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In the role of sassy Marion in ‘There’s A Girl In My Soup’

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‘The Mancunian Way’ and ‘The Wicklow Way’

Last Wednesday, I was doing things ‘The Mancunian Way’, when Manchester’s impressive new Irish World Heritage Centre kindly hosted an author event for me. It was quite a nostalgic experience being back in my old neighbourhood, albeit that it has changed out of all recognition, and there was a grand turnout of lovely people (some of whom remembered me and my family) to hear me speak about executed Constable William Mitchell, the subject of my latest novel: ‘Running with Crows – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan’. It is a little known fact that 30% of the notorious Black & Tans were Irish or of Irish descent and that, uncontrolled and badly behaved as they were, they were not the ‘sweepings of the English gaols’ as popular myth would have it.

This past weekend, I had the further pleasurable privilege of holding my official Irish book launch at the Dunlavin Arts Festival in County Wicklow. This lovely Georgian town, set in the stunningly beautiful Wicklow countryside, was fizzing with art, music, literature and theatre. Beautiful works of painting and sculpture were displayed in various locations, including the magnificent Georgian market hall which graces the town centre. Much of the action centred on the Meitheal Coffee Shop, formerly the Railway Inn (the pub frequented by the ‘Tans’ back in 1921).

There was a children’s parade through the town, which procession included two tenders of the local fire brigade – doubtless as a precaution, lest any over-enthusiastic child should spontaneously combust, and this was followed by a charmingly professional dance display by the young children from the local school of Irish Dancing (watch out Riverdance!).

On the Saturday evening, we were treated to a performance by GLAD Productions of two one-act plays, under the banner ‘The Wicklow Way’.

The first piece, ‘The Shadow of the Glen’ by JM Synge, was an comical pastiche of rural Irish life in bygone times, with all the parts taken by local residents. Arthur Craigie played a very credible tramp who takes advantage of the situation when finding himself the only guest at a wake. The part of the opportunist local who also tries to take advantage of the grieving widow was played to perfection by John Mulhare whilst Paul O’Toole was hilarious in the role of the dead man who unexpectedly comes back to life. Orla Colleton was outstanding in the part of the old man’s practical, brusque and unsentimental’widow’ and all the players treated us to Synge’s rich, warm and rapid-fire country dialogue which had us chuckling out loud.

The second play ‘Kit and Mitch’ was an adaptation, by talented playwright Andrew Deering, of my own novel ‘Running with Crows’. That his play was written from the perspective of one of the collateral victims of the real-life ‘Miltown murder’, exploring the effects of the incident upon the murdered magistrate’s daughter Kit, via a conversation between the young Kit and her older self, was nothing short of genius.

In contrast to the hilarity caused by the first play, during the second spellbinding piece one could have heard a pin drop. We were introduced to a vanished, genteel world of tennis parties, croquet matches and picnics and we learned how the tragedy had brought to a sudden end the carefree, privileged existence of Kit and her wealthy family. The images of the violence of that night in 1921 were presented vividly and we glimpsed the possible reasons why neither Kit nor her brother ever married. There were tantalising hints at Kit’s friendship with a somewhat mannish aristocratic lady friend and her macabre personal interest in the killer himself.

The older Kit, the lonely spinster and last of her family line, was played so movingly and with deeply sad eyes by the talented Aoife Moloney, whose echoey and haunting rendition of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ raised goose pimples. By contrast, Anne Doyle’s youthful coquettishness and joie de vivre as the younger Kit gave a sharp vision of what had been lost as a result of this family tragedy. Both actresses looked uncannily alike and their synchronisation of dialogue was absolute perfection. All in all, this was a most moving performance and one I shall not forget.

Excerpt from ‘Running with Crows – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan’

‘The Joy’, Dublin, 1st June 1921: 

 

The sorry ruins of Dublin’s elegant Custom House smouldered still on the quayside, yet the black waters of the Liffey lapped by unconcernedly. The sun was rising and wary citizens began to appear and go about their business as best they could on an otherwise pleasant June morning.

As the military vehicle sped along the quay on its way out to Phibsboro, the handcuffed prisoner in the back strained to take a last glimpse at his native city. He noted they were taking a roundabout route along the north bank of the Liffey, presumably to avoid being delayed by the city’s many roadblocks. All too soon the vehicle reached the North Circular Road and the entrance to Mountjoy Gaol. Shortly the reception process was under way…

 

… The first thing he noticed about Mountjoy was the smell. It was the unmistakable stench of urine, not dissimilar to the stink of the foul tanneries of his adolescence. Arbour Hill Prison, by comparison, had not smelled bad. Arbour Hill was a military prison and therefore had been organised like any army camp, with well-scrubbed floors and well-scrubbed prisoners. Military prisons in the field were a different matter again, of course, as well he knew. Even the army abandoned its normal standards of cleanliness and hygiene during war. Perhaps the same was true here in Mountjoy, or The Joy, as the ever ironic Dubliners called it. Dublin was at war these days, after all. Perhaps The Joy wasn’t always this pungent – perhaps.

All around him, the early morning routine of the prison bustled along. Staff came to the reception area and went away again. Prisoner-orderlies shuffled to and fro. Their whistling, the clink of keys and the slamming of iron doors were magnified in this echo chamber which was the heart of The Joy. All were oblivious to the plight of the lone standing man – a tall man, ex-soldier, ex-policeman, a condemned man whose trepidation grew as he waited. He knew The Joy had seen so many executions of late that such an event must now be almost commonplace. That Prisoner Mitchell was to die here was a prospect remarkable only to himself…

 

‘So this is what a condemned cell looks like?’ he said, ‘I’ve always wondered.’

 

_____________________________

 

 The Western Front, France, 1916:

Tension along the line was palpable as the men stood ready.  Some swayed in fearful anticipation: some pressed their foreheads against the cold, damp clay to steady themselves.  Mitch could hear someone else close by muttering a prayer. Further down the trench, someone was taking a piss. The tension affected each man differently. The months of training – training which Mitch had not needed in any case, and which had mostly involved horseback charges, plunging lances into sandbags – had not prepared them for this moment.  The horses and lances were now far behind the lines.  Only the sandbags had come with them to the trenches.  

 

As a groom, Mitch had until recently been assigned to stay back behind the lines and care for the horses whilst others in the regiment went up to the front. The men of the 16th had taken a hammering though. The lancers were effectively infantry now and it was a case of all troops to the front line.

 

Unlike others of his new comrades therefore, Mitch had little idea of what would confront him when they scrambled over the parapet. However,  he guessed the chances of coming back alive and in one piece were not great. Someone in the company had described these last minute nerves, in the moment before an attack began, as being just like the stage fright he had experienced in his acting career – wishing he had relieved himself before the curtain went up, wishing he had chosen any other occupation but this. For some however, quiet resignation and making peace with God was their natural response to the fear.

 

The waiting was the worst part; worse perhaps than the eventual charge out into the darkness. It would not be too long before that darkness would be illuminated by the angry glare of the enemy’s artillery fire. Mitch was already familiar with the rattle of machine gun fire and the thunder of artillery, as it was plainly audible even from well behind the lines.  Soon though, he would see what it looked like close up.  This would be his first experience of engaging the enemy.  

 

___________________________________________   

 

‘The Wicklow Warriors’ – Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, January 1921:

 

The drive from the camp at Gormanstown down to Dublin gave the dozen temporary constables in the back of the personnel carrier a chance to get acquainted. Although they had all undergone the same two weeks of induction at the Royal Irish Constabulary’s training camp, the instruction had been so intensive that most of the RIC’s new recruits had not had a chance to socialise.

 

Mitch knew only one of them slightly. George White, Blanco to his mates, had arrived at the Gormanstown camp on the same day as Mitch. Blanco had  been a professional soldier before the war and had been made up to corporal whilst in France. Despite Mitch’s extreme distrust of NCOs, he thought Blanco seemed decent enough. The twelve men had been advised that six of them would be posted to the Dame Street barracks in Dublin but the other half dozen, Mitch and Blanco included, would be posted to a place named Dunlavin, in County Wicklow.

 

As the wintery countryside of County Meath gave way to the smokey outskirts  of Dublin, Mitch speculated on what might be expected of them once there, for no-one had spelled out the precise nature of their duties as yet. As part of their training, the new temporary constables had been read the text of a newspaper cutting from Freeman’s Journal.  The trainers explained it was a part of a speech made by RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Lieutenant Colonel Smythe. It was the nearest thing to clarification of their role which the recruits had so far received. Mitch could recall a particular line of that speech:

 

‘The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you, no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man …’

 

 

Excerpts from ‘A Wistful Eye – The Tragedy of a Titanic Shipwright’ by DJ Kelly

A Wistful Eye  [setting: Belfast 1910]

 

“The spring of nineteen ten was a long time coming to Northern Ireland.  Winter had been slow to relinquish its iron grip on the land and reluctant daffodils were still in the green out around the fine gardens of the suburbs.  In the crowded working class districts of Belfast however there were few flowers to herald the changing of the seasons.  Here, it was the gradually increasing daylight and the lessening of evening chills which were intrerpreted as a precursor of spring. As March gusted into April, the trees along Duncairn Gardens grudgingly opened their pink and white blossom, lifting the spirits of passers-by and providing free confetti for weddings at the church of St Barnabus.

 

The middle-aged couple trundled the hired handcart, laden with their furniture and cooking utensils, past the church and over the New Lodge Road, leaving early morning tracks on the damp, petal-strewn pavements. They had been up since early on, unable to sleep for the prospect of all they had to do for their latest house move….

 

…The new house was not new at all, of course. There were no new houses in the New Lodge area, contrary to what the name might suggest, and nor were there any in Tiger’s Bay, whence they had come.  Of course there were no tigers their either.  Belfast was a place of contradictions, right enough.  Sailortown, however, where the couple had started their married life more than thity years earlier, was indeed home to sailors and their families as well as to those who supported the city’s great maritime tradition – the shipwrights, the ropemakers, the engine makers, the dockers and carters. 

 

All Belfast’s working class neighbourhoods shared a dowdy and close-knit character. William Henry thought that maybe the people did too.  One little street looked much like the next one and one working class family looked much like another.  The little red-bricked dwellings had been hastily constructed, to a mean specification, almost a century earlier, to accommodate the many wrokers needed to support Belfast’s rapidly developing industries.  On slob lands, wehre once the curlew swooped and the oyster-catcher stooped, slate-roofed terraces had sprouted and had spread upwards, in tightly packed rows, radiating outwards from the docks, around the shipyards, warehouses and factories.  Where purple sea fog had once rolled in unimpeded, now grey smoke curled skywards from chimneys, both tall and small…    

 

.. Belle stoked up the fire.  The glow from the hearth filled the void in the room left by son Billy’s departure, and made her feel a little cheerier. William Henry chided her for being so profligate with the fuel, when there would be just the two of them at home on this mild spring afternoon.  He did not understand the importance to her of warmth and light, and indeed she had not the words to explain it.

 

Whilst the children were still young, Belle had been busy enough to ignore her depressive feelings – mostly.  However, now that the children had all left home and William Henry was out of the house for ten hours or more each day, it would not take her long to tend this small and empty house.  Now she feared she would have too much time to reflect, to dwell on her loneliness. 

 

She gazed around the little kitchen, which was indeed tiny but which nonetheless accommodated their little wooden table and two chairs and a little sofa.  The iron range was the same as the one in their previous house and the tiny scullery, with its large sink, single cold water tap and old iron mangle, was similarly appointed to the Collyer Street scullery.  Their former house had boasted a larger front parlour, which they had converted into a little grocery shop, but Belle thought the Shandon Street parlour ample space for the two of them now.  They would see out their declining years together comfortably enough in this little house. 

 

Although she had enjoyed chatting with the locals who came into the Collyer Street shop for their messages, there were mornings when, William Henry having departed for the yards, her depression would not let her get out of bed.  Unconcerned that customers were knocking,  she would only rouse herself when prompted by hunger.  A pot of tea might have cheered her, but she would have had to light a fire to boil the water and somehow she could not raise the energy or enthusiasm for that.  Staring into the blackness of the grate, its dead ashes awaiting removal to the earth closet down the yard, she would instead succumb to inertia…”  

_____________________________________ 

 

It was a warm and slightly windy day, as William Henry climbed up the staging to a narrow platform, some seventy feet above the ground, whence he might observe the water rising to the desired level. He set his piece and his billy securely on the platform beside him, for a billy can falling seventy feet could easily concuss a man below.  He settled back as comfortably as he could and filled and lit his pipe again.  He now had a great view of the Queen’s Yard, and indeed of most of Belfast and the beautiful surrounding countryside.  What was more, he would have several hours to enjoy it. Of course he could still hear, from around the yards, the ear-splitting clangour of the riveters’ hammers as they struck, each pair in unison, compacting rivet into steel plate and working with methodical precision.

 

He … knocked his pipe out against the staging.  He now took out his piece of bread and jam  and, pouring some tea into the lid of his billy, he sat back to enjoy his breakfast. Food, no matter how modest, always tasted better in the open air, he thought. Although no longer hot, the sweet milky tea refreshed and sustained him. His eyes narrowed in the reflected glare of the sun, as it now rose over the Lagan water, and he marvelled at the beauty of the green landscape which encircled the industrial city.  Gulls were now circling and screeching overhead, so he guessed the fishing boats must be in harbour after a night spent out at sea.  There were far worse jobs than shipbuilding, he mused.

 

__________________________________ 

 

Once the hull and the metal decks were fully caulked, the caulking squads would turn their attention next to Titanic‘s sixteen lifeboats. Hughie had said Mr Andrews’ original design for Titanic had included twenty lifeboats, but that this number had exceeded the minimum recommendations of the British Board of Trade, and the Harland and Wolff management had decided to reduce the number.  According to what Hughie had heard, Mr Ismay felt that too many lifeboats hanging from their enormous davits would be off putting to passengers and would also reduce the amount of deck space available for leisure activities.  That seemed an odd decision to William Henry.  Surely, you either needed lifeboats for everyone or none at all?  He bet Hughie that it was done to save money, for rumour had it that Ismay was ‘as tight as a crab’s arse’.” 

 

_____________________________________

  

“…..William Henry’s protests were silenced by a fist in his face.  Suddenly, he was on the ground and his assailant was kicking him in the stomach and ribs.  He turned onto his side and rolled himself into a ball in a vain attempt to make himself a smaller target, but every kick hit home, and one got him in the head.  The screams and shouts around him seemed to be receding and he feared he was losing consciousness.  His attacker was shouting abuse about killing all the socialists too, when Johnnie Beasant, his nose and mouth pouring with blood, caught the man from behind, swung him around and, with one blow, laid him out.  Johnnie now had William Henry on his feet and the pair were running along towards the river.  Various sharp missiles rained down upon them as they reached the edge of the quay and continued to strike them as they entered the water …. “

What or who sparked your love of reading?

So what was it that set the young you on your inspired way down that star-spangled road to reading heaven?  In my case, it was my armchair-adventurer father.  Here’s a bit of doggerel which explains how it all began for me … 

I  JOIN THE LIBRARY

It came once a week to the end of our road

At six pm prompt every Friday

A blue and white caravan carefully towed

Manchester Corporation’s Mobile Library

 

So on Fridays, my book-loving, Ulsterman Dad,

Released from the factory noises       

Would put his six books in a carrier bag

And go to make new reading choices

 

Then all weekend long my thrill-seeking Dad

With his books and his tea would retire

By sea to Shanghai or train to Leningrad

And all from his chair by the fire

 

A cool High Plains Drifter, so lean and so true 

An iron-masked prisoner of Zenda

Whilst facing the Hun, the Zulu, the Sioux

His slippered feet on the fender

     

He craved only peace to enjoy a good read

As armchair adventurers do

But the three-year-old me would pester and plead

“Daddy PLEASE, read ME a story, too!”

 

Though engrossed in his reading, ‘twas clear he had heard,

For, on return from his factory endeavour,

He now taught me each evening the written word,

Just to prove his wee daughter quite clever

 

Then, one rainy Friday, for literary leisure

We both went to library heaven

But to sample those wonderful, tax-funded treasures

It turns out, alas, I must be seven

 

“Thiz no way she’s seven” says library lady

“Well, that’ll do me,” explodes Dad

 “Though slow to grow, aye, she may be,

 To ban her from readin’s too bad!”

 

 “Denyin’ her access to books, cos she’s wee

Is unforgivable, prejudiced, unfair

Tho’ undersized for her age, can’t ye see

In her smart little head, she’s all there.”

 

“Tho wee, for her age,” he lied, “she’s bright for a wain,

Cud ye not be more egalitarian?

For many a wee body belies a big brain,”

Says my dad to the red-faced librarian

 

“Tho her legs mebbe short, her interest’s not

“Gi’ her books and her mind’ll grow bigger”

I stood on tiptoe, undeniably a tot,

But I tried my real best to look bigger

 

Incensed readers gathered defensively by us,   

Most of them fathers and mothers,

“What’s all this fuss on the library bus?

T’kid deserves same chance as t’others”

 

“She’s a right to enjoy literature, just as we do

Regardless of *clemmin’ an’ rickets!”

The librarian wilts, midst the hullaballo

And writes me out 2 library tickets

 

Antrim Dad directs me to the junior confines

The corner that’s kids’ reading heaven

“Don’t forget, pet,” he winks and reminds,

“If anyone asks, then yer seven.”

 

The shelves bore every conceivable tome

Of imaginative children’s writing

And, joy, I could now take some of them home

Edward Lear, Eleanor Farjeon, Enid Blyton

 

The lie that secured me early library access  

Was the spark that kindled a flame

Which no corporation Jobsworth could  suppress

And now, at fifty, I still retain

 

The lesson I learned from my Dad’s fierce attack

The day the librarian came a cropper

That whenever bureaucracy’s holding you back

Just speak out, and tell them a whopper!

 

[*clemmin – Mancunian term for starvation]

 

MY TOP TIPS AND TRICKS FOR BOOK PROMOTION

  •       Have promotional flyers or postcards made up with your book’s cover image on one side and your book synopsis and short review quotes*, ISBN and availability etc on the reverse [try Vistaprint].
  •       Always carry a copy of your book with you and be seen reading and enjoying it on the train or bus, at the hairdressers or doctor’s waiting room etc.  If anyone asks if it’s good, tell them it’s wonderful and give them the promotional postcard which ‘came with the book’ (it’s not a fib – you brought it along with the book).
  •       Spend time visiting bookshops wherever you go, finding books on similar themes to yours, then produce your cards or flyers from your pocket and slip them snugly inside near the end of each book (so check out staff won’t see and remove them – they will do this, which is why bookmarks, which cost more anyway and protrude  noticeably, are not so successful).
  •       Find out who your target audience is; work out where they go and distribute your promo materials in those places (museum coffee shops, mother and toddler groups, clubs, etc)
  •       Identify social networking sites’ pages relevant to the topic of your book and post informed comment  on there, eventually and gradually introducing a link to your book (do not be too hasty or obvious lest you cause annoyance and be blocked).
  •       Identify appropriate interest groups whose interests are linked to the theme of your book and approach their in-house ‘expert’ to offer a complimentary copy in return for a short review*. If you are happy with the results, you can quote short excerpts from their reviews in your Amazon book description, on your website and on your promo cards etc.
  •       Ask appropriate interest groups if they would like an author talk from you.  Many groups own a data projector, so consider preparing a power point slideshow presentation to illustrate your talk.  Providing wine and nibbles too might put your audience in a relaxed, book-buying mood.
  •       If you can write a whole book, writing an article should not be too challenging.  Write a series of articles, each from a different angle, on the interesting theme of your book, or on how you came to write it, and send these to different newspapers and magazines.  Do not send the exact same article to 2 different publications however. They like ‘exclusivity’.
  •       Consider having some cheap mugs printed up with your book cover image etc (Vistaprint also do these) and present them to the staff at your local bookshop or library.  Even if they don’t sit drinking from them by the cashpoint or checkout desk (which they usually do) they can use them for displaying their free bookmarks.  Likewise an inexpensive printed canvas bag for toting books or shopping, when draped from your shoulder as you walk around town, will provide free advertising (and is a lot lighter than a sandwich board!). Car door magnets emblazoned with your book image too can be effective advertising (get to the mall early to park your car right outside the bookshop entrance). 
  •       Don’t be aggressive in your promotion but equally don’t be shy, and above all, have FUN.  

Come Over to the Indie Side – we have cake!

Many will have read Writer-ly’s recent blog on the top 5 reasons to publish independently:  http://www.wiseinkblog.com/self-publishing-2/the-top-5-reasons-traditional-authors-are-going-indie/ and their reasoning certainly rings my chimes.

Rather like the tobacco companies, whose drives to recruit new smokers become increasingly desperate as their product kills off existing customers, traditional publishers are losing not only their customers and their outlets but, more importantly, their product (as supplied by us writers).  They do not however see the folly of killing off the goose before she has even laid that golden egg for the pancake batter. 

The ‘trad’ publishers blame both online retailer Amazon and the advent of e-books and e-readers as they weepily watch bookstore chains fold and their own profits shrink. Meanwhile, in Amazon’s shiny windows, a growing patisserie of Indie goodies sits alongside the shrinking  selection of trad-pub lardie cakes.  On that particular bring-and-buy cake stall, no big bakery has total control.  And the public like having a wide and varied choice of goods. 

In the current climate, the Trad publishers restrict their lists to demonstrably ‘highly sellable’ authors, thereby rejecting many writers of great future potential. They no longer offer big advances and insist on submissions being accompanied by a list of ‘5 big sellers which are just like your book’. Frequently, they throw out the baby and the bathwater. They are not encouraging innovation or fresh thinking. Perhaps this is necessary to fund those big, plush offices and big-lunching editorial staff.  So where is a writer of great potential to go?

Coincidentally, self publishing has never been easier nor the retail market more accessible – the non bookstore chain market, that is.  Those writers of future potential are now left with no option but to self publish and, once they taste the honeyed cake of self-determination and achieve sales solely through the quality of their product, they are unlikely to be attracted by the paltry biscuits on offer with the declining publishing houses. Literary luminaries such as Shakespeare, Twain and Hemingway historically chose to self publish and now we hear of modern giants such as JK Rowling forsaking the big publishing house and coming over to the ‘Indie side’.

Food for thought, eh?  Oh, by the way, if those guys at HyperPressTransCosmos Publishing are reading this, I’m just kidding, okay?  Oh, and that victoria sponge I included with my latest submission – you know the one that’s currently in your slush pile – is going to attract mice if you don’t open it soon!