Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Thinking about Maeve Binchy

This time last year I wrote a sentence which I remember erasing twice. Each time I typed it I was afraid it might seem pretentious. And each time I erased it I felt like a coward and typed it again. ' My own trade', I wrote, 'is crafting the world into words'. In the end it took assurances and endorsement from others before I could let it stand.

Why is it so hard for a writer to have confidence in what she does? Why should I feel my statements need external endorsement before I can write them down? In the past I believed it's because writers work alone. There's a sense in which we create without any context: and that's ironic because creation is about contextualisation; the act of writing is about  framing and re-framing life as a series of pictures, juxtaposing one against another to provide the balance and perspective that enhance awareness of the world. All in an attempt to understand it.

For over a year, as I wrote The House on an Irish Hillside, I explored the ancient Celtic concept of a joined-up universe in which everything that exists, or ever has existed, shares a living soul. It's a worldview that expands the idea of individuality and redefines the function of community. It's rooted in the idea that balance is the essence of health. And it rejects the idea that death destroys life.

During that year, and in the months before it, my own life was shaken by death, and my perceptions of health and how to maintain it were challenged. Unable to write, sometimes unable to think, eat, sleep or - it seemed - even to breathe, I experienced two apparent opposites. One was the emptiness of feeling utterly alone. The other was the incomparable comfort of communal support from neighbours and individual support from friends.

Among those friends was Maeve Binchy, whose warm, unsentimental, practical advice arrived in a series of phone calls and postcards, supplemented by large glasses of white wine and plates of smoked salmon sandwiches. I'd known Maeve since I was a child and when she died in August this year my world, which still felt delicately balanced, was suddenly shaken again.

Maeve's funeral was a celebration of her life. Her coffin emerged from the church to the soaring sound of  traditional Irish music. Her photo was displayed in shop windows in the streets of the little town she'd lived in, where her neighbours lined the pavements to say goodbye. Tributes poured in from statesmen, fellow-writers and readers, all praising her talent, generosity, compassion and charm. Along with huge numbers of her friends throughout the world, I've missed her ever since.

A few days ago I travelled from Corca Dhuibhne back to London and found a padded envelope waiting among my post. Inside was a copy of Maeve's latest book, A Week in Winter. It was sent, said the inscription, because Maeve had wanted me and my husband to have it and it came 'with her love'. It's vintage Maeve Binchy - warm, compassionate and astringent, razor sharp and richly intelligent. And, like everything she wrote, it's informed by equal measures of energy, enthusiasm and optimism.

Before she died Maeve made a statement. She didn't believe in god, she wrote. She'd thought about it for a lifetime, wanting to hold onto the faith in which she'd been raised. But she now knew that what she believed in was life, love and kindness, and human potential for good. It was a brave statement and I suspect that in making it she may have lost some fans who saw her as a feelgood writer who dealt in certainties, not soul-searching. But a life of examined awareness had led to her conclusion and, as a writer, she needed to share what she perceived to be true. Her funeral was held in a church where the priest reiterated her statement from the altar. It was an honest, dignified memorial characterised by no hypocrisy, deep grief and much humour.

Like Maeve, I don't believe in a god. But I don't believe either that death's destroyed her life. In the obvious sense she still lives in her books. But that's not what I mean. Everything I've learned from my own experience suggests that our Celtic ancestors were right. On some level that exists now, in a circular universe in which linear time as a concept is irrelevant, everything that exists continues to exist and shares a living soul. So, although it wasn't published until after she died, I think that the book that's beside me on the desk as I write this really has come with her love.

In the past I believed that isolation was part of the writer's condition. In a practical sense that's true, and it makes the perfect environment for crises of confidence. But the real truth, I think, is that it's impossible to be alone. I believe that as writers we create as individuals. But we reflect a world within a universe where everything's joined up - a state in which each element is vital and equal, and all are balanced by an animating flow of energy which means death's always pregnant with life.

I wish I could talk to Maeve about that. Balance expressed with humour inhabits the heart of her work. For much of her life she lived with ill health. She knew light doesn't register without darkness. There've been so many times since she's died that I've reached for the phone and been stabbed by the memory that she's gone. She was a mentor as well as a friend. I loved her bossy, witty, crystal clear analysis of situations and ideas, the stories with which she illustrated them, her certainties and her doubts. I'd value her opinion of my own new, still slightly precarious worldview.

And I'd like her to know that I no longer need anyone's endorsement to have the courage to write it down.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Winter Day on the Dingle Peninsula

Preheat the oven to c230/ gas 8. Scatter flour thickly on a large, heavy baking tray. Sieve twelve ounces of plain, white, unbleached flour and a level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl. Hold the sieve as high as you dare, to incorporate plenty of air. Add a large pinch of salt if you want to. I never do. Then sieve four ounces of wholemeal flour into the bowl as well, tip the residue of bran in after it, and throw in a handful of linseed or sunflower seeds, and maybe a fistful of oats.

Tap the bowl on  the table to bring everything to the bottom. Then combine the lot with a swirl of your hand in one direction and a turn of the bowl in the other.

Next make a well in the centre of the mixture and add 350ml of buttermilk all in one go. (I know I've mixed metric and imperial measures, that's the way my mind works. And anyway I just use the full of a big glass for the buttermilk.)

Then, using one hand and turning the bowl with the other, draw the flour into the buttermilk, combining them.

Work from the sides to the centre; it shouldn't take more than a minute. The ball of dough you end up with should be soft, but not wet or sticky. If you need to, add a bit more flour or buttermilk. You'll know you're right if the dough comes together quickly, and it leaves the bowl perfectly clean.

Throw some flour on your table and turn out the dough. Wash and dry your hands. Knead your bread from the sides to the centre for just a few seconds, turning it, to make a round loaf.

Flip it over onto the baking tray. Pat it down with a floury hand. You want it about two and a half centimetres thick. Then cut a deep cross through the loaf, almost dividing it into triangles. It'll come together as it rises.

Bake for fifteen minutes in the hot oven, then reduce the heat to c200/ gas 6 for another twenty. Keep an eye on it for the last ten minutes. You can turn it upside down if it's getting too brown.

It's done when the bottom sounds hollow when you tap it with your knuckle.

Cool the bread on a wire rack. Eat it on the day you bake it - hot, with butter and honey. Or with blackcurrant jam.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Echoes of ancient Irish ritual on St. Martin's Day

It was dark last night as we drove home across the country. Our last stop had been in Clonmel at the seventh bookshop in three days in which I'd met booksellers, chatted to readers and signed copies of The House on an Irish Hillside before taking photos, grabbing another coffee and a sandwich and taking to the road again with the mapbook on my knee.

It had been a lovely trip along autumnal Irish roads that snaked between broad, harvested fields edged by stone walls, tall trees or golden-brown beech hedgerows. But as darkness fell and rain began to spatter the windscreen my mind was reaching out for the rougher, wilder landscape of West Kerry, Tí Neillí Mhuiris and home.

We lit the fire when we came in, sweeping away the soot and ashes blown down onto the stone hearth in our absence, and heated soup for our supper. A fierce wind was gusting from the ocean. Later we slept again in our own bed, protected from the gale by the cluster of ashtrees planted at our north gable nearly a hundred years ago by Neillí's husband, Paddy.

This morning we got up late, pottered round a bit and walked down the hill to see Jack.

His kitchen was warm and welcoming, full of the lingering smell of a fine chicken dinner, just being cleared from the table. We sat down and chatted about book signing and the weather, and the birth of a new baby to a neighbour below in Ballyferriter. The table was cleared and wiped clean, the scraps were gathered onto a plate, and outside the door Spot twitched in anticipation of her own dinner. She eats it each day from an old fryingpan at the corner of the house, scrupulously leaving a few mouthfuls behind her for the hens to eat in their turn.

As the chicken carcass was removed from the table we were still talking schedules and booksignings. Someone asked about the date - was today the tenth or the eleventh? 'It's the eleventh,' said Jack as the rest of us glanced round for the calendar or reached for the local paper. 'It's St. Martin's day'.

And he told us another story about Tí Neillí Mhuiris.

Neillí always killed a hen for St. Martin's day and Paddy took his dog up onto the mountain and killed a hare: they were plucked, skinned and prepared by Neillí and cooked over the fire on the hearth I swept last night. It was always the way on St. Martin's day, to eat a fine dinner.

I asked Jack why and he just shook his head. 'It was always the custom'.

When we came back to the house I switched on the computer.

St. Martin's Day, or Martinmas, is a time for feasting, when autumn wheat seeding was completed, fattened cattle were slaughtered and, historically, hiring fairs were held where farm labourers gathered looking for work. In the Christian calendar November 11th is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who was baptized as an adult and became a monk. From the fourth century AD to the late middle ages much of Europe observed a period of forty days of fasting beginning from St. Martin's Day. And on the eve of the fast people cooked and ate a fine dinner, which traditionally included a cockerel, a goose or a hen.

But the tradition of feasting on St. Martin's day is far older than Christianity. November 11th falls roughly midway between the September Equinox and the Midwinter Solstice. It's one of the ancient Celtic festivals associated with harvest-time, when bonfires were lit on the hills, cattle were slaughtered, and the blood of sacrificed cockerels was sprinkled on thresholds to bring fertility to the farm and protect the household from famine in the dark months ahead. It was a ritual act, traditionally carried out by the woman of the house. Afterwards the whole family would feast on the sacrificial victim.

'It was always the custom to have a good dinner on St. Martin's day,' said Jack. 'Paddy hunted a hare on the mountain. And Neillí always killed a hen.'

Friday, 2 November 2012

Memories Of My Enniscorthy Granny

I'm writing this on a chilly evening in Tí Neillí Mhuiris after a long day spent making arrangements for an Irish book signing tour. Hours on the phone talking to lovely, welcoming booksellers, eager to advise me where to park when Wilf and I arrive in Cork, Clonmel, Wexford or Waterford next week. Emails confirming dates. Updates on local radio slots. Interviews with local newspapers. Piles of notes on my desk waiting to become the orderly schedule I always need to type out for myself before we set off.

But now, with a glass of wine by my elbow, I'm able to think past logistics to the joy that's to come. This time next week I'll be back in the soft green landscape of Wexford amongst memories of my Enniscorthy granny, a tiny, gentle lady who marched through life with the courageous motto that one should always 'keep the best side out.'

In Chapter Five of The House on an Irish Hillside I write about the starched cloth on the polished table where we had tea when we visited Enniscorthy; granny's own mother’s blue and white china, patterned with roses; and pink biscuits in a cut glass biscuit barrel. For some reason, they were known as ‘curly-wees’. I remember gooseberry jam, made with fruit from granny's garden, and ‘country butter’ served on thin slices of brown soda bread.

Granny's house in Enniscorthy was built on a hill and the long garden had a raised terrace running along one side. I remember conifers, and tall ivory-coloured lilies on thick green stems, with golden stamens and petals like curled vellum powdered with pollen. There were flag­stones outside the kitchen door and a path that ran down the garden to apple trees and fruit bushes.

One day, when I was four or five, I was sent out to play. Running at full tilt, I tripped on a stone and landed flat on my front in a puddle. I can remember my nose streaming and the salty taste of tears as I stumbled, dripping, back up the path and into the kitchen. After I was washed, dried and put into a clean frock, I was given a curly-wee and told to sit on the doorstep while my damp socks were hung by the fire. Granny left me there with a kiss and one of her brisk, ritual sayings. ‘It’s-all-over-now-throw-my-hat-in-the-sky!’ I never quite knew what that meant, but my mother used to say it too when things had gone wrong and it was immeasurably comforting.

Later, the three of us walked down the garden together, the mother, the child and the old woman. I remember the strength of their hands as they swung me across the puddle, and standing between them as we counted the hard, green apples setting on the apple trees. The same trees are still there today. Spring blossom still sets on their gnarled branches, now propped with stakes and powdered with grey lichen.

Each autumn when I was a child, Granny sent boxes of apples on the train from Enniscorthy to Dublin, carefully tied with twine and addressed to my mother, ‘to be collected’. I remember learning to make apple tart in our kitchen in Dublin, the print of my mother's thumb crimping the edges, and the mark of her wedding ring on the pastry scraps she’d flatten with her hand and pinch into leaves for decoration. When I look down at my hands as I type this I can see that ring on my own finger.

Next week as I sit signing copies in a Wexford bookshop, I'll be thinking of my granny. Wexford's only about fifteen miles from Enniscorthy but going there after she was widowed meant a lonely, daunting trip to the big city. I still remember her tiny, upright figure, shining buttoned shoes, and the jaunty tilt of her hat as she walked down the hill to the station, shoulders back, head up, keeping the best side out. 

And sitting here now I realise I'm just a bit daunted myself. Booksignings are like that. You wonder if people will come. If they've liked your book. If you'll spill your coffee or your pen will leak. You worry that you'll lose your schedule or the car keys or forget how to spell your own name. 

But my granny had another saying, ritually produced whenever I got shy before a party. 'You'll-love-it-when-you-get-there-so-you-will.' And I know she's right. I've never arrived at a signing to anything but broad smiles and cheerful welcomes. It's great to meet friendly readers, hear fascinating stories, and put faces to names you've only known from Twitter or Facebook, or from warm, perceptive comments on your blog. 

In fact the only daunting thing is crossing so many new thresholds. And that's just a matter of keeping your shoulders back, head up, and the best side out.

I'll be signing copies of The House on an Irish Hillside in Cork Thurs. Nov 8th Easons, Patrick St. 12.00 noon/ Mahon Shopping Centre 2.30pm: Wexford Fri. Nov 9th The Book Centre, South Main St. 2.00pm: Waterford Sat Nov 10th The Book Centre John Robert Sq. 11.00am: Clonmel Sat Nov 10th Easons, Gladstone St. 3.30pm.