“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee.

Since the rumours of Gove’s most recent nail in the educational coffin began to surface on Twitter yesterday, I’ve been trying to translate my utter despair into written word, but my mind has continued to return to the above quote from the great novel at the centre of this story.

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Sure it’s great for the town…

Join the Library

Join the Library

Talk about coming full circle.

Last week the global spotlight sprang on my little hometown of Strabane when a photograph of this rather genius piece of graffiti began trending worldwide on Twitter, even reaching the attention of Academy Award winner Minnie Driver.

The original scrawl which decorated the side of this electricity sub-station in the Ballycolman read ‘Join the IRA’, not an uncommon sight in Strabane, but it achieved much greater media attention after a local man, naturally dubbed ‘Strabanksy’, altered the piece of graffiti to read ‘Join the Library’.

It was a strange but wonderful thing to see Strabane making headlines for reasons other than bomb scares, stabbings and shootings as it has done in recent months. For a place declared the eighth worst to live in the UK by Channel 4’s experts Kirstie and Phil in 2005, a town which once boasted some of the highest levels of unemployment in the industrial world, and whose only great claims to fame include semi-successful Eurovision stars and being the most bombed town outside of WWII, it’s quite nice to be put on the map for something a little more light-hearted, positive, even hopeful.

Locals have become almost immune to the paramilitary propaganda that cover the walls of the town, how refreshing to see a new message much more reflective of modern day efforts for a more peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland.

The online responses to the photo spoke loud and clear ‘Books beat Balaclavas’, surely music to the ears of staff at the local library who admitted in a statement last week “We’ve never had a better advertisement”.

Strabane Library: “We’ve never had a better advertisement”

Strabane Library: “We’ve never had a better advertisement”

What a shame then, that Northern Ireland Electricity very efficiently repainted the wall of the sub-station, destroying the first masterpiece of our very own Strabanksy, stating that it is company policy to remove all graffiti from their buildings. With that in mind, I wonder how long it will take them to paint over the freshly scrawled ‘Join the IRA’ which reappeared this week.

What did I tell you, full circle.

Back to the dark ages...

Back to the dark ages…

However opportunist and illicit his actions, Strabanksy’s message on the sub-station wall is one to be celebrated. You should join the library and books do beat balaclavas, they prove much more useful when it comes to applying to college or university, or getting a job, or raising your children.

Strabane should be making a new kind of history for itself now that we’ve, hopefully, left the Troubles in the past.

Here’s hoping Strabanksy and others like him will continue to put our little town on the map for the right reasons.

I’m back in Liverpool and everything seems the same same… but different.

Just as beautiful of South East Asia... but a tad chillier.

Aughabrack, just as beautiful as South East Asia… but a tad chillier.

Yes I have returned from South East Asia, and yes I have been dying to use that little wordplay since I first left.

But don’t let the title fool you, I’m not in Liverpool, I’m staving off the post-travelling blues by travelling to the slightly less exotic destination of Aughabrack for some home comforts.

I did return to Liverpool, and reality, with a bump (quite literally) nearly one whole month ago and must confess since then I have been suffering with the dreaded post-holiday blues. Reality, the mess of a bedroom, lengthy To Do List, mountain of washing and financial ruin which I returned to, really did hit me with a bump, as waking early (thank you jet lag) feeling rejuvenated, invigorated and determined to start off on the right foot I decided to kick-start with a morning run.

And it all started so well, powering up Parliament Street I had a whirlwind of ideas in my head, all sorts of plans and good intention to put things back in order. Writing ideas were tripping over each other in a bid to grab my attention, I was suddenly full of confidence and determination to get back on the job hunt, and most importantly, I was intent not to dwell on the fact that I wasn’t spending my morning lying on a beach. Sadly, that all that power cut out halfway back down the other side of the Anglican Cathedral and that right foot that I was sure I’d gotten off on caught on a loose paving stone and turned me and all my good intentions upside down.

It was one of those slow motion falls, you know what’s going to happen, you can see it unfolding as though you were a third person detached from the actual movement, stifling a giggle. It’s only as the ground makes angry contact with your hands and knees that you remember this isn’t some comedy fall you’re watching from the comfort of the sofa, that’s you right there going crash bang wallop outside one the city’s biggest tourist attractions, right across the street from your place of work. Not so funny now is it?

Lying flat on my back, staring up at the clouds I decided to focus on the silver lining – at least it’s early, too early for tourists, at least it’s the summer, no LIPA students around to revel in my literal downfall, and at least my only witness was a very kind-hearted taxi driver who offered to drop me home for free.

I gratefully declined, and hobbled home with blood-soaked hands and knees to curl up on the sofa and feel sorry for myself.

My mind might have thought itself fighting fit, but my body obviously wasn’t ready to get off the sun lounger and go back to porridge. I was tired, severely sorry to be home, and criminally skint. Fuck good intentions, I’m going back to bed.

Take me back to the islands!

Take me back to the islands!

Of course the wallowing passed with just the right amount of comfort food, a few convalescence trips to the pub with dear friends, and a brave venture back into the ugly world of freelancing.

Just as I was getting back on track, the tracks were yet again ripped from under my feet with the very sudden upheaval of my living circumstances and another financial punch in the face. But that is a rant for another day (watch this space).

Thankfully, the jet lag wore off after about a week, the home comforts have done wonders for the post-holiday blues, and my knees have just about healed, though they’ve left some unsightly patches in my tan. With a dreaded return to porridge and working life this weekend, it’s about time I gave a second attempt at knuckling down, starting afresh and getting off on the right foot… with eyes peeled for any bumps in the road, and maybe I’ll invest in some knee pads.

Before...

Before…

and After

and After

 

A Correction.

A correction.

For writers, words are our daily bread.

We try and taste all new words that we come across, endeavour to maintain a balanced diet of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, all mixed together in the pot, producing sentences and stories to tantalize the tongue. We consume books, magazines, newspapers, novels, poems, plays, anything we can get our hands on to satisfy our hunger for words and the knowledge that comes with them. We learn about new styles and tastes, explore recipes from throughout history and national flavours, we could simply not exist without words. Life would be bland, beige and unexciting.

As a creative writer and an aspiring journalist there is one word that stands at the forefront of everything I write, printed in bold, capital letters among all others in my repertoire, that word is TRUTH. Even in my most fictional offerings, the foundations are built with truth, an honest representation of some place or person or feeling. Throughout history writers have endeavoured to capture their world and the people in it with honesty, truth and integrity, I think of Dickens, Austen, Joyce. We know their worlds as clearly as our own.

I mention integrity because there is dishonesty in not telling the full story.

To recognise Father’s Day I wrote a brief, honest list of things which I had inherited from my father, lessons he has taught me over the years, but it was not our full story, not even a fraction of it. The truth of the matter is, and even now I only glimpse at that truth, is that the most important lessons my father has taught me have not been easy truths to accept. I have not made peace with them yet, as my father and I have not made peace with each other. He disapproves of my choices in life as much as I disapprove of his, that is perhaps the shortest telling of it. It has been a long time since I have wished him Happy Father’s day because ours is a tumultuous relationship, and truth means as much to him as it does to me, we cannot pretend and simply play happy families. We are each other’s catalyst, testing patience, breaking tempers, building character. The glimpse of my father’s influence on me which I tried to capture yesterday, did not do either of us justice. He will always be the most important and influential man in my life. He has made me who I am, the writer I hope to be, the shining example of everything I hope not to become. And someday I hope to be brave enough, at peace enough, to tell that story because I owe it to him as much as I owe it to myself. But not yet.

The most important stories we have to tell are always the most difficult to write.

Why do the haters hate?

Hatred: The EDL rally in response to the Woolwich attack. (taken from ITV.com, credit Neil Lancefield/PA Wire)

Amid the aftermath of the Woolwich attack this week, as the shock and horror of the whole thing subsided, and questions were raised, there was one in particular that stuck with me.

This attack was an act of terror, extremism, hate.

We call it senseless, unjustifiable and unforgivable.

But those responsible didn’t think so. They called for an audience, displayed their bloodied hands to the world, they had a message to convey, to them it made perfect sense, it was an act of justice, a necessary evil.

What is it that makes people, human beings, hate so much, to such extremes that they could take another human life so violently in the name of some higher purpose?

They are born, kicking and screaming into the world just like the rest of us. They must learn to crawl, talk, walk like everyone else. They must make mistakes, learn what hurt, heartache and forgiveness feel like. They are taught what is good and what is bad. Is that where their path in life diverges from ours? Is there a moment in their lives where the decision they must make will cut a fork in the road, one good, one evil? Or is it something that happens gradually over time, is it a series of decisions, like wrong turns in a maze that brings them somewhere dark and angry?

Why do the haters hate?

 

We throw the word around a lot, freely, unthinking.

We hate our jobs, our boss, our parents, siblings, best friends, our hometown, our hair, thighs, knobbly knees. We hate our exes, we hate the old guy who creeps on schoolgirls at the bus stop, we hate Michael Ball, George Osborne, the Go Compare adverts. We hate brussel sprouts, PPI cold callers, cyclists, motorists, people who don’t understand the concept of personal space. We hate people who are self-obsessed, attention seeking, fake, people who lie, cheat, bully. We hate animal cruelty, child abuse, wife beaters, husband beaters, traffic wardens.

But we don’t always mean hate. It’s not always something as extreme as hate. Mostly, we’re just annoyed or irritated by these things temporarily, sometimes irrationally, in our otherwise blissful little lives.

 

To hate, is “to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest”.

We’ve seen a lot of hate in our modern, civilised era. We’ve seen planes crashing into buildings, school children fleeing indiscriminate gunfire, bombs explode on crowded high streets, buses, tubes.

To most of us, it is all senseless. The kind of hatred that pulls the trigger of a gun or pushes the button to detonate a bomb, that kind of hatred is difficult to understand for those of us whose greatest grievance in life is discovering that a chocolate chip cookie is actually raisin.

As infuriating as that can be, to my knowledge, there has never been bloodshed over the chocolate chip – raisin hoodwink.

So where does hate come from? If not from confectionary.

Religion always seems to be at the centre of these things.

I don’t understand this, how something that teaches of the importance of love can as a consequence, be the source of such evil. I’ve never understood it.

I’ve grown up in the middle of it in Northern Ireland, hating the kids on the bus who wore a different uniform, without really understanding it.

I was dropped into hatred at the age of eight when I moved to the North and found myself on one side of a divide I didn’t understand. But in hindsight, I don’t think any of us really understood what it meant at that age.

I remember tracing the letters ‘IRA’ onto the steamed kitchen window one evening, I was so big and clever. My mum just looked at me, “Do you know what that means?”

I didn’t. And when she told me, like the good history teacher that she is, I never wrote those letters or any like them anywhere again.

Perhaps that was one of my moments, had I drawn a different conclusion from the lesson on the political history of Northern Ireland which my mother fed me that evening, perhaps I would have gone on writing those letters on windows and walls, and who knows where it would have led? Had I been taught the same lesson by my father, who as a Dubliner, is in general much more fantastical and nationalistic in his take of the North’s political divide, perhaps I would have taken a different point of view. Had I been brought up and taught the same lesson in a different house, a different townland, where the curbs and gable walls were painted and flags and bunting flew from the streetlamps, who knows where I would be, what I would believe, or who I would hate.

Pretty much every biblical lesson I can recall from my misspent Catholic youth taught that anger and hatred and violence were generally frowned upon by the big man upstairs. In all shapes and forms, hate and evil were a no-no.

That is the long and the short of it. That is the enduring sentiment that I took from the years of religious education spent doodling in my jotter and endless Sunday mornings staring into space and anticipating the fresh scone bread cooling on a rack in my Granny’s kitchen.

It is the lesson that my parents, grandparents, godparents and teachers all instilled in my pliable young mind.

Be good.

Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Forgive those who trespass against you.

I don’t remember any footnotes by those teachings, any asterisk following the commandments.

 

“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these” * [Mark 12:31]

(*except the gays, hate the gays loads.)**

 

Religion doesn’t teach you to distinguish between who you should hate and who you should love, it teaches you to love all, regardless of colour, creed or sexual orientation. Granted my knowledge of Islam is pretty sketchy, but from what I gather, the same basic principles apply as they do in Christianity and in Bill & Ted: “Be excellent to each other”.

So why do people who hate homosexuals or Muslims or Women use religion to justify their own prejudices?

Why do idiotic groups such as the EDL, BNP and UKIP tell us that Islam is to blame, Muslims are behind the death of a British soldier? How is their hate and disposition to violence any different from the hate of the two extremists who spilled blood on a London street earlier this week? These political groups have launched a campaign of hate and incited violence against a religious community who have absolutely nothing to do with the extremists responsible for the Woolwich attack. Mosques have been attacked up and down the country, innocent Muslims have been threatened, spat at in the street, attacked.

Yet the EDL, BNP, UKIP do not distinguish between the murderers with blood on their hands, and innocent people going about their day to day lives. And all the while Islamic religious groups have cried out the same words that the people of Northern Ireland have cried out in the face of political violence: Not in our name.

Senseless, unjustifiable, unforgivable.

But those responsible don’t think so. They call for an audience, don balaclavas in the face of the police and the world’s media, they have a message to convey, to them it makes perfect sense, it is an act of justice, a necessary evil.

Funny how two beliefs at opposite ends of a spectrum can meet in the middle.

 
(** Incidentally, I believe gays should absolutely have the right to marry. However, in an entirely selfish sense, I hope that they choose not to, because in the ever more likely inevitability that I will end up rocking spinsterhood I’d like someone fabulous to go dancing with on a Saturday night).

There Will Be Sequins…

My hometown, like most economically stunted border towns in Northern Ireland, isn’t much to talk of. We’ve got an ASDA, a dozen or so pubs struggling through the recession, and the historical accolade of being the most bombed town outside of mainland Europe.

In 2005, Strabane was named the 8th worst town to live in within the UK according to the experts at Channel 4, fortunately since then the recession has dragged the rest of the UK down to our level, and I believe we are now floating somewhere outside the top 20.

We may not have much economic success to boast about but there is one area where we really shine. And that is on the Eurovision stage.

This Saturday, one of our local sons, Ryan Dolan, will represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö with (the actually quite good) ‘Only Love Survives‘. A great achievement for our humble little town, but this is not the first time the Eurovision spotlight has shone on our corner of the emerald isle. Twenty-one years ago, Linda Martin, from our neighbouring Omagh, took the Eurovision crown in the very same city with ‘Why Me’ and ten years ago, our very own Mickey-Joe Harte made a brave effort at Riga with ‘We’ve Got The World’, a song that quickly became the anthem of my sixth form year group.

Two local Eurovision stars in the space of a decade, there must be something in the water. Something distinctly cheesy, tacky and riddled with sequins.

Where it hasn’t infected residents with the same pop star elixir, it has unleashed Eurovision fever. But then, we relish every opportunity to drink, wave flags and dress up in brutally tacky outfits. A penchant we’ve brought with us across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, where we make the annual pilgrimage to St. John’s Market for something suitably outrageous to wear and end up pounding out a very enthusiastic but entirely amateur performance of Riverdance at 2am, much to the annoyance of the downstairs neighbours.

After a few years playing the Eurovision fool with piss-take entries from Dustin the Turkey and Jedward, Ireland finally seem to be taking this shit seriously. A real person, a real song, damn the European politics and back-rubbing votes that’s tainted the competition’s purity over the last decade, we’re in this to win it!

Personally I was relieved when Ireland put Jedward into Eurovision retirement, mercifully deciding not to tempt fate with third time lucky, I’m not sure my hair could have taken the back-brushing again.

Backbrushed to within an inch of its life.

Backbrushed to within an inch of its life.