I was checking my email one day when I noticed one from a Mary Oyediran asking me if I’d do an interview at Near FM radio to discuss my work on her International Writer’s Network show. I was absolutely stunned and thought it was some kind of wind-up, but eventually, I agreed (with the fear of God in my heart) to go and do it. I drove to the station, got lost (of course), and after I’d parked up, I couldn’t find the entrance to the place. By the time I actually got into the room with my interviewer, I was breathless, red-faced and panicked. Thankfully, Mary made me feel totally relaxed, and after a few minutes of chatting, it was like I’d known her all my life and we were ready to begin. So here it is: my very first radio interview.
On my last visit to London, I decided to finally make my way to The British Library. As an avid reader and a fiction writer, I’m obviously a big fan of libraries, but this is no average library. This one is the big daddy of public libraries. The numero uno. The library to put all other libraries in the shade. Depending on your sources, it holds either the largest or second largest collection of books in the world. Formerly part of the British Museum, The British Library houses some of the most important books, documents and sound recordings in the world; both culturally and historically. Its collection is so extensive, that if you attempted to look at five items in the library every day it would take you precisely 80,000 years to see its entire treasury of books.
Originally, the libraries contents were scattered around London in various different buildings. Eventually, a purpose-built library was constructed in 1998 and its extensive and precious collection was carefully collated, catalogued and stored here. Despite the library’s relative youthfulness, as iconic buildings go, it has already been listed as a building of architectural and historical significance. When I arrived, I was very impressed by the exterior of the library, with the sprawling red-brick library hunkered close to the ground and the massive bronze statue of Isaac Newton, based on William Blake’s painting in the gardens. The exterior is interesting, but the interior is something else. Modern, bright, airy. The most impressive part of the building being The King’s library. It is housed in shelves within glass columns passes through each floor to the ceiling, and six floors downwards into the basement like a spine. There are high ceilings and light-filled reading rooms, and there is so much space. Unlike many places worth seeing in London, it wasn’t overcrowded.
And the abundance of space is where I hit a stumbling block. I wasn’t sure where to start in my exploration and began to get into a tizzy that I’d rush past the most important parts. Luckily, there are tours. on offer. I opted for The Treasures Tour, which is a guided walk through The Treasures Exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It is £10 for the hour-long guided tour and well worth the money. The Treasures Exhibition can be viewed without a guide but it is huge, and somewhat intimidating; so if you’re short on time, or you don’t know what you’re at, it’s worth doing the tour. You will get so much more out of your visit.
The Treasures Tour has something for everyone. Obviously, it’s a must for lovers of fiction writing and history; but you can bring anyone along and I guarantee you they’ll take something from it (as long as they don’t actually try and TAKE something from it, cos that’s highly illegal, and you’ll probably get caught).
- There are ancient versions of sacred scripts such as the Koran, Torah and Bible. The Library features texts such as The Gutenberg Bible and The Cuthbert Gospel, a 7th-century manuscript written in Latin that is the oldest European book to survive fully intact. There are also formerly banned copies of the bible written in English.
- Original pages from one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks.
- One of the four existing copies of the Magna Carta
- Original handwritten compositions by Mozart, JS Bach, Elgar and Handel.
- Original handwritten drafts of the lyrics to Strawberry Fields Forever’,’She Said She Said’ and ‘In My Life’ written by John Lennon for The Beatles.
- Historical documents such as the original WWII ultimatum letter from Britain to Germany.
- Old maps of an unrecognisable Britain.
- Original letters from British Kings and Queens, such as an original letter from Mary Queen of Scots and one from Queen Elizabeth to her brother after she was refused permission to visit him on his sickbed. I’ve always found female monarchs more interesting than the male ones because they had challenges relating to perceptions of their gender that Kings never had.
In terms of the purely literary treasures, there were too many to list, so I’ll just give an idea of the some of the items held by the British Library, which may be exhibited in the Treasures Hall when you choose to visit.
- The sole existing manuscript copies of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory’s
- An original copy of The Canterbury Tales from around 1476 and 1483.
- Shakespeare’s first folio.
- The Bronte Sisters’ school report, which entirely overlooks their talent as writers.
- Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
- A handwritten draft of Jane Austen’s Persuasion as well as pieces of juvenalia and her writing desk.
- First drafts of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, originally entitled Alice Adventures Under Ground, and illustrations by John Tenniel.
- The original manuscript of De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, a letter of apology penned to his lover while in prison for gross indecency.
I loved the fact that there were many, many manuscripts by women writers. It’s not often that you will go to a museum and see things created by women, so carefully and lovingly preserved and showcased. In writing, particularly in English, women are well represented and recognised for their gifts. Some of the most famous novels of the 19th and 20th are written by women. I am lucky that writing became my passion. It is important to see what you can be; or at least aspire to be.
Obviously, I was there for the literary treasures, but every bit of the tour was interesting to me. Every moment of it. One of the highlights for me was the Magna Carta. I actually didn’t know anything about it before I arrived. I’ve only recently started taking an interest in the history of the British and French monarchies
Our guide was excellent; offering insights into the history and operations of the library itself. He proudly spoke about one of their recent acquisitions. He spoke of the history of printing, writing in the English language, how the books exhibited in The Treasures Room are rotated regularly; so that no one item is given too much attention and that all of the treasures are given their day in the ‘sun’ and then safely stored away. I’m emphasising this because if you visit, you may not see everything that I’ve listed, but you may see something even better.
You’ll note that I took no photos inside the Treasures Room. That’s because photos are NOT permitted, and I wouldn’t even chance a sneaky snap in here. I wouldn’t dare. I can tell you that the in which the treasures are kept is dimly lit, presumably to preserve them, but it adds an extra aura of gravitas to the exhibition. I can also tell you that the texts are illuminated in glass cabinets with descriptions beside each. But if I want to look at the treasures again, I can do so online. There are digital versions that can be accessed on the website, and one of my favourite tools is the virtual book Turning the Pages™. But really, like most precious things, nothing is quite so special as seeing them in person. In fact, knowing that I couldn’t snap away and that now was the time to listen, look and enjoy, made me mindful that the time was now to appreciate these treasures and planted me firmly in the moment.
The library is hugely popular with tourists like myself because of its tours, exhibitions, events etc., but it is, first and foremost, a proper working library with a huge number of reading rooms and well-lit study spaces for students and readers. A fantastic local resource, that offers paid, but also free of charge workshops and talks. They also have incredible online resources such as webinars for people hungry for knowledge but who may not have regular access to the library. I didn’t have time to settle in with a book, or settle down with my laptop and do some writing, but I definitely will do that one day. It would be lovely to write in a place where, only feet away, there are pages in cabinets whose surfaces bear the handwriting of Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen.
Londoners are blessed to have this place at their disposal, and yet most Londoners I know have never been. People take for granted what they have on their doorstep, I’m guilty of it myself. I only recently visited The Book of Kells for example. But I implore you… Londoners, come and see this place. All libraries are special. All are unique by virtue of the librarians that look after them, and the books inside them, and the access to knowledge that they provide to the community no matter what their age, class or circumstances.
But this library? Well it’s just a little bit extra special.
Something that I wasn’t fully prepared for when I decided to pursue a life as a fiction writer, was the amount of waiting I’d be forced to endure. Waiting for responses from agents, waiting for responses from journals, waiting for decisions in competitions. And I’m Irish, so patience comes naturally to me: we are the world champions at queuing. But on average, it takes about twelve weeks before a response to a submission of any kind is to be expected. That’s a long time to be anticipating, wondering, hoping. Because as a writer, you must always be hoping. And often, when the deadline for a response passes? There is still nothing, and then you must start nudging, and then recommence the waiting… And I’ve heard that the waiting doesn’t end when you get an agent or a publisher. There is still more to come.
Writing is hard. Honing my craft, applying my craft, coping with rejection, maintaining a writing habit, combating the paralysing fear of failure; all of those things have been hard. And yet the hardest thing of all is the waiting. It is inertia. It slows time. It creates a sense of powerlessness which inhibits my writing because it makes me question the very point in it all. A lack of response, good, bad or indifferent, is worse than a rejection. It makes you feel as though you, and your writing, are invisible. That even bothering to read it in order to issue a generic ‘this isn’t for us’ email is more than you deserve. And when you toil all day in an office with only the people generated by your own imagination for company, and without flesh and blood colleagues to confirm your existence, it can lead to a certain questioning of your very being.
The post is entitled ‘Advice on the agony of waiting.’ So I’d better sprinkle in some advice. Here it is: the only way that I’ve found to deal with it, is to give myself more stuff to wait for! I know, I know. It sounds counter-intuitive, but why wait for one person to respond to you when you can be waiting for many? The waiting may as well be worthwhile. The only way out of limbo, is to keep moving. Keep moving, keep working, keep progressing.
There is a school of thought amongst the writing elite that if you don’t get 100 rejection letters per annum, you aren’t sending your work out into the world frequently enough. Even a rejection letter is useful, because it may indicate something about the piece itself, your submission strategy, or both. So even a rejection, though it may sting, is worth something. And the sting of rejection lessens with each one, so bring on the rejections, I say! More submissions = more rejections= brief moment of pain and indignance followed by learning = thicker skinned and ready to get better.
I’m being proactive; being dynamic despite my desire to simply sleep through the waiting like a hibernating bear. In the latter part of 2018 and so far in 2019 I have been honing, toning and polishing up my best stories and submitting them to journals, competitions etc. I am aiming for at least 150 submissions this year; and therefore, over the next couple of months, there should be an upswing in interaction from various places.
So go forth, fellow writers, and multiply…your submissions.
I love Charlie Dickens. I’ve loved him since I was a small child when Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation warmed my heart and Mrs Havisham languishing in her dusty wedding-dress terrified me and my encounter with Fagin made me consider petty theft as a way of supplementing my meagre pocket-money. I love all of his novels, except for the one I haven’t read yet: Bleak House. I’ve attempted Bleak House three times because it’s supposed to be his best novel– and I’ve never managed to wade past page forty. Between the small print, and the flood of characters introduced at the outset, reading it required intense concentration. It became an endurance exercise in squinting and frowning, and clearly, my facial muscles weren’t up to the task.
Anyway, I’ve forgiven Charles Dickens for Bleak House, and for the fact that it added at least one extra furrow to my brow, and two crow’s toes to the skin around my eyes. A good thing too, because I recently had the opportunity to visit the Charles Dickens Museum. I was in London visiting my sister, and I decided that it would be a lovely way to pass a couple of hours. Off I went on the tube to Russel Square Station and made my way to 48 Doughty Street.
48 Doughty Street is a three-storey, terraced, red-bricked Georgian building, and it was Dickens’ former home between 25 March 1837 to December 1839. It’s the only former home of his that is currently open to the public. The entry fee for the museum is a very reasonable £9.50 for adults. Once you step through the museum’s vermillion green door, you’ll be transported back to the 19th Century and into an upper-middle-class Londoner’s home. You will learn about England at that time, about Dickens the man and, of course, Dickens the writer.
A Social History Museum:
Although the house is Georgian, it is decorated in the style of the Victorian era, but the Victorian era wasn’t merely notable for its distinctive aesthetic. Huge social changes were afoot in England following the industrial revolution and London’s population had increased rapidly. Due to public pressure and Church initiatives, literacy levels had increased massively across the country. A great many of our beloved classic novels were written in the Victorian era in response to the sudden explosion in the market for books. Finally, authors were enjoying fame and fortune from their writing, and Charles Dickens and his peers took full advantage of this. In the time before television, and the passive consumption of entertainment, books were the ultimate form of escape from the everyday.
I’m fascinated by social history. I suppose one of the reasons why is that, as a woman, my life and sphere of influence would have been restricted to the domestic, and so the everyday lives of ordinary people interest me far more than the stories of big wars and political manoeuvring that feature in most history books. I want to know what people ate, and where they slept, what they wore, how they worked and how they amused themselves, and this museum offers all of this and more. Most authors’ homes are social history museums too to some extent, but this one even more so. Charles Dickens was a renowned social critic, satirist, commentator and reformer.
48 Doughty Street is an example of what an upper-middle-class home would have been like in Victorian times. You can wander around the servants quarters, the kitchen, the washroom, the dining room, bedrooms, dressing room, drawing-room and cellar, as well as the nursery where Dickens’ children played and slept. You can take in the decor, the ornaments, the paintings, the trinkets, the furnishings, and know that a great many houses across London would have looked very similar, though they would be unlikely to have housed such famous inhabitants.
The house is beautiful, but not everyone that lived there was fortunate enough to live like Dickens. The museum recounts the stories of the lives of the working-class inhabitants of the house in the kitchen and servants’ quarters. I’m sure that they were treated better than most servants, as Dickens’ intense sympathy for the poor and his passionate desire to see their lives improved is clear from his writing. Dickens believed that his novels had the potential to influence readers morally and politically, and he was right to use fiction as a medium for influencing people’s views. Reading has been proven to increase empathy.
If you are interested in learning a little more about the poverty suffered by many in Victorian London, and the inspiration behind one of Dickens’ most famous novels, the Foundling Museum is a very short walk from the Dickens museum and well worth a visit. The Foundling Hospital was Britain’s first hospital for abandoned children. Dickens and his wife, Catherine spent a lot of time there, as it housed the chapel that was their place of worship. The Dickenses raised awareness of the hospital and the plight of the children abandoned to the care of its patrons. It’s a stark reminder that London’s wave of economic success and social change didn’t sweep everyone along with it.
A Museum of the Writer:
The Charles Dickens Museum didn’t earn its title easily. The building holds the world’s largest collection of Dickens’ rare book editions, letters and original manuscripts. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick papers within the walls of this very house, and you can enter his study and gaze upon the very desk that he scribbled and toiled over as he crafted his unforgettable characters. One of my favourite rooms in the house is the servants’ quarters, whose walls are decorated in the most thought-provoking and famous quotes from his novels.
When you visit this museum you will have a lot of ‘ah, that’s where he got that from’ moments. People tell writers all the time: ‘write what you know’. Dickens was absolutely a man that wrote what he knew and achieved great success in doing so. Inside the museum, you’ll find information on the various people, places and creatures that were sources of inspiration to Dickens, such as Grip, his pet raven, his tragic sister-in-law Mary and the nearby Foundling Hospital. What becomes abundantly clear about Dickens the writer, is that he was fascinated by people. Unlike many writers, he didn’t keep himself aloof or apart from the people that he studied, he mingled amongst them, lived with them, loved them, despised them. He observed, in close proximity, their foibles, weaknesses, motivations and their sufferings. He was moved by their pain, empathetic to their plight, and critical of their misdeeds.
A Museum of the Man:
As well as holding the largest collection of Dickens’
In terms of learning about Dickens the man from the house itself, I know my favourite room should have been his study, but it wasn’t. This could be because I had nightmarish visions of poor Dickens toiling away in an ocean of balled-up paper frantically trying to fill cavernous plot-holes. No. The room that I spent the most time in was the dining-room, which was the first room I wandered into on my tour. It’s a gorgeous room with pale blue walls, decorated with portraits of Charles and his wife Catherine as young people, just as they were whilst living in this house. It was in this room that I could imagine Dickens at his most animated because Dickens was as far from the reclusive, introverted stereotype of a novelist as you can get. He threw many parties, and liked to dress flamboyantly– he was quite the dandy. He was also an actor who acted out scenes from his own plays, a skilled orator and speechwriter, and would regularly treat guests to readings from his works-in-progress. He was a man that liked to be read, but he also liked very much to be seen and heard.
On the dining table there are six places set, and at each place lies a plate. Each plate features the face of a person with whom Dickens would have associated with, and beside each plate, there’s a description of who that person was and what their relationship to Dickens was. I got a real sense of who Charles Dickens was, by the company he kept. Many of his friends were famous in their own rights, such as the author William Makepeace Thackeray and the artist, Daniel Maclise, but all were accomplished in their respective fields. Dickens socialised with artists, illustrators, fellow novelists, medical practitioners and lawyers. Dickens’ wife also features on her own plate, a published author in her own right. It was in this room here that I could vividly picture Dickens, holding court with his guests; the room filled with people, everyone dressed beautifully, smoking pipes and cigars and going through bottle after bottle of wine from the cellar beneath the house. They would be discussing politics, social reform, writing and art and laughing as Charles Dickens made witty jokes and shared his incisive observations on the world.
Thanks to my visit to the museum I understood that Dickens was not just a very talented writer who depicted fascinating characters in his novels; he was a fascinating character in his own right. Until I visited the museum I didn’t know that Dickens had left school at twelve to work and lived in a debtors’ prison with his family as a child. I didn’t know that he had a very chatty pet raven named Grip. I didn’t know that he and his wife parted ways after Dickens had an affair. These are just some of the gems of information I gleaned from my visit to the museum. They gave Dickens a three-dimensionality that he didn’t have for me before. It means that next time I attempt to read Bleak House, I’ll be reading it in the knowledge that Dickens knew poverty, he knew wealth, he knew society, and most importantly, he understood people.
The museum has a cafe which sells great coffee, and a quaint little gift shop. Of course, I love gift shops so I went in and had a nosey and I couldn’t help myself. I bought a canvas bag… to go with my copy of Bleak House! Yes! I bought it again after losing the last one. I’m hoping that my investment will lead me to give it one final chance. So far, it’s still sitting on my bedside locker, propping up my TBR pile. I am currently attaching weights to my face and exercising my frowning and squinting muscles in readiness for the great (but no doubt, worthwhile) undertaking ahead of me.
As a follow-up to my post entitled ‘What to Buy the Writer in Your Life‘ I thought it prudent to outline the items that you shouldn’t buy for your writer friend under any circumstances:
I find it hard to resist the allure of a nice notebook with its pretty cover, and the blank pages and all the potential they hold. I’m sure that most writers have a notebook fetish, but it’s more of a magpie instinct. An urge to collect and leave to gather dust in a drawer.
One of my bestest friends, who may or may not read this post, will probably be horrified and think I’m an ungrateful wench when she reads this, but I’m willing to take that risk for your benefit, dear reader. She bought me a very special notebook. It is tan, leather-bound, monogrammed and gorgeous. But can I write in it? Hell no! It’s too beautiful. I could never defile its crisp white pages with my hideous handwriting. It’s sitting in a drawer in its fancy protective bag and that is where it’ll stay.
The moral of my story is this: I appreciate the sentiment, the expense and the beauty of the thing. In fact, I love the notebook so much I will probably ask to be buried with it. But it will never be used as intended. Not because I don’t appreciate it, but because I do.
I’m not a writer that uses notebooks. I use my phone to jot things down. The benefits being that I (a) always have it on me, ideas pop into my head in the strangest of places and (b) it is lightweight and fits in my pocket/hand (c) I don’t need anything more than my finger and the phone. Notebooks pose two problems, (i) you must always have the notebook with you to avoid forgetting important ideas and (ii) you must always have a pen. Pens tend to gather in gangs when you need them least and abscond when you need them most. There are many writers that eschew technology and prefer to use notebooks, but those writers already have a favoured notebook of exactly the right size and weight for transporting around with them. It is usually a precious but battered old thing, with dog-eared pages and coffee rings on its cover.
If you’re determined to buy a notebook, buy a particularly lovely one to be used for Instagram photos, but don’t expect it to ever have the nib of a pen touch its pages.
Sometimes writers like to disappear down rabbit holes for hours at a time and hide from their writing. So buying a writer a computer game/console/ or series box-set which might be appreciated, isn’t going to keep them focused. It’s hard enough for writers to resist the lure of the internet but they can easily lose hours in a game or a series. I’ve been known to lose days to computer games. I lost an entire 24 hours straight to The Sims when I was a teenager. Between that and the fact that I like to manipulate the lives of my fictional characters, I’m starting to suspect that I have a God complex. Anyway, my mother had to physically confiscate the game when I emerged from my bedroom at 8pm in my pyjamas, with dehydrated eyes, grey-tinged skin and a twitch.
A lot of creative people have addictive personalities. Of course, we only become addicted to things that are bad for us. For example, I break out in a cold sweat if I don’t inhale at least one packet of salty corn snacks once a day, but somehow never developed an addiction to running…
If a writer is going to form an addiction, encourage them to develop one that’s good for their writing. See my Blog Post entitled ‘What to Buy the Writer in Your Life‘, # 1, ‘alcohol’.
I loooove going to a bookshop to buy books. I could easily spend an hour in a bookshop browsing. But I don’t like it when people buy me books. The danger is that I’ll have read it, already have it (waiting to be read) or hate it. Most writers have a ‘to-be-read’ (TBR) list (many people put those lists on Goodreads, just FYI). Unless you can get a peek at that, don’t bother buying a book for your writer. If you have a book that you really like, lend it to your writer. Otherwise, give them a voucher and let them buy their own damn books you control freak!
There is one exception to the ‘don’t buy a writer books’ rule. Most writers will accept the gift of a particularly gorgeous classic in hardback that’ll look fabulous on their bookshelf but which nobody will ever be allowed to read.
Novelty stuff for Bants and Lolz
There are lots of silly, gimmicky things aimed at writers. They are an absolute hoot! Things like notebooks for the shower and writers blocks that are actually (wait for it) BLOCKS OF WOOD! Hilarious.
If you give the writer in your life one of these items they’ll say ‘haha, hysterical, my sides are splitting’ and then dump it at the first opportunity.
Your friend is a writer. They sustain themselves almost entirely on caffeinated beverages. They are also pedantic. They have the strong belief that they are mug connoisseurs and there’s a right kind of mug and a wrong kind of mug for various drinks. They already have at least one ‘special’ mug. Probably three (I have a mug for white coffee and milky tea, a cup and saucer for black coffee and a transparent mug for herbal tea). I am aware that this is finicky and sad, but these are the real-world things that float my boat these days.
If you have your heart set on buying a mug for your friend, how can you ensure that your mug can compete with the tasteful mugs your friend has carefully chosen? How is it going to stand out from the crowd? The answer: buy something that looks like some thought was put into its design and it might actually be used. Whatever you do, don’t pick a fugly mug. You don’t want your mug banished to the back of their cupboard with the rest of the fugly mugs. What makes a mug fugly? It’s basic, usually white, it features a cliched quote, and worst of all, the quote is written in a horrible font. Writers take great offence to an ugly font. When I’m gifted a hideous novelty mug I leave it by the edge of the kitchen counter for my cat to knock off. That’s about the only thing it’s good for. Don’t let your gift meet a similar fate.
(If you’re a writer reading this, this post isn’t for you. This is for you to surruptitiously leave open on the iPad/phone/laptop of a loved one. You deserve gifts. Goddammit, you deserve good gifts! It’s not like you can afford to buy them for yourself!)
Buying gifts for a writer is a nightmare, but I’m here to wake you up to the fact that it needn’t be. I’ve carefully curated a list of twelve things your writer friend is very likely to appreciate. You may buy some or all of these gifts for your writer friend/lover/family member. Don’t forget, everyone knows that sums expended on presents directly represent the amount of love you feel for a person, so give generously.
Unless they are a rare breed of teetotal writer, your writer will welcome alcohol. Alcohol helps with writing. That’s a fact. All of the best writers were/are notorious booze-hounds. Especially Jane Austen. If your writer is not yet a drinker you need to give them a nudge in the right direction. This is for their own good.
Fancy booze is the in-thing these days. Artisanal gin infused with essence of unicorn horn and whiskey aged in wooden barrels once owned by King Arthur and the likes. Get some of that so that they can work on developing their drinking habit without worrying that they might become some common-or-garden alcoholic. Bonus: Posh liquor will look Instagrammable tastefully placed beside item #2 on your writer friend’s desk.
My Pick: Writer’s Tears Whiskey
2. A Cat/ Multiple Cats:
The best thing about a cat gift is that most shelters are giving the little feckers away for free! Can’t wait to get rid of ’em! It’s a win-win-win situation. Cats help with writing. All the best writers have/had desk-cats. This is a fact. For bonus points teach the thing to hold pens, so that it can earn its keep.
My Pick: Something like this
3. Good coffee/ vouchers for the closest coffee shop/ coffee paraphernalia:
Coffee will provide much-needed fuel for your writer friend. They are going to need it to counteract the effects of imbibing fancy whiskey. See # 1.
My Pick: Homitt Cafetiere
4. A Fancy Pen:
This is for when your friend/lover/relative is signing books at their swanky book launch. They’ll probably have forgotten all about you by the time they reach the heady heights of international stardom. At least you’ll get the satisfaction of nudging the person beside you in the book-signing queue, pointing to the pen and saying ‘I gave him/her that’.
My Pick: Handcrafted ballpoint
5. A Holiday:
I know, I know, I know. Holidays are pricey but believe me, the writer in your life deserves it. Writers are constantly working. Even when they’re not. Their brains are constantly ticking over, searching for new ways to entertain their readers. This selfless act is, quite frankly, exhausting. They are willing to make this sacrifice for the benefit of their adoring fans, of which you are one. Be a good fan, and pay for their holiday. I hear Barbados is good this time of year. Even better, don’t insist on going with them. Send them off on a writer’s retreat. Alone.
My Pick: find a comprehensive list of writer’s retreats here.
6. A Book Voucher for an Actual Bookshop:
Though they love their Kindles, writers love an excuse to visit a bookshop. They enjoy spending hours browsing and carefully selecting books from the shelves in the ‘literature’ section. They like to conspicuously read random passages from hifalutin novels while nodding thoughtfully and saying ‘mmmm’. As they do this they are sneaking glances at the pile of commercial fiction on a nearby table, choosing the book that they’ll actually buy on their way out. New books are expensive, so don’t be a tight-arse. Give generously.
7. Writerly Cufflinks /Jewellery / Pins /Clothing/Bags:
All writers secretly want everyone to know they’re a writer. You’ve probably already noticed how they attempt to introduce it into conversation with strangers whenever the opportunity arises. Save them the trouble by buying them a statement piece that screams ‘I’m a tortured writer, ask me about it!’. Etsy , Amazon, Penguin , Out of Print Clothing and The Literary Emporium all sell nice things. These sites also sell non-wearable stuff for the writerly naturist in your life. I recommend bookends, luggage tags, framed posters, bookmarks, coasters and keyrings for those weirdos.
My pick: For the pedantic lady in your life
8. A Writing Course:
Writers love a good writing course. Online or in person, it doesn’t matter. Just pick wisely. ‘Poetry for Beginners’ isn’t going to please a person that already believes they are the 21st century’s answer to Lord Byron. Handle their fragile ego with care, or you might inadvertently ruin their Christmas.
My pick: Udemy online courses
If the writer person in your life is a parent, the most beautiful gift you can give them is a day (or ten) of peace, quiet and R&R away from their offspring. Babysit, or get a babysitter, give them some ‘me’ time. They will adore you. They’ll probably end up writing during that ‘me’ time, but at least they’ll get to do so in blissful silence.
10. Apps or Subscriptions:
Scrivener, Duotrope, Grammarly Premium, Spotify Premium, Headspace, Audible, Journal of the Month, Amazon Kindle Unlimited are examples of subscriptions that writers will really appreciate, but your writer might just have them so make subtle enquiries/ hack their computer before you buy. Warning: don’t be alarmed/disgusted if you check their browsing history…anything that’s on there is probably there for research purposes only. Probably.
11. An Air-Purifying Plant (in a nice pot):
My office is like The American Office. I too have a Pam. My palm tree. She’s good for air, and humans need that shit, even writers. Pam is hanging onto life by a thread, but I’m sure I’d have choked on my own Co2 in this sarcophagus/office of mine without her. I’m alive and kicking, and that’s all down to Pam. Cheers, Pam! You deserve a drop of water for that!
12. Self-Care/ Wellness Gifts:
Writers often neglect themselves because sometimes the physical world around them seems less important than the world they are inhabiting in their heads. In other words, they can be awful slobs. Get them a couple of yoga classes, a massage, a spa day, a session with a personal trainer, a session with a stylist, a fecking haircut, pay for a cleaner for their gaff, bring their laundry to the local launderette. Warning: it’s probably a good idea to power-hose the writer down and treat any parasitic infections before bringing them anywhere in public.
Disclaimer: It is possible that the writer in your life will balk at all of these suggestions, as it it possible that I am writing this post purely out of self-interest and as a massive hint to my own family and friends.
I’ve written before about the benefits of writing groups and recently I decided to start my own. A women’s writers’ group. We call ourselves Bics’n’Brunch because we had visions of doing lots of lovely writing, and then celebrating with lots of lovely brunch (and rivers of booze…) but so far, all we’ve managed is lots of lovely writing, lunch and caffeinated beverages and I’m okay with that. For now.
So we had our third meeting yesterday and we have a nice mix of members. And we’re all We have a member who has produced a short film and won a competition to have it screened. We have a member who has written the bones of a memoir. We have a member (Liz Cullen) who just launched her website and who has written a collection of short stories. She is now starting the path to self-publication. We have a member (Maria Colgan) who writes a personal development blog. We have a member who is a former journalist. We have a number of members who are just starting out with creative writing, and I’m excited about the future of our little group, and the future of our writing and the friendships we will make. And I’ve learned so much and I want to share it with anyone who thinks they want to set up a writers’ group. So here are some tips:
1. Identify the reasons why you want to establish a group and who you want to include:
There are lots of reasons why you might want to set up a writing group. If you’re in a town without one that’s a really, really good reason to set one up. But even if there are plenty of groups to choose from in your hometown, those groups might not be what you’re looking for. This was the case with me. Despite the fact that there were plenty of options in Dublin I ended up leaving all of them eventually for the following reasons:
- They were too big which resulted in the sessions being dominated by reading aloud rather than working on our writing or discussing our writing.
- They were almost entirely focused on essay-style non-fiction writing.
- They only permitted positive feedback.
- The groups felt fully established and the members were all very close friends.
- Certain personalities had become dominant within the groups and ended up monopolising talking time.
- They were mainly attended by white men of retirement age. They were lovely men and I learned a lot from them, so that wasn’t the problem but I found the writing didn’t have much diversity, and certainly, I didn’t have a huge amount in common with them.
- The writing, for them, was more of a hobby than a serious endeavour.
The groups weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted to be amongst people that took the writing seriously because I felt lonely doing what I was doing. I needed beta-readers who would be brutally honest with me. I also wanted to hear some female writers’ voices, at least for a while. So I decided to set up the kind of writers’ group that I wanted to go to. A group of women of different ages, interests and backgrounds. Women who write all kinds of things. Women who write for different reasons. Women who take the group seriously. So before launching into starting your group, decide why you want to establish a writing group and who you want to join. These are the questions you should ask yourself:
- What kinds of writers do you want to invite? Do you want mainly fiction/non-fiction? Bloggers? Poets? Motivational writers? I kept my group mixed because I think we can all learn from one another and it adds a richness to the group, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t narrow your requirements down and be as specific as you want.
- Do you want to restrict membership to a certain demographic?
- How often does it suit you to meet up? This is your group, so you decide what suits you best. I think anything less than once a month is too big a gap between meetings.
2. Find Members:
Establishing the group was quite easy for me. There’s a popular social networking app called GirlCrew. It’s an international app, but was founded in Ireland and is extremely popular here. It was created for women who want to socialise with other women (platonically) and form friendships. I went on there and posted an event. I started panicking when I got twenty-two responses. I didn’t know what to do, but the weather on the day of our inaugural meeting was horrific: torrential rain, apocalyptic wind. It was miserable. Four people showed up, so that made five including myself. I thought ‘what a disaster’ but actually, it gave me a good idea of who was serious about the group and in fact, five is a reasonably good number to start off with. It’s easy to manage and not too intimidating, plus you will actually get to know one another. Having had a few meetings now, I’d say a group of eight is optimum. Other ways to find members are:
- To use socialising apps and websites like GirlCrew, Meetup.com etc.
- Post on Twitter and Facebook. Invite people to share your post and use hashtags to gain traction.
- Make your local university/ college/ arts or cultural centre, library and bookshop aware of your existence and leave posters for them to put up on their notice boards.
- Look at
writerlywebsites for your area. Some writers’ websites have sections that list writers’ groups (The Irish Writers’ Centre and writing.ie has one, for example).
- Attend book and literary festivals, writing workshops or writers’ retreats and get talking to people.
3. Find a venue:
The most important qualities that a venue must have are: that it is available on a regular basis, that you can relax, that you have a level of privacy that your members are comfortable with, that it is reasonably quiet so that you can concentrate/read aloud without interruption, that it is cheap/free of charge.
Your options are:
- Writers’/ Arts/ Cultural centres
- Members’ homes (on a rotational basis)
- Library meeting rooms
- Quiet cafes/pub lounges/hotel lobbies (ask permission in advance, and offer to purchase beverages/ food)
- Pay-as-you-go social or working spaces. For example, in Dublin, we have a place called The Clockwork Door and they charge really reasonable rates for renting a room for a specific length of time. The charge includes coffee, biscuits etc.
I found that almost everywhere other than the libraries charged, either directly or indirectly. If you’re meeting in a cafe, you should buy something. It’s only polite and right that you should, but as most writers I know aren’t exactly flush with cash, an expensive coffee or two might not feature in the budget. So I approached the newly refurbished Kevin Street Library as our place. And lads! This place is only gorgeous! It’s an old building given a modern revamp with lots of high ceilings, light and airy spaces, comfy seats and books glorious books! They set us up every month with tables and chairs in a lovely space with books lining the walls. Many libraries are only too happy to host writers’ groups. So give your local library a call first. See if they (a) have a meeting room suitable and (b) how regularly it may be available to you.
4. Decide What You Want to Do:
There are loads of activities that writers’ groups can engage in during their meet-ups, and outside of them. Here’s a list:
- Writing! Obviously. But what do you want to write? Decide whether you want to do a mix of free writing, working off prompts (see my article on prompts here) or working on existing projects.
- Reading aloud from your work. You can read stuff you’re working on within the group or finished or almost finished work from outside of it. My group is still a little shy, and so I’ve asked them to read from other people’s work, works that they enjoy and find inspirational.
- Holding each other accountable. Sharing your goals with the group, sharing your strategy for achieving those goals, and updating the group at every meeting on how you are progressing with projects. I use the SMART goal-setting formula for maintaining focus and planning. It’s a good one to share with your group.
- Sharing information. Informing the group about competitions that are coming up or literary events that might be of interest.
- Problem-solving. A problem shared is a problem halved. Many writing groups discuss problems with their writing and brainstorm solutions.
- Teaching and Learning. Sharing tips with one another is one of the greatest benefits of a writing group.
- Critiquing as a Group. Not all writing groups give critique, and that’s fine. Sometimes in-depth critiquing can’t be combined with writing and reading aloud. There may not be time to do everything, especially if you’re a large group. Circulating manuscripts before meetings
doessave time. Decide what your priorities are. Good quality, objective constructive criticism is a resource that’s hard to come by and personally, I welcome it because I want to write as a career. Fluffy, over-generous and gushing praise for bad writing is not good for my progression. Equally, people who like to write for fun shouldn’t have to face having their tyres deflated by a negative Nelly. So, at the outset decide what kind of group you are, manage expectations, set boundaries and at first, regardless of what kind of group you are, work on developing trust.
- Finding a beta-reader. Beta-readers carry out a deep analysis of a full manuscript and give written responses to questions posed by the author. Beta reading involves a lot of focus, a lot of effort and is a huge commitment, and should be taken seriously. I am so grateful to all of the people that beta-read my novel, and it absolutely wouldn’t have been as good as it is without them. Give-and-take is important with beta-reading, so make members aware that
agrees to beta-read for a group member, they should offer to return the favour. if if
- Having company at
writerlyevents. I’ve been to a lot of events solo. It’s nice to have companythat shares your interest. As a group, you can Attend book-launches, open-mics, literary festivals, plays, movies that are book-related as a group.
- Organising your own
writerlyevents. It’s easy to organise a writers’ retreat nowadays with AirBnb. Pick a beautiful, peaceful location and organise yourself a bit of solid writing time together. You can also agree to take turns in researching writing lessons and teaching the group. If you’re a decent sized group and you are all willing to pay you could contact established writers directly and ask them to give a workshop. Most writers give workshops and talks to earn extra cash. You could possibly organise it in collaboration with your local library or other writers’ groups. You could also look at staging plays written by group members or by the group as a whole.
- Working on group projects. One group I know published their own book of short stories, essays and poetry. Another group did a reading on the radio together and wrote a play collaboratively. The Boyne Writers have their own literary magazine. You could create a group blog and take turns in contributing content. All brilliant ideas. But it could be as simple as writing a short story together, creating a group podcast or a Spotify playlist for your group.
- Book recommendations. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Reading for pleasure and reading to learn is important when working on your craft. I love getting reading suggestions from people I trust.
5. Pick a Chair and Communicate:
Every group needs a Chairperson to put a structure on the meeting. Most groups rotate chairs, and I recommend this. It’ll make the group democratic and make everyone feel invested in the group.
- Preparing an agenda which may include: updates on member progress on projects, selecting a ‘writing tip of the month’, supplying prompts, making members aware of upcoming competitions, events etc.
- Allocating and managing time for discussion, free-writing, writing and reading aloud.
- Arranging a date for the next meeting. Notifying any absent members and the venue of the date and time of the next meeting.
- Organising tea/coffee, cakes, lunch where necessary.
Also, pick a method of communication between group members so that you can share work, share tips, suggest meet-ups etc. I use WhatsApp but other groups use Facebook Groups or communicate via email.
So there you go, you have everything you need to establish your writing group! Except for a name (just FYI Bics’n’Brunch is copyrighted. Devastating, I know. It’s a good one).
I go to London quite frequently because I have family over there and every time I make a trip I try and do a little bit of literary tourism. One day I managed to rope my sister, Orla, into accompanying me to Bloomsbury. I got out my map of London (not a physical map, an app map) and plotted out my route and off we headed on the tube towards Russel Square. We disembarked and en route to my destination Google Maps tried to send me through the public thoroughfare of a very impressive looking Art-Deco style skyscraper. I remember craning my neck and looking up at this building and thinking ‘I know this place—I’ve seen it before—this place is important’.
And then I remembered. Senate House.
A place on my literary tourism to-do list and I’d just stumbled upon it.
Senate house was originally built to replace the original University of London buildings. Under the instruction of the University of London’s Vice-Chancellor Sir William Beveridge Architect, Charles Holden was appointed. He was tasked with finally creating a building finally worthy of the title ‘University of London’. And Holden certainly achieved that. Senate House was to be the capital’s first skyscraper and is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture you’ll find anywhere.
Senate House isn’t just an architectural gem, it’s a serious literary tourism gem for three reasons:
- It has a beautiful library;
- Mary Prince used to live in a house on this site; and
- The building and its function during World War 2 inspired a number of 20th century authors
1. Senate House Library
Senate House is the administrative centre of the University of London and contains the universities humanities and social sciences library. Senate House Library holds over 2 million books and 1,200 archive collections. The library is beautiful, as you can see, but it is mostly restricted to UL students. I understand that you can access it for reference purposes if you show ID and purchase a £5 day-pass.
Treasures held by the library range from mediaeval manuscripts, to Shakespeare’s First Folio to books printed by William Caxton, who became the first retailer of books in Britain after introducing the printing press to Britain in 1476. It also holds a presentation copy of Das Kapital, Byron’s unfinished, unpublished draft for the end of Don Juan, a handwritten letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a manuscript by Sir Walter Scott, letters by poet, Phoebe
The library holds regular exhibitions and events which are free-of-charge, open to the general public and often book-related. You don’t need a day membership pass to visit these exhibitions but you do need to register online.
The current exhibition is entitled Rights for Women: London Pioneers in their Own Words which is running until the
2. Mary Prince used to Live on this Site:
Mary Prince lived on the site of the Senate House in the 1800s, long before the building was a twinkle in Sir William Beveridge’s eye. Prince was an abolitionist, the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament and an important literary figure because she was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. When Prince’s book was published, slavery was still legal in England, and Parliament had not yet abolished it in the colonies.
It has been proven that books increase empathy in a way that no other medium can. Prince telling her story in her own words gave the British people an insight into the horrors of slavery from the slave’s perspective. Something that had not been done before. .Prince’s autobiography proved the power of the written word, the personal story, the first-person narrative and generated an understanding that could not have existed beforehand. The book sold out three printings and was instrumental in changing public opinion and garnering support and momentum behind the anti-slavery movement in the UK.
It would be a few years after the book was published before abolition took place, but certainly, her book was hugely influential in changing public opinion and its impact should never be forgotten. Senate House now dominates the spot where she once lived, but there is a commemorative plaque there that reads ‘Mary Prince abolitionist and author lived near this site’ and it is definitely worth stopping there and reflecting on where we once were, and indeed, where we are now.
3. Its Connection with Speculative Fiction
In 1937 the University of London reopened in its new location, and in 1939 the war began. The university staff and students moved out, which was a good thing as Senate House withstood a number of attacks during the Blitz in World War II, and did so relatively unscathed. The government took over the building over for the duration of the war. It was used to house the newly formed Ministry of Information; a controversial department tasked with monitoring public opinion and issuing propaganda. It would later be accused of subterfuge, spying on British citizens and censorship.
A great number of fiction writers were inspired by Senate House and its wartime function. I have no doubt that the formidable and imposing appearance of the building enhanced the sense of insidiousness around the activities of the occupants of Senate House during WW2. Don’t forget that when much of the literature involving this house was written, it was the only, or one of the only skyscrapers in London. Its stature would have made it the most dominant and visible building in the skyline of the city—and this, combined with its masculine, granite walls and angularity gives it a cold, imposing and formidable beauty. Its appearance is reminiscent of totalitarian architecture going up all around Europe at that time. Indeed, Hitler allegedly liked the building so much that he earmarked it for his British headquarters if he won WW2. So for those of you who take an interest in speculative fiction, you’ll definitely appreciate its aesthetic.
Of all of the authors inspired by Senate House, George Orwell is the most famous. The Ministry of Truth which features in his novel was based on The Ministry of Information. Orwell’s wife worked in the Censorship Department at the Ministry of Information for a time, and so Orwell obviously had a unique insight into its machinations. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four are sky-rocketing. It’s not surprising. We live in an era of ‘fake news’ and attacks on a struggling free press. An era where science is rejected in favour of conspiracy theories. When people glean information from online op-eds and commentary instead of objective, factual reporting. Where social bots spew hatred and bigotry and the spectre of the far-right is being resurrected throughout the world. Where the cash-strapped media compete for ad revenues and use outrage and fear to generate valuable clicks. Where targeted propaganda is being disseminated via social media and personal information being traded for likes and conveniences. Our sense of paranoia about the world and the future has increased, and with it, the relevance of the warnings contained in this very important novel.
Graham Greene is another who drew inspiration from Senate House. In his novel The Ministry of Fear, he described it as a ‘high heartless building… where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in’. His perception of the building itself, clearly influenced by its wartime use.
Evelyn Waugh’s character in the wartime novel Put Out More Flags is repulsed by the building, believing that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry.’
Interestingly, Senate House is seen as a place of refuge in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. It is the location where a group congregate to escape the post-apocalyptic chaos surrounding them. The main character and others
The building also features in the film adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Day of the Triffids, and it has also been the location for a Ministry of War, a CIA lobby and a Russian secret service HQ in various other movies. So there you go, what an interesting place Senate House is. A source of much inspiration to writers and filmmakers alike. Unfortunately, it isn’t a building you can just wander around in. The only areas open to the general public are the thoroughfare, the exhibition area on the 4thfloor, and the library (subject to the purchase a day pass), but gazing up at its impressive facade is sufficient for most. If you want to explore the interior building itself relatively unhindered and get some dystopian/ Art-Deco style inspiration for your writing, the building is open to the public during the annual Open House London weekend which has just passed but will return on the 21st and 22nd September 2019. See the Open House website for details.
I’d like to say thank-you to Senate House Library for their assistance with this article. They kindly provided me with photographs and information around the current exhibition on female pioneers and Mary Prince.
The curtains on the windows are drawn. I understand. Privacy is important, especially on Hallowe’en night when the city heaves with people and prying eyes, but it means that I won’t know what awaits me until I’m through the door. I’m nervous. Self-conscious. I’ve never done anything like this before. I take a deep breath and go inside. The Rubis Café is small, intimate. Its walls flicker with shadowy candlelight. There are gilded mirrors and paintings on the walls, and people sip ruby red wine. I am greeted by a tall, blonde Amazonian woman in a bodice who explains the menu of services on offer to me at the right price. Her voice is sultry, and already I feel thoroughly seduced. I feel the eyes of the various women and men scanning me. They are clad in lace and leather and fishnet, their bodies stretched languorously on silken chaise longues, or perched on velvet sofas.
I’ve never done this before. And I’m not sure what is expected of me…how did I end up here?
Yes! It sounds like I have wandered into a brothel; a decadent 19th-century-style bordello. But the nakedness on offer in this place is not physical. I’m at a Poetry Brothel event, and the services on offer are private poetry readings, tarot readings, face-painting and poems composed just for me. The entertainment will be poets and musicians taking to the stage and offering their memories, feelings and experiences up for our consumption; stripping away their emotional clothing.
How did I end up here? Well,I’m a huge Hallowe’en fan; and yet this year, I was at a loose end. It was as though by some miracle, or some spooky sixth sense, but more probably by some terrifyingly accurate algorithm, that The Poetry Brothel’s: The Haunted event popped up on my Facebook page. I read the blurb and it piqued my interest. I mean, it’s a Hallowe’eny literary event! Hello? My favourite two things rolled into one. So, did some more research.
The Poetry Brothel describes itself on its website in a way that I can’t, so here it is:
‘Based in concept on the fin-de-siecle bordellos in New Orleans and Paris, many of which functioned as safe havens for fledgling, avant-garde artists, The Poetry Brothel presents a rotating cast of poets as “whores,” each operating within a carefully constructed character, who impart their work in public readings, spontaneous eruptions of poetry, and most distinctly, as purveyors of private, one-on-one poetry readings in back rooms and other secret and intimate spaces, propitious surroundings for the advent of psychic connections and true poetical/existential experiences. The idea is to purchase a piece of the “whore’s” poetical spirit and absorb yourself in the true nature of readings and literary performances.’
The proposition couldn’t be more seductive. So, I clicked on the link and bought the VIP tickets. Basic tickets were only €15, and €25 for VIP tickets. My sister and I decided on the VIP tickets which meant that all of the various experiences on offer were included, otherwise, you can buy tokens for individual ‘services’at the event.
Before this event, I’d never been to a poetry night. This is despite the fact that poetry was my first love. At eight years of age, I wrote my first poem. My parents loved it and declared me to be a child prodigy. I learned two things from this 1. That parents be delusional, 2. that I liked writing poetry, that I liked praise and wanted to write more. Following on from that my parents started buying me books, and encouraging me; and that confidence boost along with a new love of reading was all I needed to get me writing. To make me put pen to paper and write poem after poem, and it led me to eventually fall in love with prose.
Attending The Haunted would be a journey back to my writing roots. So why did I feel so apprehensive? I think it’s because I’d left poetry behind. I was no longer a poet and I was now afraid of poetry and of poets with their magical ability to make words sing both on and off the page. I was worried that I wouldn’t ‘belong’at this event. But I needn’t have worried. The Poetry Brothel isn’t a place for stuffy or pretentious poets. It brands itself as being ‘accessible’ and it is. The poets were open, friendly and sociable. I quickly relaxed with these people who were willing to be brave enough to bare their vulnerability, so that gave me permission to do the same.
The Haunted took place in the French style wine bar Cafe Rubis. If you’re ever looking for somewhere in Dublin that is romantic, atmospheric, intimate and has rivers of fabulous wine in its cellars; this is your place. Perfect for a date and equally perfect for a poetry event.
The evening opened with the most fantastic blues/ jazz singer. I absolutely loved her, and her fabulous vintage ‘40’s style red dress which, when you looked closer, was covered in bats in a subtle nod to the day that’s in it. I could barely tear myself away to enjoy the other treats on offer upstairs: the tarot, face-painting, personally tailored poems and private readings. Stephen Clare clicked and
I loved the honesty and passion of Lena Chen and Andrej Kapor. The poets offered up details of their loves, heartbreaks, their losses, their highs and lows to us auditory ‘voyeurs’ seated only feet away from them. As they spoke I was transported into their lives, but also into moments in my past where I felt exactly as they did. The poetry was funny, sexy, surreal, evocative, current, and at times, totally improvised. The waxed lyrical on the pitfalls of tinder and we were treated to an impromptu back-and-forth between Stephen Clare and another poet on the importance of good eyebrows.
There are poetry brothel events taking place in cities across the world: Buenos Aires, Barcelona, London, New York, San Francisco. Catch one if you can. I’ll definitely be back. It really is an experience like no other, though I’d imagine that they share one thing in common with most poetry evenings: there’s a wonderful atmosphere of openness, kindness, respect and support. I came with a reminder of my roots in poetry and looking to the future. Feeling inspired and excited about all the possibilities for my own writing.
If these people can be so brave in sharing their stories with the world, why can’t I? Indeed, why can’t you?
I love a bit of literary tourism. Whenever I leave Dublin I research wherever I’m visiting beforehand. I look for indie bookshops, museums, statues, libraries, tours etc. So for my husband’s birthday, I decided we should take a trip to Limerick. We hadn’t been in years and I’ve learned that everywhere in Ireland has something unique to offer if you do your research beforehand. So, to my surprise, on doing a little bit of googling, I discovered that there’s a Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick city centre.
Frank McCourt was a former resident of Limerick City and wrote the bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes. The book tells the story of his ‘miserable Catholic childhood’ which he spent in Limerick, having spent a small portion of it in Brooklyn during the depression. It’s a story of dire poverty and deprivation, but told with such skill, humour and hope that it doesn’t descend into misery-lit. The memoir has since been made into a movie and, surprisingly, a really successful musical. But I hadn’t heard of the museum until I decided to make my trip to Limerick.
I went to the museum on a Saturday afternoon. It’s in a beautiful 150-year-old Tudor-style building: Leamy House. Frank’s old school house. Alan, two Dutch tourists and I waited for 2 pm to come around and on the button, a smiling, harried lady appeared to let us in, apologising profusely, even though she was right on time. This was Una. The founder and curator of the museum. From the outset, she was friendly and chatty. Clearly passionate about her museum. Her ‘labour of love’. She led us upstairs for our tour and we were joined by two more Dutch tourists. The museum was only €4 each, which is a bargain for a thoroughly fascinating couple of hours, so I decided to buy a book after the tour because I felt €4 was too little.
On the first floor, we were led through recreations of the first living-room/kitchen of Frank’s childhood and then the bedroom: ‘Little Italy’ from the novel and finally to the schoolroom. In the living spaces, Una explained how Frank’s family had lived in the 1930’s and 1940’s. We learned about how they lived in cramped conditions. Washed their clothing in the same water they washed themselves in, used the baby’s pram as a ‘vehicle’ to transport coal, cooked over an open fire, slept on a flea-ridden bed with army surplus coats instead of blankets and hung their clothes to dry on a clothes-line running across the middle of the room because of the incessant rain.
Una’s family purchased Leamy House and turned the building into a garment factory. The second floor, where Frank when to school was to be the factory floor, so the internal walls were removed. Part of this huge room is set out as a schoolroom with desks and blakcboards, and the rest as a museum with cabinets and shelves full of Una’s collection of Frank McCourt related paraphernalia, including some of Angela’s ashes. While in this part of the museum she told us what life was like for children attending school in those days, and the brutal punishments meted out by the priests.
There was religious iconography all over the two floors, just as there would have been in Irish homes and schools at the time of the novel. As I wandered around the museum exhibits, I was struck most by Frank’s beautiful collection of rosary beads, one of which was given to him by the Pope. Throughout his adult life, Frank was extremely critical of the Catholic Church, describing it as ‘the worst thing that ever happened to Ireland’. The collection of beads might seem to contradict his anti-church stance, but I can relate to it. I think he was a cultural Catholic, and I think a lot of us Irish are. We take comfort in the familiarity of the rituals, symbols and traditions of the church, and the superstitions we, as a nation, attached to those things. They make up our own particular, Irish brand of Catholicism. Those things aren’t precious because of their connection with the church, but because of their connection to our past. Saint Anthony finding lost items, or the Child of Prague bringing good weather for a wedding or Saint Brigid’s cross over your door to keep evil at bay. We associate them with protection, and safety and kindness, and they are separate and apart from the teachings of the church. I’d imagine there was a little of that in Frank. I’d imagine there was a wistfulness for those things he left behind when he left Ireland. Except for poverty. I’d imagine he was quite content to leave that firmly where it was.
One of my favourite things about the museum
Una herself is a fascinating person. A social historian but also an artist, and a talented painter, hoping to write her own book about the museum. She shared little anecdotes about the museum itself. For example how she can’t keep herself in plastic fleas due to the inexplicable fascination that visitors have with stealing them from the beds in ‘Little Italy’. She also told us that she once opened the museum to find a homeless man curled up on one of those same beds.
Una and I talked about how the Irish hid their poverty well when they suffered it, and out of pride never discussed it. But my mother remembers seeing it. My mother told me that she had seen terrible poverty as a child growing up in Clonmel. My grandmother owned a pub and served men like McCourt’s father, while mothers struggled to care for their many children. And though the pub is an important part of our cultural heritage, I’m glad so many are closing down and coffee shops are opening up in their place. Caffeine is an altogether less destructive drug.
Una is creating mosaics for the back wall of the schoolroom one of Frank (now completed) and one of Angela. Huge mosaics that visitors can paint a tile and contribute to. Before we left Alan and I painted two tiles to be added the mosaic of Angela that is slowly coming together I hope to visit again when it’s finished.
I highly recommend a trip to the Frank McCourt Museum. Not only is the museum a beautiful tribute to a very talented local writer, but it captures a little piece of social history. So often the stories of the poor are ignored. We walk around cities and marvel at the old, beautiful buildings commissioned by the wealthy: iconic architecture, ornate cathedrals, stately homes. We imagine how grand life would have been back then. Yet we forget about the lives of the majority. The majority who lived very different lives, but no less fascinating, and certainly, no less important. Thanks to Frank and Una and her helpers this little piece of Limerick’s history won’t be forgotten.
As I left the museum I reflected on the conditions that Frank and his family lived in. I thought ‘how horrible for a family to be crammed into one room. How terrible that they didn’t have proper cooking or laundry facilities. How awful that they moved from place to place because they couldn’t pay their rent’. And then I remembered: that entire families are living in hotel rooms in Dublin right now, moving regularly, because they can’t afford skyrocketing rents and there is no social housing available or being built. And I remembered Una’s story of the homeless man that broke into the museum and slept willingly on a bed in ‘Little Italy’ to escape the cold of Limerick’s streets. I realised: we think we have come so far since Frank’s time, but we haven’t. Many people were angry when Frank published his book. The fallout of the memoir (there almost always is a fallout when it comes to memoir), was that some people in Limerick took exception to his portrayal of their city. They denied the veracity of the story. And yet here we are, many years later, many years after the great depression. We are now apparently a very wealthy country, and yet people sleep on the streets. Entire families live in hotel rooms in our capital city. And again, many would be scandalised at the suggestion that Ireland was anything but a modern, compassionate, civilised nation. Have we changed that much?
Incredibly, despite the poverty that Frank grew up in, he and his two brothers, Malachy and Alphie, are all published writers. Not many rich families can claim that. Una believes that the poverty they grew up in forced them to dream of better things. To use their imaginations to picture a different life in ways that middle-class children didn’t need to. I think that poor children do dream, and hope to improve their lot in life. Not many will scale the heights of success that Frank McCourt did, and very few will, as he is, but there is hope. And that is why, despite Angela’s Ashes being very sad, its very existence makes it a book filled with the bright light of human potential.