim’s  photo is  the spot colour of those red  MAGA  caps dotted throughout the crowd in the Capitol. 

The  artistic associations are further enhanced  by the location of this pitched battle – the Capitol rotunda.  The rotunda  was completed in 1824 and was intended to recall the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple with its curved sandstone walls, its  fluted Doric pilasters and  olive branch wreaths carved into the upper friezes, all visible in this photograph.  This is a ceremonial space used for important events of state,  such as  the lying-in-state of eminent citizens, and was intended to celebrate high public culture.  In the background, we can see four paintings which were commissioned by Congress from the artist John Trumbull, which depict significant episodes of US history – The Declaration of Independence,  The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The  Surrender of Lord Cornwallis and General George Washington Resigning his Commission. 

A case of history looking down on history? 

The big difference between Caravaggio’s painting and Mostafa Bassim’s  photograph is, of course,  the circumstances in which they were produced.  Caravaggio crafted his work  carefully.  He used models and posed them for tableaux and in The Taking of Christ there are numerous instances of pentimenti  (over-painting )  which indicate he changed his mind frequently about the composition and the placement of figures.  Bassim, on the other hand, had only a split-second to capture his image, while being in the midst of the fray, and probably in mortal danger himself.  As a news photographer, it’s unlikely he was considering  composition or colour as he snapped; he was  probably concentrating on catching the moment and wondering how he was going to escape the melee and  get the images  back to his editors.

This is primarily a photograph of record – as the Trump rioters now being rounded up  realise.  Many of them were identified by photos such as this. (Those, that is,  who didn’t incriminate themselves by posing for selfies and then posting on social media.) But  in my book, it’s much more than that.  In his subtle framing of the event, his sense of theatre and context,  his understanding of emotion and politics, his lightening speed of apprehension, Bassim has created a work of art in the blink of an eye.  


Punishing motherhood

Joanne Hayes and her daughter, Yvonne

Since the recent publication of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the historic – and not so historic – treatment of single motherhood in Ireland has been under the microscope.

The Commission was established by the Irish Government in February 2015 to provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these church institutions during the period 1922 to 1998. What emerges from the testimonies is the cruelty meted out to young pregnant women, and the unconscionable neglect of their infants by religious orders who saw them as sinful and deserving of punishment.

But what of the women who didn’t go through this system, who kept their so-called illegitimate babies? Did they fare any better?

Just before Christmas, Joanne Hayes, one such woman, received an official apology and was awarded a High Court damages award of E1.5m for her treatment at the hands of, not the religious orders, but the State and its agents – including the gardaí.

A 24-year-old single woman, Joanne was in a secure family set-up which had already embraced her daughter Yvonne, born outside marriage. She was involved in a relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, and became pregnant again by him in 1984. She gave birth to a baby boy, Shane, on April 13, but he did not survive and was buried on the family farm in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry.

At the same time, 80 kilometres away, the body of a new-born baby with multiple stab wounds was abandoned on the White Strand, Cahirciveen. A Garda murder inquiry led to Joanne Hayes because she’d been recorded as being pregnant, but not having a live baby. What followed was a grotesque miscarriage of justice in which Joanne and her family were pressurised into signing statements admitting to the murder of the Cahirciveen baby. When she told gardaí about the birth of her own baby, that was neatly tied into the narrative.

“I had to kill him because of the shame it was going to bring on my family,” gardaí claimed she had said. “When the body of the baby was found at Caherciveen, I knew deep down it was my baby.

Even when blood tests determined that the Cahirciveen baby could not have been Joanne Hayes’ by Jeremiah Locke, the gardaí persisted with a bizarre theory that she had given birth to two babies who were twins, but had different fathers. In the meantime, the family had withdrawn their statements claiming they had been fabricated and accused the gardaí of intimidation.

By October that year the murder charges against Joanne Hayes were struck out.

But that was only the start of it.

The Minister for Justice of the time, Michael Noonan, ordered an investigation into the Garda handling of the case and the following year the Kerry Babies Tribunal was established. The hearings lasted six months, and proved to be an excruciating ordeal for Joanne and her family. In a five-day long cross-examination, she was asked intimate details about her sexual life and practices and was painted as a predator, although the conduct of the gardaí was supposedly the remit of the investigation. She was forced to ‘relive’ the harrowing experience of childbirth in a field, and was interrogated about her menstrual cycle and use of contraception.

In evidence she and her family reiterated that they had been coerced both physically and verbally into making false statements that implicated them in the death of the Cahirciveen baby. However, while the tribunal report established definitively that Joanne Hayes had no connection whatsoever with the Cahirciveen baby, it insisted that she had assaulted her new-born with a bath brush and choked him to death, even though forensic evidence could not establish whether the child had achieved independent life. (It’s interesting that the family’s “statements” were full of such lurid descriptions.)

The gardaí were given a slap on the wrist for running a “slipshod” investigation, but the tribunal failed to answer the central crucial question: how did detailed statements from the Hayes family, identical in details known to be false, come to be taken?

In the High Court action Joanne Hayes took against the State, she sought to over-turn the tribunal’s finding that she had killed her own son since it was completely unsubstantiated and was made despite the fact that an autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death. She said the finding allowed gardaí to imply that she was “promiscuous”, and “a woman of loose morals”.

Last December’s State apology and legal compensation officially recognises – after 36 years – that Joanne Hayes was the victim of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, unlawful arrest, assault and battery, abuse of power, conspiracy and emotional suffering and that her constitutional and human rights had been violated.

This barrage of power weaponry ranged against one young woman demonstrates that is was not just the Church which wanted to control and punish women who stepped outside the sexual norm. As journalist Gene Kerrigan, who covered the tribunal, said at the time, the Kerry Babies case raised issues that “had more to do with attitudes towards women, morality, sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth than any impartial attempt to establish the facts around the police investigation”.

Joanne Hayes was a woman who had chosen to have not one but two babies on her own, in the same hostile environment that drove thousands of single mothers into institutions where their children were taken from them. Sociologist Tom Inglis, writing about the case in 2004, observed that Joanne Hayes was not “the classic Irish single mother”. She did not hide, or give up her first baby, Inglis goes on. In that sense, she was “a bold and transgressive figure,” and the case illustrated how “sexually transgressive” women became isolated, marginalised and oppressed.

The public reaction to the case suggested that much public sympathy lay with Joanne Hayes, but as historian Diarmaid Ferriter remarks, ” it also underlined the extent to which women were still left to carry the blame and the stigma as a result of pregnancies outside marriage”.

Joanne Hayes became a symbol of realpolitik in that darkest of decades when divorce , contraception and abortion were central to the political discourse, but women were not.

Symbol or not, the odd thing is when you google Joanne Hayes, there are no images of her as she is now, a 60- year- old survivor. The photos of her that remain are from 1984/85 when she was in the eye of the storm.

It’s as if Joanne Hayes’ life stopped then, as if she died.

Of course, she hasn’t died. She has gone on to rear her daughter protected by her community and living determinedly out of the public eye. But the lack of any kind of media visibility is – e.g. she was not in court last December when the settlement was made – speaks of a woman, whose privacy and integrity was so traduced and manhandled (and I use the word advisedly) by the State, that she could not bear any further exposure, even to mark the public vindication of her reputation and character.

“My life has become pubic property and my body a subject for discussion all over the world,” she wrote in her autobiography, My Story, which came out in 1985. That was almost her last word on the subject.

Except for this: in a letter to journalist Nell McCafferty in 2006, pleading against the making of a film based on McCafferty’s book about the case, A Woman to Blame, she wrote: “I have to live with the past every day and for the rest of my life.”

But McCafferty had already sold the film rights and could do nothing: “Unfortunately, Joanne Hayes belongs to history,” she responded.

The murder of the Cahirciveen baby – subsequently christened John – has never been solved. The frenzied violence perpetrated on that baby suggests another equally dark chapter in the story of Ireland’s relationship to its uncherished children.

Feeling Unentitled

There’s usually an “aha” moment when you find the right title for a story, or it finds you.

With “Repossession”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd (a bumper issue of the Welsh journal celebrating five years in existence ) this moment never came, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a story in search of a title.

“Repossession” is about a middle-aged couple who buy their dream house at a knockdown price because it’s been repossessed from the previous owners by the bank. Shel, the wife, begins to suffer odd mental distrubances once they move in, which she suspects are linked to her scruples about benefitting from others’ misfortune, but the reader may not be so sure the two are linked.

Over numerous redrafts, the story’s title morphed into “Onset”, “Slippage”, “Drunkard’s Island”, and then with a kind of weary resignation, I went back to its original title, which by then had taken on the feel of a compromise. 

This was odd because it was this linguistic twinning that combines a ghostly haunting and property speculation in the same word – repossession – that prompted me to write the story in the first place. (Thankfully there’s no copyright on titles because as I was writing it, I discovered Lionel Shriver has a story of the same name in her collection of short stories, Property. Superstitiously, I haven’t read it.)

For some time, I had wanted to try my hand at a ghost story.  At the time of writing, I was teaching the ghost story genre to an undergraduate writing class and we had read Rose Tremain’s marvelously ambiguous story, ” Is Anybody There?” – a title that itself has echoes of that spooky poem of our childhood, The Listeners by Walter de La Mare.  (‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler/Knocking on the moonlit door;)

Knocking is the portal to the uncanny in Tremain’s story too, which is from Tales from a Master’s Notebook. Stories Henry James Never Wrote. (Vintage Classics), a wonderfully varied compendium of short fiction from ten writers (including Colm Toibín, Amit Chaudhuri, Tessa Hadley and Joseph O’Neill) who were asked to trawl through the notebooks Henry James left behind after his death and choose one of his unused ideas as a starting point for a new fiction.  

James spent 30 years filling his notebooks with thoughts and story ideas, anecdotes from dinner-parties and newspapers, things noticed on his travels. which formed the “germs” of stories for the future. As the collection’s editor Philip Horne remarks, some of James’s ideas read like “a good Hollywood pitch” : –

Couple Asleep – Woken in Night – Husband Nervous – So Wife Goes Down – He Hears Voices – She Won’t tell Him What Happened.

Man Has been Brave By a Fluke – Lives in Terror of Having to be Brave Again.

Young Man in Mid-Western Industrial Town Fills his Room with French Culture – Refuses the Chance to Go There.

Betrayed Wife Must Have Affair to Get Revenge – Can’t.

Wife Has Long Affair – Husband Dies – They Can Marry – What’s the Problem?

Tremain’s “Is Anybody There?” is about two elderly women living side by side in a small English village, one of whom has a dark secret from childhood. When we discussed it in class, we realized how ambiguous the reality of the story is.  We weren’t sure if anything we’re told happens in the story actually does. We didn’t know who the secret belonged to – the narrator or the neighbour?  Was the story a means for the narrator to tell her own story? Were there even two women at all?  Was one the figment of the other’s imagination?

Something about that slipperiness went into “Repossession”, I hope. As readers we’re encouraged to view Shel as flakey because of how the world perceives her.  There are hints of some old trouble – substance abuse, a mental breakdown? Even her over-scrupulous conscience is considered suspect by her husband. But the real kernel of the story for me is the experience she describes shortly after having moved into the new house.

“. . . I woke early in the morning and had the strangest sensation of not knowing who I was, as if I didn’t recognize the inside of myself. You’ve no idea what an odd sensation it was, like a kind of unmooring, a slippage.  I had to get up quietly and tiptoe around the house to find a mirror.  I found one leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom. Once I saw my face, I knew of course.  It wasn’t like being lost, I knew where I was, I just needed my reflection to tell me who I was.”

My godmother, a woman in her 80s, described exactly this sensation to me shortly before she died.  She was of perfectly sound mind and I remember being struck by the existentialist panic of this moment for her – waking up and not knowing who she was.  The only way she could “come back to herself”, she told me, was by looking in the mirror.   

I remember taking a note of it.  Like Henry James, I have dozens of notebooks where ideas can fester for a long time, and often die from lack of writerly oxygen. This one sat there for eight years waiting for its story to come along, but my godmother’s experience haunted me and was something I revisited in my thoughts.  What would it be like not to “know” yourself?  And to be aware that you didn’t.

Which brings me back to the title conundrum. Here are the ones I discarded and why.

Calling the story “Onset” I thought might unfairly emphasize what is a singular experience in the story.  It would skew the reader’s expectation towards a narrative of dementia.  Shel’s “episode” might foreshadow further “unmoorings”, but equally, it might not.  I’m imagining many of us have experienced similar instances of momentary self-estrangement.

My second title option, “Slippage”, also radiated from this moment in the story. But as a title it has broader connotations. It suggests the general sense of displacement Shel experiences when she moves house – not only in terms of location, but in her grasp of time – for example at one point, history, or the fruits of her historical subconscious, opens up in front of her. But it seemed to me that this title depicted the story’s atmosphere rather than its content.

“Drunkard’s Island” is the name of a real place in west Limerick which I salted away in a notebook 30 years ago and have always wanted to use. The trouble is, as a title, it fails to signpost anything for the reader beyond, perhaps, exciting curiosity. (Not a bad quality in a title.) But it tells you nothing about the narrative, so I jettisoned it.

Unsatisfactory as it is, “Repossession” is probably the title that steers the reader least, and in a ghost story I think that’s important.  It’s a genre that thrives on uncertainty. This title does what it says on the tin; it’s a story about a house that’s been repossessed.

But still I wonder.  Is the perfect title for the story still out there somewhere?

You can read ‘Repossession’ in Five Years: Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.

Make us recycle, Lord, but not yet!

Greenpeace model of a whale on Naic beach, Cavite in the Philippines. Photograph: Greenpeace

French theorist Roland Barthes fell in love with it. It is “ubiquity made visible. . . a miraculous substance,” he wrote in his ground-breaking book Mythologies. So what wondrous material is he describing?


Granted, he was eulogising it in the mid-1950s, when plastic was new and sexy.  By the end of the 1960s, however, the romance was over, as Philip Bell in Nature Materials (Nov 1, 2004) noted. “To the sixties generation, ‘plastic’ meant fake, worthless, an association crystallized in The Graduate in 1968, when all the hollowness of American consumerist society is revealed to Dustin Hoffman, through the famous career advice: ‘I just want to say one word to you. . .’ ”


Now there’s even less ambiguity about plastic.  It’s become just plain toxic.

And getting rid of it? Don’t get me started. Perhaps because I’m at home practically all the time due to lockdown, the small rituals of household management have become magnified, or else I’m becoming, horrors, more “mindful”.  Whichever it is, I’ve been struck by the sheer amount of plastic our two-person household produces, and how much of it we throw out every week, in a variety of ways.  

As well as the volume, the work of sorting it seems to have grown exponentially.

A tray of carrots, for example  – why can they not be sold loose? – requires you to separate the film/plastic covering – non-recyclable – from the tray – recyclable.  Then there’s the wrapper with all the brand and nutrition information.  This is sometimes paper or cardboard, but it can be laminated or coated with something shiny that makes it seem plasticized. So where does it belong?

First world problem, I know. But as we have learned, first world problems have a habit of impacting on the poorer parts of the globe. And plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of global climate change.

Before I even get to decide how to clean and sort plastic waste, I spend a great deal of time, Alan Turing-like, decoding it. (I should definitely be getting out of the house more often.)

I realise that I’ve been confusing the Green Dot symbol (above) with the Widely Recycled logo.  The two can be easily confused on casual perusal, the kind you use when you’re tossing things in the bin.  I’ve often mistaken them in the past, that is, until I actually checked the small print. The small print that has to be chased down on the web.

The so-called Green Dot (which is actually an arrow) doesn’t mean the item is recyclable; it means the company which produced the product has donated money to the recycling of products somewhere in the world. Oh yeah?

Not to be confused either with what is called the Mobius symbol (above) which, according to Ireland’s official guide to waste management, “indicates that an object is capable of being recycled”.  Where is Barthes when you need him?

It does not mean, apparently, that the object “has been recycled or will be accepted.  It does not necessarily mean that it should be placed in your household recycle bin either”.


The most infuriating symbol, however, is the one that reads – Not Yet Recycled.

The adverbial use of yet suggests that its status is on the brink of change. Any moment now you can put this in the green bin, it seems to say. But this is a myth – a carefully elaborated fiction. Far from concentrating on making more plastic reusable, producers are intent on just making more plastic.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped with its monumental demand for face shields, gloves, takeaway food containers and bubble wrap for online shopping, most of which cannot be recycled. 

Here’s the business bit. A special Reuters investigation, “The Plastic Pandemic”, published in October found that COVID-19 has intensified a price war between recycled plastic and new plastic, which is made by the oil industry.  “Nearly every piece of plastic begins life as fossil fuel,” its author, Joe Brock writes. 

“The economic slowdown has punctured demand for oil.  In turn, that has cut the price of new plastic,” the Reuters report continued. “The oil and gas industry plans to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic.”

Virgin plastic?  (They mean new.) As if we don’t have enough with the experienced plastic that’s already been around the block?

The same report depressingly observed that of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste the world has produced since 1950, 91% has never been recycled.

It’s enough to make the average consumer throw in the towel – but wait, which bin does that go in?

Meanwhile, our general refuse is swamped with material that is “not yet recycled”.        

Not yet?  Not ever, more likely.

Mistaken identity?

When it was announced in April that H. G.Carrillo had died of COVID-19, I realised he was the first writer I knew to have died of the virus. Although he was only an acquaintance, whom I followed spasmodically on Facebook (he had a keen interest in art and posted wonderful images almost daily), I felt the loss of his engaging presence in the world. He was 59.

I met Hache (pronounced Hatchay) – as he was known – when I taught at George Washington University in the 2008/9 academic year on a Jenny McKean Moore visiting professorship. It was a momentous year to be in DC, the year Barack Obama was elected, an event that seems now to have happened in some altered and very sane universe. I attended the inauguration and felt lucky to write about it for The Irish Times.

My other formative experience that year was being welcomed into the academic community at GWU, a community that included Hache.

At any given time, English departments in universities have a contingent of visiting academics and scholars who pass through the halls and often fall under the radar. This was not how it was at GWU where strangers were actively welcomed and included in the life of the department.

I can’t say that I “knew” Hache – and, in retrospect, many of his friends and colleagues will find themselves saying the same thing – but what I did know of him was energising. He was stylish and intellectually bracing. He was a friendly, curious colleague – as a visitor, sometimes, that’s all you need; someone to be curious about you – and he was a great teacher. How do I know? Well, you learn this from your students because you hear them talking, or they mention it in passing in an unforced manner. (And if you’re a worrier, you’re wondering what they’re saying about you in other classes! )

He was popular – long queues formed outside his office for consultations – and though he was a tough taskmaster, students admired him. On a teacher rating, one student wrote: “This dude will kick your ass all semester long, but you’ll end up with a grade that accurately reflects the effort you put in. He is literally scary smart and his understanding of people is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It won’t be an easy semester but you won’t regret it.”

So far, so straigthforward.

After Hache’s death, the Washington Post ran an obituary, which provided a familiar narrative of his life. Born in Cuba in 1960, escaped to the US on a refugee boat with his parents aged seven, a young life in Chicago. It was a biography that he developed in his 2004 novel, Loosing my Espanish, into a compelling fiction. But when the obituary appeared, Hache’s sister challenged these biographical “facts”. Hache was not Afro-Cuban, he was African-American, Susan Carroll said. Born in Detroit, his name was Herman Glenn Carroll, and in his youth went by the name Glenn. There were, she added, no Latinos in the family. His biography, in other words, was a self-made fiction.

After he became a writer in the 1990s, his family did not see much of him, his niece Jessica Webley (36) said, although they were aware of his fictitious backstory. He had repeated it so many times over the years to his professors and academic colleagues, to his husband and fellow writers, that “he probably believed it himself,” his sister Susan said.

Cuban Americans were quick to respond to Carrillo’s deception and call him out for cultural appropriation. When his death was announced on the PEN/Faulkner Foundation website, where he was chair of the board of directors, Cambria Francesco demanded they amend the announcement to highlight the fabrication. “This is extremely disrespectful and harmful to Cuban, Afro-Latino, and immigrant people when his (Carillo’s) notoriety and work is based off of a lived experience that is not his own.”

To those close to Hache, in particular his husband, Dennis van Englesdorp, this alternative identity came as a bolt out of the blue. Friends felt betrayed. “The news was a slap in the face for those of us who knew him. We mourned him, but we also reeled in shock. Hache passed for something he wasn’t, even at home with his husband in Berwyn Heights; he did the same with colleagues and students at George Washington University and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed. And so terribly sad,” wrote author Lisa Page, a close friend and colleague.

“He chose not to be from Detroit, eschewing his Midwestern roots. Crossing shark-infested waters in a boat bound for Miami was a better story than leaving Motown for the District of Columbia and beyond. His black life mattered even as he left pieces of it behind. He shed it, like a chrysalis, to fly off and become someone else.

“Hache chose to become a Latino writer, lacing his fiction with Spanish. . . But reinvention has a price. He erased his African American heritage when he created his Cuban backstory. “

At an intimate level, this deception must be extremely hurtful. For his family it represents rejection. For those who loved him, Hache’s fabrication calls into question the very foundation of their relationship with him, and makes his untimely death doubly distressing. They are left with the ultimate doubt – if his personal origin story was a lie, how much else was?

The concept of an African American “passing” as another racial identity makes Carrillo’s choice extremely controversial, given the history of race relations in the US. But in purely literary terms, he’s not the first writer to have created a pseudoynmous existence – the Brontes, George Eliot, Colette; the only difference is how fully he lived it out.

I’m reminded of Michaél MacLíammóir (1899-1978), a doyen of the Irish stage, who was born, coincidentally, on this day 121 years ago.

His real name was Michael Alfred Wilmore and he was brought up in Kensal Green in London. An established child actor who worked with Noel Coward, he also studied art at the Willesden School of Art. As a teen, he read W B Yeats and became passionate about all things Irish. He learned the language and translated his very English name – into a kind of cod Irish. Constructing a backstory for himself – born in Douglas, Cork, he told people – he arrived in Ireland in 1924 a newly renamed “stage Irishman”. During the 1920’s he travelled and acted extensively around Europe and on a tour of Ireland he met his life partner Hilton Edwards. They settled in Dublin where they lived as a highly visible gay couple at a time in Ireland when homosexual acts were criminalised. In 1928 they formed The Gate Theatre which became a showcase for modern plays and design.

MacLíammóir held on to his constructed identity to the end even when most people in Ireland knew his so-called origin story was not true. It didn’t seem to matter. It was one more facet of his highly “performed” life.

So when does impostorhood become a transgression? If we were to look through the 21st century lens of gender identity, wasn’t Hache Carrillo simply deciding who he wanted to be and how he wanted to be viewed and treated by the world? Isn’t this exactly the freedom the trans community is seeking with regard to sexual identity? The right to declare who you are and have society honour your call?

Or was he just a plain old impostor with a rich interior life?

Sounds to me like the perfect description of a writer.

The Pictograms of Plague

A picture can paint a thousand words, a saying ascribed variously to “the Chinese”, 1920s American ad man Frederick Barnard, or the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, depending on whom you believe. But the power of the pictogram cannot be underestimated. The facemask as a symbol of protection, or the footsteps plastered on the pavement as a metonym for social distancing, have become ingrained visual shorthand for all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, the plague palette has been yellow and black.

All of the official informational postering and most of the pictograms have appeared in these two colours. How were they chosen? Well, for one, black on yellow is typographically clear and arresting and the posters contained a lot of information – and at the start of the lockdown a lot of new information – so visual clarity was very important.

A warning from the 1918 flu epidemic

Secondly, we are conditioned to reading these colours as signalling danger from our roads and hazard signage. Ireland signed up for the Vienna Convention on Road Signage – yes, there is such a thing – in 1968 along with 37 other countries, including the US , Australia, Canada and Mexico, agreeing to use warning signs that were black on a yellow background. This colour combination is related to the insect world and our perceptions of it, apparently – think bees and wasps for whom we have a healthy respect lest they sting us, so we associate their uniform with danger.

This may be an old wives tale, but whatever the reason, the colours together have a skull and crossbones vibe about them, so we’re primed visually to brace ourselves even before we get to read the message. This in a world where a whole new vocabulary is in place, or the old one has been repurposed.

Cocoon and vector are part of the new terminology; flattening the curve has shed its weight gain associations. Quarantine, self-isolation, furlough, asymptomatic, working from home and vaccination have taken on a new emphasis since the start of the pandemic – another word that’s bandied about freely now. But as Paul Elie – – argued in a piece in the New Yorker in March, we’ve been employing the language and imagery of viruses for many decades, just not to describe literal illness.

“It was there in the computer virus. . . It was there, most blithely, as an expression of the reach and spontaneity of social media. We watched as cat videos, practical jokes, blunders, over-the-shoulder half-court shots, and celebrity meltdowns all went ‘viral’. And it was there in the notion that those who could make things go viral were to be celebrated, cultivated, compensated, imitated. The term devised for them – we realise in rueful retrospect – has a distinct echo of the worst virus of modern times, the influenza pandemic of 1918. They were called influencers.”

But if such language has been lodged in the public consciousness, how many of the iconic images of the pandemic will survive in the collective memory? What will be COVID-19’s equivalent to Rosie the Rivetter? (The bicep-baring worker under the “We Can Do It” banner was created by J Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1942 and became the defining symbol of working women during the Second World War in the US.)

My vote goes to the image at the top of this post created by Israeli designer Noma Bar – in an initiative organised by Spanish graphic designer Alvaro Lopez and Italian paper manufacturer Fedrigoni to raise funds for the NHS in Britain. Artists were asked to design a series of limited edition posters on the theme of observing lockdown. Bar, who’s resident in London, dedicated his design to frontline workers.

“I wanted the viewers to discover the house shape in between the gap of the mask and the head cover; the eyes are two people in quarantine sitting by the window. I think that you can feel the level of stress in the eyes. They look sideways as if something happened outside.”

With graphic simplicity Bar manages to communicate several layers of meaning at once – the burden on the frontline, the isolation of quarantine, the interdependence of the two, and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the latter surely the hallmark of our time of plague.

The Catfight Theory

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist who led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US in the 1970s

No sooner had the ink dried on the 10 Emmy nominations for Mrs America, a FX mini-series about the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US,  than veteran feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem came out to accuse the series of “misrepresenting history”.

The amendment to the US constitution, demanding equality of rights under the law regardless of sex, was  first mooted in 1923 and passed by the US Senate in 1972.  However, to become law the ERA had to be ratified by 38 states before a 1982 deadline.

It became a bitter battleground between the women’s liberation movement (pro-amendment) and STOP ERA , an alliance of the conservative right, headed up by pro-lifer Phyllis Schlafly, who successfully prevented it reaching that threshold.

This week Steinem penned an article in the Los Angeles Times  (along with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation) decrying the series.  She insisted she was not writing out of a personal gripe,  although she says the show “gets my haircut right and my character wrong”.

The plot of Mrs America, she says, seems to depend on a trivialisation of women, putting  the failure to ratify the ERA down to personal feuding and female in-fighting. 

“Would a national legislative failure of the civil rights movement be attributed to a rivalry between followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers of Malcolm X? Somehow, we don’t think so,” she writes. “The bottom line is this: Mrs America has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.  Instead it has given us the Catfight Theory of History.”

For anyone recasting history as fiction – which I’ve spent my whole writing life doing – this is a familiar complaint.   Luckily for me, most of the characters I’ve written about – Franziska Schanzkowska  a Polish factory worker who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, Bella Casey sister of playwright  Sean O’Casey, or most recently Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce – are conveniently dead. But Mrs America chronicles events that are only 40 years old, and some of the players are still with us, including Steinem.

The show runners face the same challenges as historical novelists – how to collate a large amount of factual  material and present it in a digestible way with a satisfying narrative arc and characters with whom the viewer/reader can identify, without distorting history.

“Hollywood can tell any story, regardless of history,” Steinem concedes, “but this one is being presented as fact, and has arrived in a perfect storm of circumstance. Months of COVID-19 lockdown have given the nine episodes of Mrs. America a captive-at-home audience, and reviews have focused on women’s hairstyles and individual rivalries, not the real reason state legislators voted against the ERA.”

As an avid fan of the series, I  wouldn’t dare to argue with Steinem. She was there, after all.

But there are health warnings before every episode making clear that it is fiction not history and flagging that certain liberties have been taken with the characters; also, the series creators can hardly be blamed for the reviews or the lockdown bounce that also helped Normal People on its way.

I came of age in the 1970s, the era of American feminism and politics depicted in Mrs America. I’d read Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), but I found this series illuminating because it introduced me to so much that I didn’t know. I’d never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, the central character of Mrs America.  (Steinem argues that the focus on Schlafly credits her with undue importance as an influencer.)

Likewise, I wasn’t familiar with Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) a three-term Democrat politician who battled to get women’s issues taken seriously inside the tent of congressional politics, and who led the National Advisory Commission for Women in the Carter administration – though she was ultimately fired unceremoniously by the president.

Neither, I’m ashamed to say,  did I know anything about Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba),  the first black woman elected to Congress and a pioneering candidate for president in the 1972 Democratic Primary.  (That’s 37 years before Obama!)  Was that colour blindness on my part?

I’m wondering how many viewers out there are, like me, reaching for factual accounts of the era, as a result of seeing Mrs America.  Fiction, with all its limitations and compromises, has the power to ignite interest in the history.  And there are plenty of sources available – Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Run, is one. Another is the LA Times’ helpful episode-by-episode fact check of  Mrs America so that the discerning viewer can make up her own mind about the show’s filter and emphasis.

Speaking of filters, the creative decision to view a lot of the action of Mrs America through Phyllis Schlafly’s point-of-view was a brave one, given her ultra-conservative views on abortion, gay rights and working women. Cate Blanchett gives a riveting performance that combines a calculating feyness with a steely intelligence.  Schlafly is not demonised here (though Betty Friedan famously called for her to be burned at the stake during a heated debate) but portrayed as a serious woman, whose political and career ambitions were also thwarted by the prevailing patriarchy she so actively embraced.

My criticism of the series is not in its “fictionalising” of real characters for dramatic purposes, but in its treatment of its fictional characters. “Alice Macray” – played by Sarah Paulson – is one of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-hand women, who becomes turned on –  literally – to the other side’s arguments at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.  This was a major political event that attracted 20,000 attendees of all political stripes who met to draft a plan of action on 26 issues, including abortion, rape, childcare, and employment rights  – to present to President Carter.  Macray’s partial dark night of the soul eclipses the conference itself, which was characterised by Gloria Steinem in her autobiography as “the most important event nobody knows about”.

It may have been good drama to give one of Schlafly’s supporters a drug-induced Road to Damascus experience but it’s really a cheap Hollywood set piece. Interesting too, that it isn’t one of the feminist women who becomes a doubter – now that really would have been daring.

Equally underplayed is a counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign group organised in Houston to clash with the conference, which attracted 12,000 supporters and was seen as a crucial turning point in American politics.

Historian Marjorie Spruill has argued that the alliances formed at this counter-rally –  between single-issue voters from disparate religious groups  – had the effect of uniting  opponents of abortion, the ERA and gay rights under a single “pro-family” movement that became increasingly influential in Republican politics. (President Trump gave the oration at Schlafly’s funeral in September 2016.)

The importance of the show is that it demonstrates that the ERA was not just about a battle for the hearts and minds of a sectional interest. As Spruill says: “The issues that polarised American women during the ‘70s basically have polarised the whole nation.”

This is what makes Mrs America so compelling.  Pace Gloria Steinem.

As for the Equal Rights Amendment.  Forty years on the ERA is still not law, even though in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.  But that 1982 deadline still holds.