Out of step with the Crawdads

It’s very easy to feel ‘wrong’ on the internet. To feel too old, too cross, not cross enough, too antisocial, too behind the curve, too behind the times, too naive.

I use social media to keep up, to be informed and entertained. I look at pretty pictures and read articles. Facebook for family and friends; twitter for politics, news and #broochwars/ @TheMERL/ high drama; Instagram for house renovations and decor, beaches and cute puppies. Serendipity. I get to choose what I engage with and what I let wash over me, whether I agree or not. How I react depends entirely on my mood. Generally, it’s all about me and the pups. But, even within my fluffy echo chamber, I notice when I’m out of synch with the majority of other opinions.

Clearly, social media can be a nasty place. One doesn’t have to be in the public eye to attract controversy or threats. Those who continue to take part in public service despite such horrors have strength that I don’t. That’s not my experience. Instead, I’m disagreeing in the world of bookclubbers. Yes, the folk who read books and chat about them. Who knew I could be annoyed by fellow book lovers?

I read a lot. I’m happy to share thoughts, recommendations, and consider other interpretations. Usually. I hated The Kite Runner while others raved about it, but that was before bookclubs could tell me multiple times a day how amazing it was. Many times, every day.

The book of the moment is Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Long, descriptive, nature writing takes a while to get used to, but is appropriate for the piece. Kya, the main character, suffers loss after loss, growing up alone and almost feral in the coastal marshes of North Carolina. She is let down time after time by those she loves or who have a responsibility to her. She is the ‘Marsh Girl’, an ‘other’, abandoned by most. I was gripped and read on with a lump in my throat.

But the book is trying to do too much. It’s being promoted as ‘a murder mystery, a coming of age narrative, and a celebration of nature’ and it’s failure to succeed at all three mars the whole experience. *spoilers ahead*

The murder mystery is what loses the book. It’s like it got grafted on in the editing process to add drama or structure. As if someone said, “Crime sells – could you kill off a horrible character?” The trial scenes are sparsely written, presumably to suggest that Kya has shut down with trauma or shock, but after the trial things just return to normal, no adjusting, no relief, no recovery. We stop knowing Kya before their trial and never regain that knowledge. I stopped caring, because it felt like the author had. I’d even accept that meant that Kya herself was deeply secretive and that nobody knew the truth of things (both true in context), but that still doesn’t make the story work.

The big problem is that about 100 pages before the end of the book, the truth becomes obvious to the reader. Tate, the clever, thoughtful one, should have known. I was looking forward to discovering how the main characters dealt with this knowledge as they made their lives together. But no. Nothing. Tate discovers the truth on the last page. Literally, the last page. I nearly threw the book across the room in frustration. Where I was expecting shared understanding and deep growth I got a ‘shock’ discovery and then nothing. Ah well, never mind. The end.

Perhaps that’s the point. Tate never really knew or understood Kya as well as he thought he did. She loved him and relied upon him anyway. She survived her whole life without anyone truly understanding her life, her decisions. Is that another betrayal? Is Kya still alone and isolated despite being apparently happy, settled and well off? Those are the issues that could have been explored had Tate been a reflective sort or if Kya had warranted any more thought. But the demands of the murder mystery plot seemed to take over the word count, leaving no room for the characters which drew us there in the first place.

There are many, many examples of excellent crime fiction exploring characters and issues alongside plot. Owens has not produced good crime fiction. Less reliance on the murder as plot device could have produced an interesting novel. Instead, I feel cheated and cross.

Not that anyone agrees with me. The book is selling loads and presumably Ms Owens is doing ok. Internet bookclubbers love it. I’m out of step again.

Learning the language

I’ve been reading a lot. The usual stuff- crime fiction alternating with women finding themselves and love (the tall/ dark/ handsome or mean/moody types prevail) in the countryside, remote island, or bookshop. There’s always a smattering of worthy books, because there’s only so much I can read about fluffy or victimised women, and I even branched into non fiction.

Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters is magical realism, Belfast style, and recently won the EU prize for literature. Read all of Jan’s work, you will enjoy it.

Emilie Pine (Notes to Self) and Sinead Gleeson (Constellations) have produced essays and memoir, both deeply personal, honest and moving. I read each in short bursts, pausing to deal with the ‘oomph’, the force of truth. Each deal with health issues. Others deal try to heal the healthcare system, and some of those are interviewed by David Gilbert in The Patient Revolution. The effort involved in working with the system to drive improvements, and the cost of so doing is enormous. This is something I know and recognise even from my limited involvement in similar types of activity.

My new volunteering, as a Boardroom Apprentice, brings its own challenges. Learning days, attachment to the board of a public body- including all relevant training and meetings, a group task, clothes that aren’t pyjamas, the whole grown up thing. Unexpectedly, none of those are the problem for me. Even more unexpectedly, my problem is the reading.

How can that be?

Included in the course materials are documents on the relationship between government departments and non-departmental public bodies, codes of conduct, rules of governance and managing money. The language is English, but not as I know it. It’s a particular form of the written word known as civil service speak/ Mandarin. It’s used by civil servants to communicate with each other, keeping formalities and rules to the forefront. It’s not written for the public to read and understand. There are attempts to improve the clarity of such things for us mere mortals, but that’s of limited use to me, struggling through a 10 year old paper on money.

Seriously, guys?

Some of you know and understand these things. Practise will mean that I learn to read a sentence and move on to the next one, without needing five attempts and a dictionary. I’ll figure out what I need to know and what I just need to know exists. I may never read the 1932 Concordat (I haven’t found annex 2.1 yet) but I probably should know the legal powers my organisation has to actually do its work.

For the first time, I’ve been wondering if I should have tried law. Surely that would have trained my mind to read gobbledygook? My brain fog and difficulties with concentration mean that I could do with all the help. But since I don’t have a job, I do have time. I’ll be fluent soon, and if not, there are plenty of lovelorn 30 somethings in picturesque book shops or cafes to entertain me.

The September story

Oh, how I used to hate September. It was full of ‘fresh starts’ & ‘new beginnings’, while I was still in bed, going nowhere, doing nothing. Especially nothing new. Every September was a reminder that I wasn’t getting better.

I’m still not getting better. I had two ‘look at me, nearly normal’ days last week, followed by the inevitable ‘oops not enough energy to sit up’ days.

But it seems I’m not angry any more. Huh. I don’t know when that happened. It means I can just get on with getting on. There are things I’ll never get round to doing, but I’m not missing out on that much.

September still brings its changes. Girl 1 is going to university. She’s going to be having adventures I know not of, meeting loads of new people, and having fun. Studying, too. She won’t be far away so may still be subject to random hugging.

Girl 2 will be going to school on her own, rediscovering the bus in the process. Motivation to learn to drive, right there. Spurs Fan (a primary school teacher) has a new bunch of little folk to annoy for two years. They will soon know more than they ever need to about Tottenham Hotspur FC. That will stick in their heads longer than some of the curriculum.

I’ve had a break from all the volunteering. I’d thought I would do events, but one day of that cued me of the notion. Fun, worthwhile, enjoyable, but beyond my capabilities.

I’m going to have a new adventure of my own, as part of the Boardroom Apprentice https://strictlyboardroom.com/apprentice/ programme. I may be the eldest student, or the only one without a job, but I have a new notebook, and am keen to learn. What else do I need?

Bring it on, September.

The Friday before Easter

Last April I went to an event with George Mitchell, Tony Blair, Bertie Aherne, Bronagh Hinds, Seamus Mallon & others to mark 20 years since the signing of the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement. (I went looking for the blog post on it & discovered that I hadn’t written one, dammit. I’d forgotten how useful blogging is for capturing moments that would otherwise be lost.)

It was a reminder of the work it takes to build a foundation for peace. Nothing just happens- it takes commitment, time to listen & a determination to build trust and consensus. It’s not a job with regular hours, or annual leave.

As the peacemakers spoke, it was clear that our current generation of politicians have different priorities. Seamus Mallon was wonderfully scathing, but no I can’t give you an example because I didn’t write it down…

This year there was nothing good about the Friday before Easter. I woke up to the news that Lyra McKee had been killed by rioters in Derry. When I gathered myself, I found Girl2 watching Derry Girls- the episode finishing with Clinton’s Derry speech . The confluence had me in tears. The hope for the future we had was embodied in Lyra McKee.

Thousands of people were killed in “the troubles”. Too many have been killed during “the peace”. Ms McKee was a force of nature, a talented investigative journalist doing her job. I knew her only from Twitter, we had friends in common. I admired her work, her humour, how she knew everybody. There have been many stories of her generosity, curiosity and warmth.

But what’s different about Lyra McKee’s life and death has been the variety of people she touched. She was a child of our peace, someone who should never have known our violence, much less be killed by it. She was a powerful advocate. She embraced social media. She’d found her love and moved to be with her. She was fearless in her journalism & had a book ready for publication. For young people, for Belfast, for Derry, for writers, for women, for the curious, for LGBTIQ, for politically interested, for the lost, for so many people, Lyra was ‘one of us’.

Her murderers called her death a ‘tragic accident’ & said their volunteers would be more careful in future.

The reaction to her murder has been incredible. Her friends used paint to mark red, as bloodied, hands over the building used by the dissident republican group. Such disregard for the big boys. Such courage.

The funeral was shown live on two television stations. The Prime Ministers of UK and Ireland, the Irish President & a representative of the Queen attended alongside family, friends, colleagues & local politicians. From a Catholic background, Lyra was buried from the Church of Ireland cathedral, with a service conducted by clergy from both denominations. Lyra brought people together.

Referencing the local political stalemate (we’ve had no government since 2017) and the politicians sitting together in the front of the congregation, the priest wondered, “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29 year old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?” There is hope that this will mark a changing point, and cynicism that we’ve had potential changing points before, but our politicians dig deeper trenches.

Politicians won’t change until we tell them too. In May, we have 2 elections- for local councillors and for Members of the European Parliament. Our so called leaders will take their cues from those results.

Vote carefully. Vote for good. Vote for bringing people together. Take responsibility for our mess. Make change happen.