Category: Friends’ Gallery

Going Home

I did not speak to my father for the last few years of his life. Some of the reasons are mine to tell; others do not belong to me, are not for sharing here, and there is that thing about family secrets – who knows, who doesn’t, it’s hard to remember.

‘He was fond of the drink,’ they would say, meaning that he was an alcoholic, not fully acknowledged by us, his family, and not at all by him. His drinking was nobody’s business but his, he said. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows otherwise; their drinking is everyone’s business.

He was the father of five children; I am the middle child. He didn’t know how to relate to us. He didn’t know how to love us. I can name only a handful of good memories of being with him. One where he led me by the hand on the way to Sunday Mass, lifting me as I kicked the piles of autumn leaves in the park, so it felt like I was walking on top of them, my feet not touching the ground. Another, when he and I were alone, awaiting the wedding car after the rest of the family had left.

There were times, many of them, when I wished my mother would leave him, find someone nice. There were times when I thought of him as a monster.

When he died, I was very ill. Too ill to travel to his funeral, too ill to cope with the emotion of it all, and not prepared to hear the stories of what a lovely man he was when I knew otherwise. It wasn’t until seven years after his death that I came to know him, and that process is ongoing, another seven years on.

I wanted to know where he had come from, how he came to be the man he was. I knew little of his childhood in Ireland, only that he had been left by his parents who went to England without him, and that he was raised by his Auntie Molly, amongst her children.

Through good luck, the help of a man in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who came to be a good friend, and meeting the cousins my dad was raised with, plus an old schoolfriend of his, I pieced together my father’s story. It has been material for poetry, stories and for crying my way through to a kind of forgiveness. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness these days – it does not mean condoning the things a person has done, but coming to terms and letting things go. Perhaps understanding how the early influences in their life, a lack of love, caused them to become the person they grew up to be.

I first visited Mitchelstown, my father’s home town, in 2007. I decided to go alone, the first time I had travelled by myself. I was 47 and it was about time. It was a deeply emotional experience, gruelling in many ways. But I met people who took me to their hearts and do so each time I return. I visited in September 2014, not only a social visit, but to read from my collection of stories As Long as it Takes at the town’s Culture Day celebrations. In an email before my visit, my friend Liam said, ‘Pleased to hear you’re coming home.’

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The photos I am adding to my Friends’ Gallery are from my visit to Mitchelstown, September 2014. Me, with my friend Liam Cusack (left) who helped me find my way to Mitchelstown, via a letter I sent to William Trevor who was born in the same year and the same town as my father. Next to Liam is Jim Parker, a schoolfriend of my dad’s and now a friend of mine. Jim ended his career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Army. A local celebrity, I was honoured when Jim travelled to Mitchelstown to hear me read from my book. We are having lunch in O’Callaghan’s, which was formerly a jeweller’s shop owned by Peter and Mary Dold. Mary is one of the cousins my father grew up with.

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The second photo is with newly found cousins – Edel, Anne (who is not fond of of having her photo taken) and Liz. They are the daughters of two of my dad’s cousins, Nelly and Mary. I think that makes us third cousins. We had a wonderful afternoon together, piecing together family connections, guessing at the secrets that the older generation reveal only unwillingly, if at all. And making me feel a part of the family.

So is Mitchelstown ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, have only spent a couple of weeks there in total? It surely felt like it that day.

Mythbusting: changing the stories we tell ourselves

Breaking news: I don’t have a poor sense of direction; I quite like having my photograph taken. This is news indeed, as I am letting go of two myths about myself that I have believed for most of my life.

When I was 17, I got lost in Norwich. I went into a shop and, when I came out, could not remember from which direction I had walked there, and so where to meet my family. I must have found them, regained by bearings. I was just disoriented for a moment, and that one moment became a myth I believed for the next 37 years. I have worried about travelling, about finding my way when I am driving. I have planned my routes with maps and timetables, handwritten instructions annotated with buildings of note, monuments, parks, how many left turnings to count before the one I needed. All because I believed I had a terrible sense of direction, and the worst thing in the world would be to lose my way.

I returned to Norwich this year (for the first time since the great getting-lost of 1977), and noticed that it is a confusing city of one-way streets, side roads and alleyways. When I was 17, I was in a strange place and temporarily lost my way; I do not have a poor sense of direction at all.

My thinking has also been changed about having my photograph taken. When I was a child, Ted Gale, family photographer, would visit once a year and group us on the sofa like the Simpsons. I hated it so much that I once hid behind the rabbit’s cage in the garden  so I wouldn’t be in the photo. I was found, picked up and placed on the sofa and told to ‘watch the birdie’ and ‘say cheese’. They could drag a child to the sofa, but they could not make her smile. My hunched shoulders and scowl were captured for posterity in a picture too horrible to reproduce here.

Those occasions when photos were obligatory – first Holy Communion, graduation, weddings and so on –  became endurance tests. I vetted the results, found fault with my image, hid photos (they were too expensive to destroy).

So why did I, a photo-refusenik, embark on my Friends’ Gallery, a project to have my photo taken with as many friends as possible in 2014?  What’s more, I am delighted with the results. Could it be that I like having my photo taken?

Perhaps this is about control. I was forced to have my photo taken as a child, dressed in frocks that felt uncomfrotable, told to sit there, stand like that, to look happy, to smile. It was a false image, the family gathered together as one smiling, functioning unit. The reality was that my father was rarely in the same room as the rest of us. He was either working, travelling to or from work, in the pub or the bookies. My mother was mostly angry at him, clashing around in the kitchen, making meals that he often didn’t come home to eat, shouting at her children when she was really angry at my dad.

The prints on the wall framed family lies – the way my mother would have liked us to be; the image she wanted to show the world. No wonder I was a photo-refusenik; I wanted no part in those charades. No wonder this continued into adulthood – hating the formal pose, the posing on demand.

The photos for my Friends’ Gallery are at my own volition, and the friends in them having mostly been willing participants. Some have actually asked if they could be included. Only two have not been keen, one only agreeing to it as long as I do not share the photo online. I respect her point of view – the loss of control when your picture appears on Facebook, the issues over who owns those photos. Perhaps it is true, that tale about your soul being captured in a photograph, it no longer belonging to you.

Jenni and Maria

Jenni and Maria

As for me, I am happy to have a record of my friendships, an audit of the people I count as friends right now. Some are new, some go back more than 30 years. I can reflect on the stories of how we came to know one another and the things I value about them. There’s Anna, who I met at Swale Sings community choir and who likes cats and poetry as I do. There are my friends I met through writing: Anne-Marie, Maggie, Sarah, Patricia and Fiona, the last of whom I first met at the launch of my poetry book strange fruits, and has become my co-bargain-hunter on charity shopping trips . And there’s Jenni, who I first met at Thames Polytechnic in 1978. She was carrying a placard saying ‘We Need a Nursery’, having just returned from a protest march. We look similar in this photo – have we grown to look alike, or did we see something that day we met in 1978 that drew us together?

I don’t look for faults in recent photos. I used to comment that I looked old, wrinkly, fat. The ones I like best are funny, offbeat, and my favourite of all is one where the old me would point out my double chin (all right, I did notice it!). But the new me sees the joy in my expression and that of my daughter, Rachel. We are sitting on a sofa, holding hands, and in between us is my new granddaughter Caitlin, just 3 weeks old.  A new generation of sofa photos, but no-one will be forced into best clothes, to smile against their will (or not), or to look at any offending photos framed on the wall for the rest of their lives.

If it’s Saturday, it must be Sittingbourne

A month on from the publication of As Long as it Takes, and it’s been a whirlwind of events, press attention ( the Sittingbourne News Extra, no less), signing and stuffing books in envelopes and taking them to the post box. Oh, the glamour! Read the news article, by Andy Gray, on how I came to write the book: here.

I have been delighted by the responses to the book and to my readings. Here is one:

The world you build is complete with its own unique atmosphere, partly, I think, as a result of the some of the same characters recurring at different ages throughout the book. I also found that I could completely relate to the feeling of living in a place that can never be home.

I found the last story, ‘Combing out the Tangles,’ utterly heart breaking; in fact, all the stories are written with a restraint that adds to their emotional power.

And another, from a former creative writing tutor, Patricia Debney:

There’s so much sex in it, Maria! And so much nylon underwear!

This was in response to my comments about the fates conspiring against me for the book launch at the University of Kent. There was wind, rain, and closure of the M2 due to a sink hole appearing in the central reservation. People were cancelling; it was doubtful whether I could get there, since all the M2 traffic had been diverted past my front door. Setting up a tea trolley by the side of the A2 seemed a good idea, as that traffic was going nowhere fast.

I said to Patricia that God was punishing me for writing about my family. Her response was that it was to do with all the sex in the book.  Before you get too excited, the sex is mostly of the disappointing teenage variety, and there was a lot of nylon underwear in the ’70s.

There’s a lovely blog piece from Sonia Overall about the launch. She describes it as ‘more Tipperary tavern than literary salon’, due to the musical input of my talented brother, Jamie McCarthy, who sang and played violin as well as riffing with me about the Irish Catholic childhood that we shared. Read it here.

From a university to a shopping centre in Sittingbourne – the next event was at the Swale Arts Forum pART project, a temporary shop displaying the work of local artists and inviting people to take part in art. Until last Saturday, I had never performed at a shopping centre, and it was a totally different experience from the university. I like to mix things up a little, so the event had music as well as my story readings and guest poets, as well as an open mic. Some people came especially for the event; others walked in out of curiosity. By the end, we had a Police Community Support Officer in attendance (drawn in by Andy Wiggins‘ singing) and 94 year old Florrie who recited a poem by heart at the open mic.

And so to my favourite comment of the afternoon from an elderly woman who popped in with her shopping trolley just as I was reading. She was reacting to a reading from my story ‘A Coffee and a Smoke’, about Maura, who has one child after another – the lot of the Catholic woman in the 1950s and ’60s. She said that it was like that in her family, that her father worked away and whenever he came home, her mother ended up with another baby. And then she said:

Alan Titchmarsh writes stories like that.

Until that point, likening my poetry to that of Pam Ayres had been my least favourite comparison.

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

I have been adding many photos to my Friends’ Gallery – too many to share here. The group photo shows many of my friends who took part at the pART project.

The next event is at Jittermugs coffee shop, Preston St, Faversham, on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, 3.00 – 5.00 pm. I shall be signing books and reading stories on request. There will be some St Patrick’s Day goodies to eat and drink.

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

 

As Long as it Takes – is any of it true?

The first review of As Long as it Takes has been published on London Grip. Fiona Sinclair’s review is headed that she finds the stories “harrowing but hopeful”. Sounds like my life story! Seriously, though, I am delighted that Fiona has read the stories in such depth and has absolutely ‘got’ the themes of these Irish women’s lives. She ends the review:

Whilst this is a collection of short stories focusing particularly on the lives of Irish women, their struggles are in fact universal. This is a celebration of women with indomitable spirits who are devoted to their families and above all are survivors.

For those of you that don’t want just “harrowing”, there is  quite a lot of humour in these stories, but they will make you think and make you cry – or so I have been told by the first readers of the book. Read Fiona Sinclair’s full review on London Grip

I am awaiting more of the kind of questions I was asked when I read one of the stories, ‘A Tea Party’, at Seasonally Effected in Rochester: “Is that you; did that happen?” The story is in the voice of a child who tries to make sense of meeting her father’s misstress by acting it out in the form of a tea party with her toys. Was that me? I was given a tea set by an Irish uncle; it was the best present I had ever had. I did used to buy sugar mice from a sweet shop called Stebbings, and suck all the sugar until only the string tail was left. I was one of five children, like the narrator of the story. But the children in these stories are not my brothers and sisters. The parents in the stories are not my parents. My father did many things but, to my knowledge, he did not have an affair.

So, if people ask if these stories are true, I’ll say, ‘Yes, I had a Saturday job working on the sweet counter at Woolworth’s’, or ‘I did look with envy on my best friend’s Russian Dolls’, or ‘I did have a holiday romance with a boy in Ireland’, but the rest is imagination.

Here’s another for the Friends’ Gallery, my mission to get photos taken with as many of my friends as possible in 2014. This is me with Sam Pengelly, my hairdresser. I believe that a woman’s relationship with her hairdresser is an intimate one – Sam and I know quite a lot about each other. We laugh a lot together. And when I once burst into tears when Sam asked how I was, she held my hand and said, ‘I’m not just your hairdresser, I’m your friend.’ Sam more than qualifies for my Friends’ Gallery.

Maria and Sam

Maria and Sam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gearing up for a book launch and more from the Friends’ Gallery

As Long as it Takes has now been uploaded to the printers, and I await the first shipment of books. Meanwhile, I’ve been organising some events to promote the book, beginning with the launch at the University of Kent on Wednesday 12 February (see Events page). This is where the stories began, when I was studying for an MA in creative writing, with a pair of stories linked by character and theme. My tutor Patricia Debney said that I had something that could run, and sure enough these two stories grew into fourteen, creating a community of Irish migrant women living in England and their daughters. Each of the stories stands alone, but as Susan Wicks writes:

…characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them.

As well as the Kent University launch, there are further events at the Swale Arts Forum pART shop, Sittingbourne at 2.00 p.m. on 1 March and at the Jolly Sailor, Canterbury, at 6.30 p.m. on Sunday 13 April, where I shall be the guest of Save As Writers. Go the Events page for more details.

Maria with Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall

Maria and Sarah March

Not a resolution, a mission – two more pictures for my Friends’ Gallery, a mission to get photos taken with my friends in 2014. On the right, I am with newlyweds Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall of ME4 Writers whose latest publication is City Without a Head.

To the left, I am with Sarah March, writer, Kundalini yoga teacher and sister-sheddie. I met Sarah on Facebook, and she made a suggestion that we could hold literary events in our sheds. And we did, holding two shed happenings with poetry, stories, music and films projected on the shed walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book matters, and the Friends’ Gallery begins

We are in the final stages of editing my book As Long as it Takes. This means hours poring over the manuscript for the Cultured Llama copy-editor Anne-Marie Jordan, more hours as I accept or reject her corrections, more hours for editor Bob Carling making the changes on the manuscript.

I wrote the stories over five years, and obviously changed my mind about spelling and formatting as I went along. All very tedious to get right, but I am the first person to notice errors in books, and I would not want my readers to spot any mistakes. One of the last issues is how do you format song titles, album titles and quotations from song lyrics? We have agreed on this, but it means me trying to remember which stories feature music and checking through them, rather than re-reading the full manuscript.

More enjoyable is seeing the cover image by Maggie Drury and the jacket design by Mark Holihan. I was choked with emotion when I saw the cover. How wonderful to see this moments after Mark had finished it. I suppose, in the olden days, the camera-ready artwork was sent by courier, and the author had to wait until the publisher had seen it. I won’t share it just yet, until a couple of errant commas have been added.

I can share the first photo of my Friends’ Gallery, taken after our working lunch last week. This is part of promise to get photos taken with each of my friends in 2014. Friends in the photo (left to right): me, Biscuit (who wanted to get in on the act), Maggie Drury and Anne-Marie Jordan.

Here is the recipe for the pearl barley broth that I made for lunch, which went down very well with our guests.

As Long as it Takes will be launched on 12 February at the University of Kent. More details here.

Maria, Maggie, A-MJ small

 

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