Friday, June 29, 2012

My friend the Radio

“Cause when you can’t find a friend
You’ve still got the radio”*

Gingham slippers, dusty poetry books and a 1950’s Parker Knoll fireside chair. Does the combination of these images hint at what has become my daily passion as I slide down this slippery slope into old age? Think for a moment. Crack cocaine? S / M? No, nothing that exciting, or damaging. I’ve discovered the pleasure of radio, specifically BBC Radio 4. Over the past five years, since I started working part time, I’ve grown very fond of Radio 4’s steady presence in my life and, if I’m honest, in my heart.
Each morning I’m eased into the day with a large cup of tea and the shipping forecast, which I catch the last few minutes of as I wait for the 6.00am news to begin. Something in me lights up as I hear the pips followed by the reassuring tones of Evan Davis, Justin Webb or John Humphreys announcing the start of the Today programme. Even the most ominous news, chaos in the markets, new government offensives against the poor and vulnerable, rising unemployment, or ongoing torrential rain, is cushioned by the ordered and seamless way in which it is presented over the airwaves. Evan, Justin and John are usually the first to tell us about chaos and catastrophe but there’s a calmness in their presence that soothes the listener and convinces us that it can’t really be that bad after all. 
         Some of the interviews broadcast on Radio 4 have made such an impression on me that – even years later - they stand out in my memory. It was on the Today programme that I heard Lawrence Anthony, the South African conservationist, interviewed about his role in saving a herd of wild elephants. I was walking to work at the time and listened to him, fascinated, on the radio of my Mp3 player. His guilelessness and humility, as well as his deep commitment to animal welfare, moved me deeply and occupied my thoughts for many days after the programme. I bought his book, The Elephant Whisperer, that afternoon.
Another interview broadcast on Radio 4 was life changing for me. One evening I was listening to All in the Mind when I heard the very wise voice of Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading proponents of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. He spoke principally of how just making the effort to be present in your everyday life can be a remedy for so much of what makes us unhappy. Shortly afterwards, a friend mentioned that mindfulness is the foundation of Zen Buddhism. Two nights later I knocked on the door of the local Zen group and now, almost three years on, I’m in the meditation hall every morning at 7.00 for the daily service.
One of the funniest men I’ve ever heard is the American David Sedaris, and I first came across him on his Radio 4 programme (Meet David Sedaris). Reading from his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris introduced us to his tyrannical French teacher and the daily humiliations endured at her hands in his battle to master the basics of the language while attending classes at a school in Paris. The story, as Sedaris told it, was hilarious, sad and sarcastic, a mixture which his deadpan voice manages to balance very well indeed:
Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overhead in refugee camps.
“Sometimes me cry alone at night.”
“That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.”

 I was in the living room doing yoga when I heard the programme and had to stop because I couldn’t hold the poses and contain my laughter without losing my balance.** At the time I was suffering from depression and I recall how strange it felt to hear the sound of my own laughter and to sense muscles around my jaw loosening up in a way they hadn’t done for a long time, possibly years.
There are many other programmes that I greatly enjoy listening to. On Sunday mornings I have Desert Island Discs to tune into. Kirsty Young must have the most pleasing voice of all radio presenters, ever. Jenni Murray (Woman’s Hour) is close behind her; but Jenni is my hero for another reason: she once put Michael O’Leary in his place on her programme for displaying the particularly vulgar brand of sexism for which he is renowned. Jenni didn't let him get away with it and her sharp response felt like a moment of personal triumph for me. I punched the air at the time, which I suppose was second best to punching the offender on the nose.
         I could go on an on about the many Radio 4 programmes that I’m addicted to. Audience figures suggest I’m not alone, that between 8 – 11 million people tune in daily to 96.10 FM. While Today is the most popular programme in terms of audience, it is clear that listeners have their own, often bizarre, preferences. The Shipping Forecast, which announces in sombre and serious tones the weather conditions in the seas surrounding the UK and Ireland is, on the face of it, the most boring 10 minutes on radio. No doubt, it is of great use to ships’ navigators, especially those that do not rely entirely on modern technology. Curiously, however, The Shipping Forecast has a sizeable following on land, maybe even a cult following that was mobilised and vociferous enough to launch a strong protest when rumours circulated some time ago about BBC plans to withdraw the programme. I, for one, am glad that those sombre tones continue to bring me news of gales and hurricane force winds blustering far out in the Atlantic and North Sea. Listening to them, I feel safe, cosy and paradoxically nostalgic for an era I never lived through: 1950s Britain.
My “relationship” with Radio 4 began in early 2007, just after my return from the developing world, Cuba to be precise. I’d spent six years on the island and discovered on my return home that I was overwhelmed by the media. Television and newspapers bombarded me with information, which I’d been deprived of while living on the island in the middle of the Caribbean. I couldn’t adjust to the pace of life back home and initially shut everything out to prevent information overload. Little by little I began listening to the radio for snippets of news and from there my interest expanded into just about every other programme R4 broadcast. The television set grew dusty and eventually I got rid of it. I don’t feel a need for it and I rarely feel that I’m missing out on anything.
More than once I’ve been accused laughingly of “Radio 4 speak.” “What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, who says, ‘chilling consequences’ or “extraordinary development” in real life? Those are the terms you’ve just used. You’ve been listening to too much Radio 4.”
I wasn’t aware that I’d perhaps been over indulging in R4 or that “R4 parlance” had influenced the way I express myself. I like silence too. 96.10 FM isn’t always switched on in my home. Sometimes the deluge of depressing news is frankly … just too depressing and certain Conservative politicians raise my hackles to the point where I shout, or rather snarl at the radio. That’s when I reach for the “Off” button or defect to Radio Ulster in the hope of some music.
Speaking of music, Nanci Griffith sings, “when you can’t find a friend you’ve still got the radio.” I’m lucky in that I have a lot of good friends but it is only the radio that I can unfailingly depend upon to brief me on the latest in world news and cultural developments at 3.00 am, just when I need a voice that helps me escape the incessant chatter in my head. Now that’s the test of a real friend.

*Listen to the Radio – Nanci Griffith 
** I’m a language teacher so perhaps this is why the story resonated with me so much.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Three Miles from McLaughlin's Corner

One evening at the beginning of June, while I was enjoying a cup of tea in the company of some friends, one of them mentioned that he’d discovered an ancient cemetery belonging to a community that had emigrated en masse to the United States almost 250 years ago. Some of the graves, he said, were around three hundred years old and bore family names that have since died out in this area. My ears pricked up immediately, “Where is this place?” I asked, reaching for my notepad and pen.
So, here I am, back again in a cemetery, wandering its solitary paths in search of the oldest headstone. This time it’s Vow Graveyard, the small burial ground that my friend came across in the countryside of north Antrim, about 20 kilometres from Ballymoney. I did some prior research but only scant information is available on the Internet; the best I could come up with indicated the cemetery is “3 miles from McLaughlin’s Corner.” So, I’ve come with Brenda, who knows the back roads of this locality well and found the isolated spot almost effortlessly.
Three miles from McLaughlin’s Corner we see the brown heritage sign pointing to The Vow Graveyard and follow it. The car halts and I step out into the lane leading to the cemetery, I step into a world where birdsong is not blunted by the roar of traffic or even carried off on a breeze. The tranquillity around me amplifies the high-pitched whistles of swifts that flash by, just above tree-top level. In the hiatus before their sweeping return a blackbird lands on the ivy coloured wall and commences to serenade the sun, which has just emerged from clouds drifting over the nearby Movanagher Canal.
Brenda and I pass through the gate which opens on to a small path leading up to the cemetery, or rather graveyard, which is the official name. Cemetery somehow seems too modern, too clinical to describe this place. “Vow Graveyard,” says Brenda, pronouncing the words slowly, “You have to pause for a moment in order to articulate the words correctly. There’s a solemnity about them that demands to be honoured.”
A couple in their late ‘50s or early ‘60s is leaving and we are soon in conversation with them about the plaque beside the gate commemorating the Reformed Presbyterian minister, the Reverend William Martin. According to the plaque, he was ordained on this spot and subsequently led the mass migration of 460 families from here to South Carolina.
The couple – Vivienne and Jim - tells us that there was a church here at one time but nothing remains of it now, not even ruins. I venture that the Rev. Martin must have been a very persuasive man to convince so many people to abandon the only life they had ever known and set out on a voyage across stormy seas that took many weeks to complete. Disembarking in America was really only the beginning of their journey into hostile and alien territory. What hardships had these people of Ulster Scots origin been enduring to make them pack up and leave? How completely did they trust the Rev. Martin when he promised them freedom from poverty and from religious constraints? How would they have reacted had they know that three quarters of a century later, in the 1840s, the native Irish, the very people whose rebellions the Ulster Scots feared, would follow them in their millions fleeing from the horrors of starvation,
These are my thoughts as we chat to Vivienne and Jim, who have come to Vow Graveyard in the hope of finding the burial place of Vivienne’s ancestors. Many of the oldest headstones are covered in moss and are illegible, they tell us, the inscriptions worn away by time; very few have been cleaned and restored. Vivienne is disappointed but is determined to return and continue her search with the aid a scraper or scrubbing brush.
I discover that Vivienne and I have several things in common; we are both teachers, we grew up in the same neighbourhood in Belfast and went to adjacent schools; hers was Protestant and mine Catholic. These days differences in ethnic background are rarely a reason for strangers to improvise an excuse to hasten on their way. Times have changed since the Rev. Martin set sail with his followers.
Half an hour later I leave Brenda engaged in conversation with Vivienne and her husband and make my way up the path toward the second gate leading directly into the cemetery. Vow Graveyard stands on a slope in a small field where about three score headstones are sheltered by aged yew trees, home to a vibrant population of crows, magpies and blackbirds, judging by the chorus that has intensified in honour of the brief shower. A mower has recently passed through the long seeded grass leaving a sweet damp scent in the air. I follow its path from the gate, past the hazel copse through the daisies, nettles, buttercups and clover and around to some of the graves.
I scan the headstones nearest me and choose what I think may be the oldest. It declares Here lieth the body of John Steen who departed this life on the 14th February, 1818 aged 63. John Steen, it seems, remained here when the others embarked on their voyage to America. Why? What doubts did he wrestle with as he watched his community leave? How much more solitary was his life without them? Did he feel threatened when the biggest rebellion of the 18th century, led by the United Irishmen, shook this island in 1798? Or jubilant? Presbyterians, together with Catholics, were among the ranks of the rebels.
In the right-hand corner at the back, a headstone with a skull and crossed bones attracts my attention. Moving closer I see there is a temple also carved into the surface and Brenda informs me that the symbols are Masonic. The inscription reads Robert Hannah of Arlnagrof who departed this life on April the 5th, 1823, aged 32 years. In the adjoining grave are other family members who died between 1886 and 1946. A scattering of the graves are recent, dating up to the 21st century but most are 19th and 20th century. I pass by a whitethorn in full bloom, and crouch beside a few ancient headstones to pick at the moss covering their faded inscriptions, hoping to uncover numbers, a year, a century, hoping to make a connection with an era before nuclear weapons, space travel, melting ice caps and a time when wolves paced these lands. After a few minutes I conclude that I too will have to return with a scrubbing brush in order to get a sharper glimpse of history.
And then Brenda and I are no longer alone in the graveyard. An elderly couple has arrived in search of their ancestors’ grave. Mr and Mrs Purdon are from nearby Cullycapple; I remark that the name of their hometown sounds very poetic. The woman laughs,
“That’s nothing, What about Aghadowey, Culnady, Cullybackey, Maddykeel, or Aughnacleagh”?
Such chunky earthy words require a slick choreography between the tongue and jaw to get the phonetics right. But these are invented words, the meaningless Anglicised version of the original Gaelic. I wonder aloud how the Gaelic name sounds and what it might tell us about the place. Irish place names are typically topographical, revealing something about the location.* The couple shrug their shoulders.
The Purdons have thick country accents, north Antrim accents. They tell us they are frequently mistaken for Scots by other (northern) Irish people, even when they go shopping in nearby Ballymena.
Scotland is forty miles away - across the sea - but Ballymena is just down the road. So how can they make that mistake?”
I hear the voice of the Purdons’ ancestors when they speak, the tens of thousands of Ulster Scots who were “planted” here in the 17th century, whose descendants retain their distinct cultural identity three centuries later.
We are still talking to the Purdons when a tall white-haired woman pushes the gate open and ascends the slope toward us. Mrs Fidgeon, who lives nearby, has come to visit her husband’s grave and is surprised to see so many (4) people in the cemetery.
“Have you all come together?” she asks.
We explain that we’ve only just met and that the Purdons are here in search of their ancestors’ graves while Brenda and I have come because we are curious.
“Elderly folk often visit here hoping to learn about where they’ve come from because at this time in their lives, more than ever before, they’re aware that they don’t know where they’re going to next. But yours, she says glancing at me, is a different kind of curiosity.”
Leaving her remark hanging in the air, Mrs Fidgeon turns quietly to face her husband’s grave, the place, I imagine, she knows she’ll be going to one day. There’s a presence this woman emanates; she’s wise, dignified and confident, a sort of guardian of this place, I suggest to myself. As if reading my thoughts, Brenda whispers,
“Maybe it’s the living that you learn about here in Vow Graveyard. Not the dead.”

For example: Aghadoewy - Achadh-Dubhthaigh in Irish means Duffy’s field.
     Culnady – Cúil Chnáidi – corner of the place of burrs
    Cullycapple – Cuil-a-Cappal – corner of the horses

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Never Land

At the age of seven I saw my antithesis. It was Wendy from Peter Pan.
This was one of my first ever trips to the cinema, or “the pictures”, as we say in Belfast. I was giddy with anticipation as the lights dimmed in the Curzon cinema and hush descended upon the audience that night. A few excited giggles persisted but these quickly faded into the expectant blackness. As the credits rolled, I wolfed down my Milky Way, wiped my hands on the velour seat cover, and sat upright, in readiness. My story books had enthralled me with the tale of Wendy and Peter, and their adventures in Never Land, and now I was about to enter into that magical world in technicolour. 
Soft music, schmaltzy vocals and a galaxy of twinkling stars filled the screen, ushering me into the home of the delightful Darling family, where everyone, even the Newfoundland dog Nana, radiated contentment. Peter Pan was more handsome that I had imagined and Wendy, more beautiful. Soon I was flying high with them. I was Wendy. I was snug and secure in the love of George and Mary, the devoted parents. 
As the film progressed and the whirl of happiness moved inexorably toward its end, I found myself focusing ever more sharply on Mr. and Mrs. Darling, especially the gentle Mrs. Darling. Each time she lavished affection on her offspring I became increasingly uneasy, sinking into dark brooding, impatient for the film to take me back to Never Land. A knot, hard and tight, ached in the centre of my chest as I watched the Darling children bloom like sunflowers in the light of their parents’ love. It was the slow realisation that the dreamy pastel-coloured lives those happy children lead had nothing in common with my own existence. The contrast between them and me was undeniable and it was staring right at me. From the immensity of that screen Peter Pan reflected back to me all the misery of my childhood as I sat in the darkness.
How else can I explain the grief that seized me that evening as I walked down the steps of the Curzon and out into the reality of my own life? I was grieving for what never had been and what never would be. I wanted to rush back inside, to find the kind and loving Mrs Darling, to hide in the bosom of that family and never emerge, but it was futile. There was nothing to go back to.  The cinema was empty. It was fantasy. Fairy tale worlds were only for the Darlings and could never provide me with the lasting refuge I needed.
At that moment, reinforcing the bleakness of my insight, K’s* iron grip tightened around my hand, jerking me forward with her, as she strode into the night.  
Thereafter my recollections of cinema are sparse. I went to see other Disney films while I was still a child. Certainly, these films were enjoyable, but none made the lasting impression that Peter Pan did. From that night onward sadness has overshadowed the childish excitement of going to the cinema, and it is the very same shadow that accompanied me down the steps of the Curzon and back into a desolate childhood so many years ago.
The Curzon is no longer open. It is a hollow ravaged building that may soon be demolished or converted into apartments or a shopping precinct.** For the moment though, those steps are still intact. Each time I pass there is a yearning to go back, to find the seven year old who descended them unwillingly and despondently. My heart aches for her, for the years of relentless brutality she endured.
What has survived those years and flourished is a lifelong fascination with cinema, indulging it is my way of tending to the sorrow.  Saturday nights at the local art house cinema, the QFT, are invariably prefaced by a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of pecan pie in a nearby café. It’s a ritual. I eat at leisure and study the reviews. When I walk into the foyer and join the ticket queue, the adrenaline surges, just as it always has done. Excitement bubbles up as I shuffle forward. There’s a hint of anxiety too if the pace is slow, it’s the fear that I might miss the vital first few minutes of the film, and, if I’m honest, the fear of even missing the trailers.
Once inside, I choose a seat in the front row, where there is nobody between me and the screen. I sometimes have to turn my head from left to right, and right to left, to follow the action. Up this close, there is no duality, just me lost in a dazzling whirl of images and emotions. In here I don’t notice the darkness any longer. It’s my refuge, the one I stopped believing in when I was seven. I’ve found it again. This is where I can forget the pain of never having been Wendy or never having had a gentle Mary Darling for a mother, not even for five minutes. And when I walk down the steps into the night at the end of a film I’m grateful for the magic of cinema. I’m grateful to be alive.
 ML 1030

*K – my stepmother.
** The Curzon has since been demolished and there is no trace of it at all on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Vistas of solemn beauty*

Saturday morning at 6am finds me awake, dressed and enthusiastically
scaling the fence of my favourite place in Belfast: City Cemetery. I’ve been thinking about this expedition all week, delighting in the thought that if I’m early enough I will have the cemetery all for myself. Who else could be wandering its ancient paths just after sunrise on a weekend?
I live only one minute away from the gates of the cemetery, which I can see clearly from my bedroom window. The cemetery is the main reason I was attracted to this location but I didn’t tell anyone that either back then, when I was buying the house, or now. I fell in love with its stillness, its Celtic crosses, cracked tombstones, gnarled holly bushes, cypress trees, moss covered pathways and earthy aromas soon after moving back to Belfast in the early 1990s, at a time when “the troubles” were still blighting people’s lives. Many of those who died in the violence have been buried here, resting in a silence that remains long after the sound of rioting, gunfire and explosions have faded.
Peace reigns here now and peace has always reigned here, even when desperate young men from our community tread these paths seeking refuge from their own troubles in a high tree and a taut rope. The living have come here in search of death and multitudes of dead have been borne through these gates in the company of the bereaved who no longer ask themselves what they seek. I breathe in deeply and sense nothing of their pain. In the early morning heat yesterday’s newly mown grass, drenched in dew, flavours the rising chorus of birdsong. I breathe more deeply and regret that I’m unable to identify which birds are making which notes. They could be blue tits, thrush, wren, chaffinch, sparrow, robins, starling or blackbird. But just then one voice sings more intensely and powerfully than the others and I turn to see a single blackbird resting on the tip of a Celtic cross, silhouetted against the horizon and giving a performance that releases the last of the weariness from my soul.
There are woodpigeons, swifts and rooks, and jackdaws here too, as well as magpies. In winter the population shifts when the summer visitors return south and others, fieldfare and redwing, as well as others I’m not familiar with, take their place. My knowledge of flora and fauna is scarce and my senses do not automatically tune in to the rich tapestry of sights, sounds, smells. I’m an urban dweller, my connection with the natural world is tenuous, requiring effort to establish and maintain fluidity. This morning, however, my thoughts intrude less and I wonder whether their chatter has been silenced by the blackbird’s solo performance or by the quality of the amber-ochre light touching the intricately carved stone of an angel standing tall over an ivy covered tomb.
In the space that has been freed from internal chattering I sense a yearning, nostalgia for something I’ve never had. Maybe I yearn for a time when humanity had an unbroken connection with the natural world. Sadly, many are not even aware that they have lost that connection and consequently their appreciation of nature has failed to develop. Young people, sometimes hundreds of young people, invade this cemetery at night to hold alcohol and drug-fuelled gatherings of which they have no recollection. Others, even younger, await the warm sunny days of spring and summer so they can create a bonfire from the tallest cypress trees, to carbonise, to blacken what has taken decades to give full expression to its beauty.
A squirrel sits on a path that corners a whitethorn in full bloom, munching unhurriedly on a nut or an acorn it holds deftly in its paws. Rabbits live here too, as do foxes. One December evening a couple of years ago, just after the first snowfall of the season, I wandered the paths of the cemetery taking a childish delight in being the first to tread the blanket of whiteness. The clarity of light reflected back up from the snow to the moon, which hung low in a starry sky, illuminated the graves, trees and bushes, almost as if it were midday. I recall the satisfying crunch that accompanied each step that night, how a startled bird took flight scattering a sudden shower of snow that fell with a sigh, and in the distance, the constant hum of Saturday night traffic. Then I glanced across to my left where two points of light had caught my attention. A fox paused in mid pace stared at me. I stopped. Its eyes perfectly reflected a duo of moons, ears perched and tilted forward, head and body softly shadowlike against the snow, against the tombstone and holly bush.
This morning, near that same holly bush I hear a commotion. Something is happening in the grass. I look closer now and see three birds, a magpie grasping a baby blackbird in its beak and hauling it along clumsily but determinedly. A few inches away a blackbird, the mother presumably, is flapping her wings and squawking in alarm. I can’t remain indifferent and step forward. Mama flies off; the kidnapper drops his/her victim, struts off a few paces and turns slowly to observe me. The nestling looks up, doe-eyed and silent. Its back is pink and bare of feathers, which now lie scattered through the grass. From a distance the aggressor regards the scene. “Go away” I hiss, and it struts off another few steps, a token show of submission. But it’s hopeless. Mama has gone and when I leave, the kidnapper will return to finish the job.
Wild flowers, buttercup, bluebell, daisy, clover and a host of others I cannot identify are in bloom. Bright sunshine heightens their colours against the carpet of grass. Gazing up I see that no two trees are identical in their tonality of green. Oak, sycamore, beech, cypress, chestnut, ash, elm and birch defy attempts to capture in my notebook the choreography between light and leaf. A breeze whispers through the tree and the colours move subtly with it.  
While nature invites engagement, the graves invite sombre introspection. To my right lies Annie Carson who died in 1975, at the age of 103. Nearby lies Maria Young whose life ended after only 12 days, in 1895. Whitethorn and holly lean toward a gravestone bearing words that catch my eye “Every time you pass please say a prayer for Daddy.” I wonder about the immensity of pain behind this simple line. My own mother is buried less than a mile from here, in Milltown, in the Catholic Cemetery. Segregation in life was all she knew, and it followed her to her grave. Two years after her death “the troubles” started. Now we Catholics have muscled our way into jobs, education, houses and in among the ranks of the protestant dead in City Cemetery. My aunts are buried here, on the treeless upward slopes at the back, where the graves of their co-religionists lie in row upon row of Seamuses, Ciarans, Roisins, Maries, Declans, and Patricks,
By 7.50am the first of the dog walkers appears. Three Alsatians lope across open ground, pausing to sniff frenziedly at the barks of trees; when they spin round eyeing me suspiciously I tense but their owner steps in with a leash. “They’re not good with people,” he says apologetically as he reaches for the dogs. But it’s time for me to go anyway. I’m no longer alone here. The hum of traffic has deepened, an easyjet flight roars by overhead and the subtle interplay between silence and birdsong has vanished. I’ll be back.

*Vistas of solemn beauty where I’d wander in happy in happy silence (John Keats, Sleep and Poetry)