On Kindness

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Above all try to be kind.

I have no doubt kindness is the greatest virtue.  You can find a million reasons in any one day to dislike people, to feel resentment or even loathing. But to be kind is to protect yourself from the worst parts of your own nature.  You may fear that to face people with an open heart leaves you vulnerable, open to abuse.  I rather doubt it.  The way of the hard face is much harder.  Be kind to others, especially the more difficult people you encounter, and that kindness will come back to you.

– Fergal Keane
journalist, writer, broadcaster

 

From 99 words collected by Liz Gray, published by Darton, Longman & Todd
www.99words.co.uk

Zephyr has arrived

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FernAnd the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom – Anais Nin

May has slipped in.  A fructifying west wind has arrived carrying with it the promise of summer. The world is greener, illuminated by each blade of grass and leaf. The sheer beauty of the Irish countryside is overwhelming – refreshing tired eyes and like a soothing balm restores the soul.

The hedges that flank the countryside byways are overflowing with the white coronets of cow parsley, its ancient scent suffusing the air.  The birds sing their rapturous song, an invitation to explore Nature’s bounty. Each living thing knows exactly what to do: grow, and thrive.

The orange, daisy like flowers of self seeded Calendula pepper the garden, their orange heads bursting with vitality; the Sweet peas are ready and set to scramble towards heaven upon their canes, and the flowerbeds are alive with Ladybirds, baby spiders and thousands of biting ants.

Tightly coiled, Fiddlehead ferns appear on every lane preparing to unfurl into a new frond, their pre-historic forms ready to greet a new world. The first blooms of Hawthorn fill the air with their heady scent and bring with it the veritable sign that summer is finally here.

Each trip outdoors, with the help of the green haze of May, is an opportunity to transcend oneself and observe all that Gaia has to offer. A collection of unforgettable May moments, each filed in my memory bank – ready to be called upon in the future.

My hope is that these gathered seeds will remind me of my favourite month, and how blessed I am to witness, for forty times, the bounty of magical May.

 

(c) Maria.E.FitzGerald
Photo: Greendragonflygirl/Flickr


Recipe for Friendship

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Baking just isn’t my thing.  Baking I try, really I do, but my successes are fewer than the hairs on a gooseberry. Although it is in my blood it certainly isn’t in my genes, I haven’t inherited that particular gene: the one my mother, two grandmothers, great-aunt and sister have. My mother is a dab hand at making almost anything. Her repertoire is impressive: scones, apple tart, rhubarb crumble, chocolate cake, brown bread, Irish soda bread (I could go on). Let me tell you what she creates does not resemble the countless bland varieties found in the food forecourts throughout the country. No, my mother is a pro – an unadulterated Irish mother who has no need for recipe books or the latest app – everything she needs is stored neatly like multi-coloured spreadsheet tabs in her brain ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice.

It is often said that genes can skip a generation. I believe this to be true for it has happened to me. During my embryonic stage, the baking gene took one look at my DNA structure, clearly found me to be an insufferable host, and thus went running and screaming up my DNA strand begging the Almighty to find a more suitable home. I did, however, inherit the gene for optimism: of the eternal kind! Each time I raid the baking cupboard I hope that I will hit the baking jackpot. But hitting the jackpot is a tricky business. Very. So, I try again, and in doing so I have developed the art of turning a blind eye to my baking failures.

I review my botched-up attempts and retrace my steps. Like any good detective I try and figure out where it all went askew. I blame the ingredients – the flour wasn’t fresh, maybe the eggs were too cold or the sour-milk wasn’t sour enough. Then some lucky, or rather unlucky person – usually my sister (who, by the way should seriously consider entering The Great Irish Bake-Off) will witness my rant and my musings but never really eat what I’ve just baked!   She’s a great sister and will patiently go through the recipe with me – she’s my Watson, and together we piece the jagged baking jigsaw puzzle. Deduce is what we do best.

Sis: Did you weigh the flour exactly as it states in the recipe?
Me: Yes, of course – 8oz exactly.
Sis: Did you use self-raising or plain flour?
Me: Self-raising 
Sis: Did you add a pinch of baking powder?
Me: No, sure why would I? It’s self-raising isn’t it?
Sis: Yes, but it’s always good to add a pinch, helps the bake rise more.
Me: Oh, no one ever told me that.
Sis: Ok, so did you add all the other ingredients correctly?
Me: Yeah, even added a few extra.
Sis: Extra, what do you mean by extra?
Me: I thought some ground almonds would add a bit of a crunch and some orange juice, but I only used a smidgen.

That’s when she usually raises an eyebrow and her mouth sort of goes lopsided with a smirk. 

Sis: Why did you think orange juice would work in this recipe?
Me: Dunno, just like the idea of almonds and orange essence together.
Sis: Orange essence, is that what you’re calling it?
Me: Well it is! Isn’t it?
Sis: No, not really. It’s orange juice, but I know what you mean!
Me: I put a few bits of grated orange peel in as well…just for effect.

At this point, she can hardly contain her amusement at my inventiveness and blatant disregard for following instructions.

Sis: OK, did you put in the oven at 180 degrees for 30 mins?
Me: Well, I used the fan oven so had to drop the temperature to 160 degrees, but I did leave them in for 30 minutes.
Sis: Bravo!
Me: Ha bloody ha!

Her line of questioning serves its purpose.  Perhaps IF I followed the recipe things would pan out a lot better. But sticking to recipes is not who I am – it is not in me. So onwards and upwards I must go – until I have my very own Eureka moment…but in the meantime I think Watson will have her hands full with unsolved cases!

Here’s one recipe I have no problem following…get baking your way!

Recipe for Friendship
Start with smiles and conversation
Next stir in appreciation
Slowly add, in equal parts fun and quiet heart-to-hearts
Mix in honesty and trust
A pinch of patience is a must
Don’t make a mess, but if you should, apologies are very good
Serve it warm and loving care
And lastly, don’t forget to share.
There’s nothing like one good friend and two good cookies.

 

Recipe for Friendship poem (c) Becky Kelly, Spoonful of Stars
Image courtesy of Doire Greenspan: At Home       

A Little History of The World

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In 1935, Ernst Gombrich was invited to attempt a history of the world for younger readers.  He was 26 years old had a doctorate in art history and no prospect of a job. He completed the task Historyin six weeks.

This is a fascinating book. In 40 concise chapters, Gombrich tells the story of man, the story of us, from the Stone Age to the Atomic Bomb.  However, instead of providing the reader with a deluge of dates and facts, Gombrich leaves out the boring bits and recounts our history in an amiable way as if he is in the room with you – telling a story.

This story starts with ‘Once upon a time’ and as Gombrich weaves expertly in and out of real-life events we learn of humanity’s achievements and are reminded of our failings. We cannot see where the story ends, but we do hope there is a happy ending.

Ernst Gombrich’s wonderful book demonstrates that history does not need to be boring or stuffy; history books do not need to be covered with a thick layer of centuries old dust before they appear interesting. It is the tales contained within the covers that are important – it’s all about the stories!

 

Among E. H. GOMBRICH’s many writings are the international bestsellers The Story of Art and Art and Illusion. He was director of the Warburg Institute of the University of London from 1959 to 1976. For further information please click here

Macavity, The Mystery Cat Strikes!

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Poems by their very nature are conduits to our souls. They have a way of getting straight to the point, there is no waste of time or effort and usually by the end of the first line – the hook goes in. Today, I was re-acquainted with such a poem. One I have not given any thought to since secondary school but on hearing its first verse I was transported back to the 1980s; a time when everyday was a bad hair day, ski-pants were de rigueur and I suffered Serious Crush Syndrome. It was a time when my classmates and I sniggered from the back of the class as a new poem was dished out. There was one week though when that sort of changed it was the week T.S. Eliot’s, Macavity: The Mystery Cat came to town.

We, the super cool brigade, thought we had finished with nursery rhymes, but then Macavity turned up and reminded us that we’re never too old for a rhyme! What Macavity did for my imagination a chemistry lesson did for a science student. The curious rhymes and energetic rhythms suffused the air with excitement and fun; when Macavity visited our classroom boredom vanished and teenage self-consciousness disappeared when asked to read aloud. The escapades of The Mystery Cat had weaved their spell and by the end of the day more than one of us recited it on the way home. This is poetry at its best: when a poet has done his job well: when a class of 30 teenage girls do not even realise they are studying – smooth!  That week, we shared in an adventure, our imaginations ran wild and we become one under T.S. Eliot’s spell; his craft with words still evoke fun and enjoyment all these years later. Today.

A good dollop of school-day nostalgia is priceless and like the poem good for the soul.  To revisit the days of old and to re-discover that there was once passion, fun and adventure – there still is and it’s only a poem away.

MACAVITY: THE MYSTERY CAT
T.S. Eliot

Macavity’s a mystery cat
He’s called the Hidden Paw
For he’s a master criminal who can defy the law
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard
The Flying Squad’s despair
For when they reach the scene of crime Macavity’s not there
Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity

He’s broken every human law
He breaks the law of gravity
His powers of levitation
Would make a fakir stare
And when you reach the scene of crime, Macavity’s not there

You may seek him in the basement
You may look up in the air
But I tell you once and once again
Macavity’s not there

Macavity’s a ginger cat
He’s very tall and thin
You would know him if you saw him for his eyes are sunken in
His brow is deeply lined in thought
His head is highly domed
His coat is dusty from neglect
His whiskers are uncombed

He sways his head from side to side
With movements like a snake
And when you think he’s half asleep
He’s always wide awake

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity
He’s a fiend in feline shape
A monster of depravity
You may meet him in a by-street
You may see him in the square
But when a crime’s discovered then Macavity’s not there

He’s outwardly respectable
I know he cheats at cards
And his footprints are not found in any files
Of Scotland Yard’s

And when the larder’s looted
Or the jewel cases rifled
Or when the milk is missing
Or another Peke’s been stifled
Or the greenhouse glass is broken and the trellis past repair
There’s the wonder of the thing, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity
There never was a cat of such deceitfulness and suavity
He always has an alibi and one or two to spare
Whatever time the deed took place, Macavity wasn’t there!

And they say that all the cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie)
(I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the cat who all the time
Just controls the operations, the Napoleon of crime!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity
He’s a fiend in feline shape
A monster of depravity
You may meet him in a by-street
You may see him in the square
But when a crime’s discovered then Macavity,Macavity,Macavity
When a crime’s discovered then Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s not there!
We have to find old Deuteronomy

What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended

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BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Sara Finnerty:

420-Jacquelyn-Mitchard-splits-limbo-looking-back.imgcache.rev1308082218874In the years after I got my MFA I was a miserable mess. I felt like a failure as a writer and a human being. I still feel that way sometimes, but now I try and fail and try again and I know that does not mean I am a failure, it only means I am a person like everyone else. If I could, here are some things I would tell my self six years ago when I was finishing graduate school.

1)   Don’t even try to get published. There are some people in your class who will stop writing altogether. There are some who will only tangentially write. You will never stop writing, but don’t try to publish right now because your writing is still borderline terrible. Yes, you have an MFA but an MFA does not give you the heart, the will, the…

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KITCHEN SINK REALISM

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I am standing at my kitchen sink, the stainless steel bowl laden with dirty crockery.  The Weetabix is caked onto the white bowls. There’s not much hot water so I don’t hold out much hope for removing the cemented butter from the knives. I have run out of wishing-up liquid, there’s only one place these kitchen accoutrements can go and that’s into the dishwasher. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with using the dishwasher in fact, I think I’d lose my mind if I ever lost it! I’m ever so thankful that I’m not a scullery maid of 1677 whose duties included: washing and scouring all the plates’ dishes that are used in the kitchen…also the kettles, pots, pans and chamber pots’ – If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsely (Faber & Faber), the poor misfortunate and here I am complaining about a bit of Weetabix.  But it’s not so much the caked cereal and two tea bags sitting in the plug hole that are driving me mad. It’s the realisation of something bigger – an epiphany or as I like to call it Kitchen Sink Realism. 
I’m BUSY. I’m so BUSY. I’m finding it difficult to catch my breath and the fun and enjoyment that life is full of is beginning to slip through my fingers. On the face of it a tiny harmless four lettered word, but one that has insidiously weaved its way into my vocabulary and my many conversations of late. It’s a harmless word BUT then it’s not so much the actual word that annoys me it’s more the being and staying busy that does.
Once upon a time, our culture was one of achievement. However, that’s long since gone and now today’s modus operandi is OVER achievement. We have gone from a giving it 100% society to anything less than 150% and you are of no use to that same society. The general consensus is that busy people get things done; they’re the movers and the shakers, the ones you need to marry, employ, be friends with and just generally associate with.  Each of us has our own unique proliferating set of demands, for me it’s balancing my work life with my home life whilst trying to squeeze in my writing: an elusive balance.  Add to that my obsession with being the best mother I can to my little girl, and who is growing up at such a ferocious rate that I feel a little like a pioneer heading into an unknown prairie. Then there’s my efforts to be a good wife and home-maker, a women gets tired you know! Others out there are striving to be the best wife, husband, father, daughter, sister, brother, auntie, uncle, employee, dog or cat owner. I’m exhausted. We are all exhausted.  This excessive need to be the busiest and the best is chipping away at our contentment just as a sculptor chisels away at a piece of marble; the difference is that the sculptor knows eventually the marble will run out and quits when he’s ahead. Apparently there is a reward for all this speeding through life at such a pace; but, as yet, the discovery and attainment of such remains a mystery. What what happens if you become the best? Sure the glory and actual achievement is great in the beginning, but feeding the insatiable beast of OVER achievement is a relentless game and soon you get tired and start to lose your footing; a time may come when you don’t even know what’s missing any more and you fall. Down.
Twenty years ago my mother was busy. She did not have a dishwasher.  Her type of busy didn’t define her or didn’t overwhelm her, she was unperturbed by her list of duties.  She didn’t seem to be caught up in the spider web of intensive mothering. Yet, she was always present my siblings and I never went without anything – love, attention, fun, nurture, food, clothing it was always there for the taking. My mother and my father for that matter seemed to take it all in their stride.   We got plenty of quality time, plenty of one-to-ones but we were also left to our own devices on more than one occasion and never more than we could individually handle. The result of which meant we all grew up robust and capable adults, I think! I cannot recall hearing my mother say to another mother how busy she was or that there were not enough hours in the day. Of course, I am sure there was days when she was tired and times when all she wanted to do was put her feet up and read; sometimes she did that sometimes she didn’t. She never went crazy trying to be perfect or the best– she just was, still is. Even though there were times when the sink overflowed with milk stained glasses and bowls were stacked four high stuck with dried-in, break a finger nail muesli there was always a clean bowl in the cupboard. Then when I was about fifteen we got a dishwasher. A few days after it arrived my mother declared that she did not understand what all the fuss was about. She had a great view from the kitchen sink of my sisters, my brother and I playing in the garden, while we had a great view of her standing there watching.
I’m certainly not so naïve to think that my fairy godmother will arrive and erase my to-do list.  Practically speaking things do need to get done, and I need to work, clean the house and the walk the dogs. However, from now on I think I will try a new type of busy, a more relaxed version, a looser let it all hang out list! This is going to take a little bit of practise and I’m sure there will be times when I will get it all wrong messing up along the way, but I will try. I will close some of those multi-coloured tabs in my mind and relax. The time has come for me to step back and to stare; to fill the sink up with bubbles, to miss some of the appointments, to ponder, to just be and to make sure I have a little bit of marble left.
W. H. Davies
Leisure
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Life’s Loveliest Things

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Robin

I have a new friend well I think that’s what he wants to be. He’s been following me around for a few weeks now each time I look up he is only feet away.  He watches me from his favourite perch, the roof ridge of my shed; he has quite a view from there, I can only imagine how things look from his perspective and what he makes of me as I to and fro in my garden. He regards me with a sort of nonchalance, yet at times his curiosity breaks free and he nearly speaks to me. I wish I knew what he was singing. I wish I could sing back. But no matter what he continues to sing his age-old verses from his tiny throat singing the joys of spring not only to himself but to any potential mates who may be flying by filling the air with his melodic lyrics; his song keeping me company just like a loyal friend. His name is Robin. He is a soloist and a member of the Dawn Chorus.  There are other members of the orchestra about but it’s only him who seems to have an interest in me! The black redstart, blackbird, wren, cuckoo, great tit, chiffchaff, chaffinch, house sparrow and starling are too busy, too caught up with their pre-ordained tasks to take notice of little old me! But what a cast!  All stars!

It’s at this time of the year that the air vibrates with the melodic, full throated songs of these tiny feathered creatures.  It’s as if a turbulent contest is going on and everything in Nature especially the birds reflect these activities. Not so long ago I was intrigued to discover that Mother Nature has devised a very clever song schedule to ensure each bird’s song is not drowned out by another – in essence each bird has its own time slot and time to shine.  This way only males of the same species compete to out-sing their rivals leaving the female of the species choose the best suitor. How do they do this? Well it’s all very elementary really – the bird that sings the longest and the loudest wins! How wonderful, how ingenious and how lucky we are that such a rapturous symphony surrounds us. We just need to listen and to hear.

But the robin it seems is not the first to sing that accolade goes to the black redstart who usually starts proceedings one and a half hours before sunrise.  Then ten minutes later my little friend Robin starts his gurgling throwing himself into his slot for ten full minutes!  He must move over and make room for the blackbird who gets only five minutes of glory. Hot on the blackbird’s heels is the wren, the tiny little fella steps up to the mark his song making up for what he lacks in size. All this starts at 5am and the sequence in which the birds sing is genetically pre-programmed and is the same everywhere.  The crucial factor is the exact time at which the sun rises, which varies by location and calendar day.  So the further east you live you must subtract a few minutes, whilst those of us living further west must add a few minutes.  It appears that Mother Nature is quite an accomplished mathematician!

About one hour before sunrise the cuckoo begins his wistful coo-coo followed ten minutes later by the great tit whose neon yellow breast blows his breath from deep within.  I’ve often wondered how such tiny birds can produce an amazing range of notes in ever increasing and decreasing volumes.  I’ve since discovered that it is their voice box (syrnix) that allows the bird to draw air over it and it is this process that produces a noise or as I prefer to say a song. Muscles and membranes are contained within the voice box and it is these that are altered to change the note and volume of sound the bird produces.  Some birds have a more highly developed voice box which allows them to produce the superb and sometimes vociferous song that we hear.

It’s soon the turn of the chiffchaff who gets ten minutes to announce his arrival followed by the chaffinch whose amber coloured face and perky beak gives it all he’s got!  As the sun raises her big bright self it is the house sparrow who chimes in ten minutes before the first rays of daylight appear.  Did you know that the house sparrow loves being close to humans?   All that remains is for the starling to wrap up this musical treat with his tune ten minutes after sunrise. AMAZING.

Least we forget Mother Nature has endowed each of us too with our own unique and wonderful song.  Don’t forget to sing yours as often as you can. And don’t pass by the loveliest things in life without noticing them.

Photograph of my little friend Robin above.

 

© Maria E.FitzGerald

Are you a Peaceful Warrior?

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yoga matsNot so long ago, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a weekend long workshop devoted to yoga. My first. The retreat was based around The Peaceful Warrior also known as Virabhadrasana. My dedicated teacher Sara explained to the group that these particular set of poses can teach: how to act with wisdom, courage, and cultivate a resolute focus. Oh, I thought, I’ll have some of that please!  I was excited about the weekend ahead, as some of my favourite standing yoga asanas or postures include the different variations of the Warrior Pose; I’m also a huge fan of twisting poses especially Half Lord of the Fishes (but that’s another story!).  Before we launched into the series of challenges ahead, Sara spoke to us about the origins of these beautiful postures, setting the scene wonderfully for a room full of very eager warriors!

We got ourselves ready and I must say how good my new purple yoga mat looked amongst the rainbow coloured assortment that surrounded it.  Purple, how lovely. A quick surreptitious glance around the room, confirmed that I was in the company of some very experienced yoginis, I had my work cut out for me! I did, however, feel very proud to part of a group of women, who were not only willing to challenge their bodies BUT also their minds, ideas, and egos.  Being, what I would consider a complete-beginner, I found myself staring at a 60 something year old woman as she threw herself into her first pose with such gusto, and then when I spotted a fresh faced 20 something year old put a carton of coconut water beside her mat, I knew I was only a baby in the world of yoga, so much to learn, so much to try and where to begin?  At least I was trying, right? I even had a DVD at home – the latest ten-minute solution to my daily yoga needs – but by golly the DVD didn’t have anything like the poses Sara was putting us through.

After only four asanas, I was sweating profusely willing my yoga-buddy next to me to pass the coconut water! Telepathy it seemed would be for another day. I reassured myself that I wasn’t just there to stretch, bend, flex and contort my body; I was also there to let go and give my ego permission to go sit in the corner for a bit and let me just be.  So I continued to stretch, bend and sweat! And then some. Sara explained and demonstrated the position we should find ourselves in and then walked around the room making minor adjustments to us females who needed it; no DVD could ever, not in a million years, be equal to having a real guru show us how it was done. Sara, not only imparted her knowledge to us, but her presence was like a light guiding us along the path to spiritual freedom and confidence.  She was also very kind, opened the window several times and offered us fresh water straight from the tap in her kitchen! Yes, please!  Being part of such a mixed group made no difference at all and that’s exactly what I love about yoga, it is completely available to anybody who is willing to accept it, regardless of age, ability or creed.  In actual fact, I think it is the daily practice of yoga that keeps us truly young not just physically but especially young at heart; my favourite type of young – as far as I’m concerned much more important than fighting the yearly appearance of crow’s feet, or stray sliver-grey hairs.

That day in February, the room was full of Peaceful Warriors each of us willing to invite wisdom into our daily lives.  I’m aware of and often talk with other women about just how hectic modern life is; inevitably leading to unbalance -physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.   But at least I am, we are, trying to re-address these aspects of our lives and that can only be a good thing.  Otherwise, not only will continue to hold unnecessary tension in our bodies but our actions too. We will never find our centre but remain off-centre. I know which I aspire to. 

If I was to sum up the overall effects my retreat afforded me it would this: Comfort. Being part of this class re-assured me no end; I was amid a group of Peaceful Warriors on our journey to enlightenment. A journey we are all on – destination unknown. A friend of mine (not a yoga practitioner) asked me, “Why is there a Warrior Pose in yoga? Isn’t yoga the practice of nonviolence?”  And yes, I can understand her confusion somewhat, but I explained that the Warrior Poses can teach us about bringing wisdom into our every day actions.  The idea being that the more it is practiced the chances are quite high that the heart of a peaceful warrior will emerge and reveal itself.

Our world needs powerful women both in spirit and in mind.  We need young, vibrant women who will take inspiration from older women; we need mothers who will nurture and rear children who will become the citizens of a future world where each person will be a Peaceful Warrior. We need older ladies and grandmothers who will impart their wisdom and help teach us that in the end we must all strive to become the change we wish to see in the world.  And that it doesn’t matter how old you are, if the mind is willing the body will follow. And stretch. And bend. And sweat.

Nameste.

Kate Colquhoun: Did She Kill Him?

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Kate Colquhoun is the author of a number of books including, ‘Mr Briggs Hat’, ‘A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary life of Joseph Paxton’ and most recently Did She Kill Him? I caught up with Kate to talk about her latest book and discover what inspired her to tell the captivating story of the Victorian woman, Florence Maybrick, who in 1889 stood trial for the alleged arsenic poisoning of her much older husband.Image

On a recent visit to the resplendent Lismore Castle, Kate gave a talk on her remarkable biography of Joseph Paxton, the Victorian horticulturist and designer of Crystal Palace, a fitting setting then to talk with her about her latest Victorian story Did She Kill Him? My first question was about why the Victorian era intrigued and compelled her to write the stories of historical figures?  Kate explained, “It’s partly that the 19th Century is so recognisable to us through its wealth of novels. Partly that we are similarly living through an age in revolution – not industrial but digital. Partly that they recorded their lives so completely in diaries, letters, newspapers – they were terribly self conscious. There are so many ways to punch a hole in time and peer at those particular periods of the past”.

Writing historical stories requires a great deal of skill and research. I ask Kate how she approaches this side of her writing?  “I only take on stories that have a wealth of primary source material available to me; sometimes in private archives, sometimes in the National Archives. Then,  it’s just about diligence and being prepared to turn the same stone over several times just to be sure that what’s under it is really there”.

Kate ColquhounThe Maybrick case it seems had the makings of a modern day fatal attraction; I wonder what prompted Kate to write about Florence’s story: “Every book starts with a small shock: did that really happen? If the story doesn’t have that to start with it’s ‘just another story’. The hook has to go in, and to work its way deeper every time you approach the story. Also I wanted to write about a woman so my antennae were out for that. Finally, the story’s themes added up to more than the sum of their parts – so the lonely transatlantic marriage, adultery, arsenic, the women’s movement and the New Woman of the 1880s and 90s, the moral hypocrisy of the age, the burgeoning of Liverpool as an industrial city, Port of Empire – the Henry James-ian nature of it all. The story punches a hole in time and lets us, momentarily, hold hands with the past in an extraordinarily intimate way” she says.

It is easy to think that it is the 21st Century that has created the insatiable thirst for sensationalism in the media; however, the Maybrick case was something of a Victorian sensation that attracted considerable newspaper coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Why does Kate think this trial captured the imagination of two nations? “Well, England loved and was educated in sensation and the ‘new journalism’ of the 1860s on fuelled moral outrage, fear and anxiety through its coverage of crime because it sold papers. More than that, progress was so speedy – much like our own age – that perceived certainties were crumbling, people were anxious. In such times, we focus particularly on crimes that seem to suggest that the price to be paid for all this new wealth etc is the possibility of one’s ordinary day descending into a kind of existentialist hell. Are we safe? Can our law enforcers root out evil? And, of course, if it’s happening to someone else, it can’t be happening to me. So sensational crime titillated but it also served to give the impression that similar tragedy was unlikely in one’s own life”.

Of course, accusations of extra-marital affairs will almost certainly help sensationalise any murder case and it appears that such allegations were certainly enough to blacken Florence’s reputation. I ask Kate if there was any thought given to the fact that James Maybrick too, was also involved in affairs. She smiles “Florence asked for the fact of James’s adultery to be played down to protect the reputation of her children. I don’t think she understood that she would be judged more harshly for her infidelity than her husband was; I think she believed that the scientific proof, or lack of it, would take precedence in court. In this she – and perhaps her lawyer too – were naive – a double standard held sway when it came to morality and the Victorian bourgeoisie was up to its neck in its persistent hypocrisies.”

Yet, despite new evidence in the 1890s there was no possibility of an appeal for Florence. Kate explained, “the Court of Criminal Appeal was not set up until the early 20th Century. Until then the only option was to beg for the Queen’s mercy through the Home Secretary. Florence’s sentence was commuted so that she was not executed, but she still served 15 years, effectively for attempted murder – a charge on which she was not tried”.  I ask Kate if she thinks Florence ever had a chance of a fair trial? “Our notions of ‘Fair Trial’ are very different from those in the 19th Century. However, I think she DID stand a chance of it. Clearly the trial judge’s sanity was questionable – and although he was accused of befuddlement, it was several years until a breakdown confirmed his mental decline. Further, the trial occurred in an atmosphere of moral revivalism so that society, the authorities etc. were particularly sensitised to perceived immorality and intent on flushing it out for the greater good of society”.  I wondered if Florence had any supporters, others who believed in her innocence? “Her mother,” said Kate.

As a reader, James Maybrick does not seem to be a warm individual which leads to me ask Kate what type of man she thinks he was? Or more importantly did Florence have an idea of his true nature before marrying him? “She certainly didn’t know he was an addict. It doesn’t matter whether he was cold or kind, addiction makes people unreliable, illogical, wayward, mendacious, untrustworthy and unloving. I imagine he was at least a cocktail of all these, with a good dollop of middle class Pride”.

I am keen to learn about Florence’s life after such traumatic events. After her release Florence wrote a book about her experiences, I ask Kate if she thinks life for Florence could ever be the same again?  Kate smiles “I’m sure she tried. I’m sure she was changed forever, as the world around her was also changing. She was left behind and unfitted for independence”.

And what advice would Kate have for writers who have found an interesting historical figure with an untold story? The best advice for any writer is to read, read, read. Novels, other histories, immerse yourself in the world you are writing about by reading the novels of the time, listening to the music, walking the cities with old maps, reading the newspapers (most of which are in handy digital form now). And find primary source material – letters, diaries, etc that are available to you. It’s almost impossible to work without that,” she says.

I’m being a little cheeky but I must ask, “Kate, did she kill him?”…. “Well that’s the point of the book…so you’ll have to make up your own minds! I have considered evidence that has never previously been discussed. In the end, just as validly, one might ask ‘Would YOU have killed him?”

I leave Kate, wondering would I have done the same as Florence?

Did She Kill Him? Is for sale in all good book shops and online here.

Kate Colquhoun was born in Ireland in 1964. Her first book A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton (4th Estate, 2003) was short-listed for the Duff Cooper Prize, nominated for the Samuel Johnson Award and was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. Other books include: Taste, The History of Britain Through its Cooking (Bloomsbury, 2007) and The Thrifty Cookbook476 Ways to Eat Well with Leftovers (Bloomsbury, 2009). In 2011, she published Thomas Briggs’ Hat (Little Brown). Her new book Did She Kill Him?(Little Brown) is out now.  Follow Kate on Twitter @wearyhousewife

(c) Maria E.FitzGerald, 2014
Twitter: @mariaebelle

A huge thanks to Kate Colquhoun for granting me this interview and many thanks to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin for publishing this interview on writing.ie