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The Woman on the Train

I’m arriving a little bit late to this party, I know, and maybe I’ve missed the proverbial boat (or train, in this case) but having been given The Girl on the Train as a birthday present, I’ve only just caught up with the hype surrounding it this week.

After a few pages, I knew that this was not a book I was going to love; its sheer lack of linguistic development alone had me disappointed from the beginning. I did excuse the simplicity of the language when I learnt that the writer was a journalist, someone used to churning out facts without focusing on the humanity that lies beneath the story and whose assumption that the reader is not in any way intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions leaves for very on-the-surface writing. However, overlooking this means that we are relying on plot to triumph, rendering the writing second place and redeeming a piece of literature that makes me wince to think it is a number one best-seller.

The Girl on the Train not only makes me question what exactly it takes to get published these days, but what it says about us as readers and viewers, in short, as literary consumers.

“I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it—there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you.” – Anna (The Girl on the Train)

Before beginning to write today, I did a quick Google and Google Scholar search of “The Girl on the Train feminism” and was shocked and dismayed to read articles commending the novel as feminist fiction, about female protagonists who achieve subordination from a patriarchal society through journeys of self-discovery, and how the novel serves as a realm for women to act out their rage ag
ainst men. What I read was something entirely different.

The novel explores the lives of three women in a completely unnecessary narrative that seems to serve only the purpose of justifying the treatment they receive by two equally one dimensional characters. Rachel, who can be read as the primary narrator, hailed on the cover as “the unreliable narrator of the year,” is an alcoholic, and her unreliability arises from her drunken black-outs. In my opinion, her alcoholism is the character’s only redeeming quality; it is the only aspect to her that seems believable and the only thing that allows this character to step out-side of her neat little middle-class bubble where she can afford to pretend to have a job for a month and live off hand-outs from her mother (or her husband’s alimony in the film). It was the alcohol that caused her release from an abusive marriage, that saw her in Whitby on the night Megan was killed and thus made her the only witness. Paula Hawkins uses alcoholism, a serious mental and physical illness, as her story’s catalyst. Now, as I said, this was Rachel’s only redeeming quality for me, the fact that this nauseatingly normal woman could fall victim to this illness shows that it really can happen to anyone (although I doubt many would be as frustratingly self-aware). However, Hawkins’ exploration of alcoholism is entirely superficial and suggests that all alcoholics need is a “distraction.”

The novel was also praised for its exploration of three different women’s lives. Three white, young, pretty middle class women who perfectly embody historical representation of women. First, we have Anna, the adoring stay-at-home mother and dedicated wife who also plays the part of the evil other woman. Then, we have the depressed scorned woman out for revenge, the perfect embodiment of female hysteria caused, of course, by her inability to be a mother and her rejection by her Mr. Perfect. And third, we have the sexually deviant child-killer who is herself killed as a result of her failure to conform to her role as a wife. All three women are defined by their ability to be a mother and in relation to their husbands. Hawkins would have done more for feminism by refusing to give Anna opaper-dolls-14611_640r Megan a voice or back story, rather than justifying the treatment they receive. I see no other reason to give Megan a dark past (where her own mental illness is defined by the loss of two men in her teenage years, her brother and Mac) than to justify her brutal murder and denying her the possibility of atoning for her past. In the background we have Pantomime Princess Cathy, Evil Detective Riley, and two baby girls- one born to an unmarried mother and thus killed, and one born in the middle class suburbs who is constantly held, protected and fought over.

Despite three female narrators, the action of the plot is driven undoubtedly by the male characters. However, the men are equally stereotypical representations of an out-dated perception of gender roles. Scott and Dr Abdic are of course murder suspects before a mentally unstable woman with a motive who was spotted at the crime scene and dismissed as a crazy harmless drunk. Scott and Tom are abusive towards women and Abdic, in a care-giving role, is born out of war-torn Bosnia, a refugee, a foreigner and perpetually ‘other.’ Hawkins plays a game of parallels, where Megan and Tom must be punished for their sins, both of them having cheated on their partner and killed a child, and Scott and Anna, while both equally as flawed, are saved by their subscription to their gender roles and support of the nuclear family.

Rachel, with her inability to conceive and her alcoholism cannot be a woman, and instead retains her infantile position as “The Girl on the Train.”

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Tribute to a Friend

I wrote this poem 5 years ago, at the tender age of 17. Looking back at it now, I feel no need to edit or redraft because although time has passed; my writing has developed and emotions have thawed somewhat, the truth between the lines that are written here remain the same. The beauty of a first draft is its sense of truth, just like a photograph, writing from the heart captures a moment in time, a memory that remains untainted. My last memory of this friend was on this night 6 years ago, and it is a memory that is treasured- one that cannot be taken away from me. Though all things are altered, our personal truths cannot be taken away. Rest in Peace.

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Newcastle, County Down.

 

A Tribute to a Friend

As the sun peaks his head

Into the clear blue sky,

And the winter blues fade to light

Up the days and shield us from the

Grey, monotonous times that have passed,

I stop to think about the passing.

The progression from dark to light,

The life breathed upon the town by

The summer breeze and the life taken

From the Great and Small.


I think about what has yet to come.

The empty summer that will see our

Days become longer than we have ever felt them.

The empty bottles will still be scattered in the park.

The empty boats will still float on the river at night.

The empty hearts will still sing and dance and

Joke and remember the King that has fallen

Like he fell to the ground with laughter and

Could push, joke and poke fun

Without ever making a soul feel small.


The army will hold their authority over the

Kingdom when the invaders progress.

They will raise their fists, they will fall to the

Ground, they will hear the call to retreat.

The fires will be lit at night time, in

The woods and in the fields.

We will sit and chat and be merry

And the smoke will drift to the sky

Before passing along again as a tribute

To our hero, humble and small.


And on our road to Damascus,

What was dark will soon become light.

The deaf will hear and the blind will see

A vision that can’t be ignored.

The star in the sky that was not there before

Will wink and we’ll bow our heads;

We’ll remember the one that’s above us

Forever, our foundation, our hope and our way.

And as we stare at the sky on the clear summer nights

We’ll feel great, feel small.


The flowers that bloom all around us,

Will be nothing to the flowers that we leave.

The fires that we burn in remembrance,

Will be nothing to the fires in our hearts.

The pictures we cling to so dearly,

Will be nothing to those in our heads.

The tears that we cry, the pain in our chests,

Will pass with the passing of time.

And the love that we feel; forever great,

Will make the deepest hurt seem small.



 

When History Repeats (Part 2)

In 2015, Northern Ireland said goodbye to its lowest number of emigrants from the country in nine years, but is still losing a whopping 21,500 people to countries such as England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Everyone now knows someone who has left Northern Ireland, and it seems whole towns and villages are reuniting Down Under.

Between 1951-61 the annual emigration rate in Northern Ireland was 15.4 per thousand of the population and the number of Catholics emigrating was nearly double the amount of Protestants. My grandparents left Northern Ireland in the early ‘50s along with so many young people (including my grandfather’s older brothers) who had little hope of finding employment in Belfast, and headed to Birmingham. From what I gather, they intended to marry and start a family but didn’t have the money to get their own home and so set sail for Britain’s second city on a long boat ride bringing only what they could carry.  It’s hard to imagine now the Birmingham that greeted them, but my grandmother, before she became the smiling old lady in my photographs and memories, before my Mother was even an idea, as young and naïve as I am now, stood where I stood a few months ago, on the verge of the rest of her life with a decision to make.

Nanny and Granda only stayed in Birmingham for about two years, during which time they married, my Uncle Jackie was born and my Granda’s brother Jackie was killed. They married on 26th December 1953. Having returned home for Christmas, my Grandparents sought to rent their first home. They had worked hard and saved the money they needed to put a deposit down for their house, but since my Grandfather didn’t have a job or a steady income in Belfast, their applications were all denied. They married on Boxing Day in Belfast, before returning to Birmingham.

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Kynoch’s factory (picture by staffordshomeguard.co.uk)

Living in Aston in a shared house, my grandfather was a driver for Kynoch’s munition factory in Witton and his brother Jackie made the munitions. Jackie died in an industrial accident in 1954. In my research of Kynoch’s, I came across a discussion thread on birminghamhistory.co.uk, in which a man describes working at the factory:

 

“I later worked in the Cap Priming area where they made the percussion caps for the bullets. These would be made in trays of about 500 caps, which would be filled and then compressed by the operators. Every now and then the trays would explode. The worker often needing medical attention.”

This is how the story goes that my Great Uncle Jackie was killed.

When my grandmother gave birth to her first child in October 1954, he was named after his late uncle.

After Jackie was born my Grandparents returned home, and still not able to find their own home, lived with my maternal Great Grandmother for a number of years, this was to become my mother’s first home.

Mark and I moved to Birmingham on 2nd July 2016. We decided to come by boat because Mark wanted to bring his car over and we could load up the TV and the boxes upon boxes of all of our things. We were put up by Mark’s uncle in the Four Oaks area of Sutton Coldfield, living on a private road in a multi-million-pound house while we searched for our first home together. As we looked for an apartment to rent in the City Centre, viewing flats in the Irish Quarter, Digbeth, where so many people like my grandparents settled in the ‘50s, it became apparent that we were to face the same problems that they did all those years ago. We had the money ready for a deposit, but because I had no income, we had trouble finding somewhere that would accept us. And I, fresh out of university with a degree in hand, had the same trouble finding a job in England as the Irish immigrants before me who had been greeted with signs reading “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.”

However, I eventually found a job waitressing and we moved into a brand new turn-key apartment to begin our lives here.

I visited the Library of Birmingham in August and began my research on my grandparents’ lives in Birmingham. Since my uncle was born here, I was able to find his birth record, and with the help of Aunt Mary at home, find the address where my grandparents began their married life together.

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Birchfield Road in the 1950s (google images)

Mark drove me to 310 Birchfield Road one Sunday afternoon with the help of Google Maps, only to find it was now the home of a dual carriageway, and a long cry from the street on which my grandparents lived. I wondered what it looked like when they lived here. We parked the car at a shopping centre and began our search for their home. Like in the 1950s, the Birchfield Road was home to immigrants, and the dirty streets were lined with foreign and run-down shops. There were large gangs of men standing on street corners and overheard voices were not speaking English. I felt somewhat unnerved as we walked along, following a map on my iphone, sticking out like a sore thumb, feeling as if I did not belong there. We passed under a subway to the other side of the road and had to hold our breaths to block out the smell of urine. Mark hurried me along, feeling unsafe. We reached the other side and found a row of shops and offices with rooms above them, finding number 310 above an Accountants’ Office with shutters on it. The curtains on the windows above assured me that these were still homes. Had I found this house on another street, on another day, maybe I would have knocked the door and asked to come in. But the fear that I would be greeted with hostility or someone who didn’t speak English, stopped me from doing so. Instead, I stood at the front door and took a photograph of the house where an uncle I had barely known was born, and the grandparents who were just distant childhood memories now had begun my family.

 

As I walked away, I was overcome with emotion. I didn’t feel safe in this street and I hurried back to the car holding tight to my boyfriend’s hand. This street, that screamed poverty and deprivation to me, is where it all began. And my grandparents worked hard to find the money to create a future for my mother, and in turn, for me. And as I drove away in a fast and shiny car, to return to the comfort of my apartment with all the luxuries I have been afforded, I felt snobbish and humbled, reminded of the background from which I have come and the struggles that were faced in the past to get me to where I am today.

I don’t know how long my life in Birmingham will last. I could be home by Christmas, or I could start my own family here. But either way, I feel I am better for having been here. Maybe in sixty years’ time there will be a young girl tracing my life here, living in a house that she had no trouble securing for herself, and working in a job that she loves. Maybe for her this city won’t be a means to an end, it will be home.

 

When History Repeats (Part 1)

When I graduated from university in June and decided to move to Birmingham with my boyfriend, I felt like I was stepping into uncharted territory. I mean, my life up until then had followed a pretty standard path. I did my GCSEs, I stayed in school for A levels, and I went to my nearest university. I followed the same route that my sister did and most of my friends and classmates did, the path that was more or less set out for me since I passed my 11 Plus and went to grammar school. But as my days at university were coming to an end, I realised that I had no idea where my path was leading next. I can tell you one thing for sure, I never thought it was leading to Birmingham!

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Smiling ’cause I’ve no idea what I’m doing with my life- graduation 2016

It seems to me, this path that so many of us are… led… down, like little children being bribed with the promise of sweets and treats by the Big Bad Man, leads nowhere. And the breadcrumbs that we scattered to find our way back turned out to be seeds, and all around us plants and trees have sprouted up, growing in new directions and blocking the road home. We find ourselves in the depth of the forest: we followed all the rules, we passed every test, jumped every river and dodged every rabbit hole. And yet when we reach the end, we are not on the other side, but standing in the Heart of Darkness.

Anyway, I digress. I found myself finishing university in the same situation as so many, tumbling out with a four-year hangover, suffering with a severe case of disillusionment and in need of a hefty dose of direction. Where all around me people seemed to know where they were going; staying on at university for Masters Degrees or to become teachers, landing dream jobs, or jetting off to travel the world, I sat motionless, terrified by all the possibilities, frozen from all the open doors, andparalysed by lack of money and certainty.

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Birmingham, UK. Home for now.

When my boyfriend was offered a job in Birmingham, I was faced a decision.  I could move home to my small town, move back in with my parents and find a job (although admittedly my options there would always be limited), or I could move to England and see what was on offer there. My feminist beliefs, that are meant to enable me to take any path I choose for whatever reason I choose, were forcing me to abandon the possibilities that I had created for myself, give up my independence and return to my parents as a single 22-year-old, and wait there for a knight in shining armour to come and rescue me. Because, what twenty-first century feminist could justify leaving her friends and family, her job, and her home to run after a man and become some kind of Fifties housewife? Feminism, shrouded in the cloak of equal opportunity, hiding behind a house made of gingerbread, was showing me all the ways out of the forest, and yet bribing me to stay home.

After battling my demons; my beliefs, aspirations, morals; I decided to go. I didn’t know what was waiting for me, and I was scared. I was scared of how it would work out, but I was more scared of what other people would think. Would I look like some naïve little girl following a man?

When I nervously told my Aunt Mary, scared of whether or not she would approve, and unsure if my Mother wanted people to know that I was going to move in with my boyfriend out of wedlock (the 21st Century means nothing in Ireland), she smiled and reassured me, “It’s all been done before.”

My Aunt Mary, the eldest daughter of nine children, holds the role of all eldest daughters: the keeper of the family. It is she who always has an open door; her home has been home to so many over the years and you can feel the warmth of family and memories when you step inside.

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The Richmond girls, led by Aunty Mary.

Its walls have felt the pain and the tears of wakes and funerals, heard the good news of births and engagements before the rest, and seen children and grandchildren grow and laugh and play. My Aunt Mary will pass the family stories and anecdotes to the next generation of Richmonds, so that we can be humble yet proud of who we are and where we come from, and teach us of all the trials and tribulations, the twists and turns of history that have led to our being. At this time, I was about to learn how history does, indeed, repeat…

PRIDE Belfast- Generation Why?

Today, 7th August 2016, marks the end of this year’s annual Belfast Pride Festival, and so there seems no better time to share my thoughts on equality in Northern Ireland. Below you’ll find my spoken word piece Generation Why?

12472514_1773790396200294_4928734365181689266_nBelfast Pride’s website states:

 Belfast Pride is a protest and a celebration – a stand for equal rights and a proud and inclusive celebration of LGBTQ+ lives. A broad coalition comes together under the Pride rainbow and we want to encourage more people than ever before to join together to make Belfast Pride even bigger and even more inclusive. It’s time to make a stand and it’s time to join in the celebration.

When the festival first started in 1991, just 100 people took part in the parade. It came nine years after the legalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, and thirty years after the first  ever Pride marches (1970 New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco).

Now, do you remember in school when the teacher would ask a question and the other kids would frantically and stubbornly shout out the wrong answer and drown out your little voice calmly stating the right answer? Then, just as you would exasperatedly shout your answer for the last time, the person beside you would hear your answer and shout it out and the teacher would congratulate them? Remember that epic face-palm moment? Why does that feeling come to mind when I think about equality in Northern Ireland?

I don’t believe that Northern Ireland is a cruel place, in fact I think that it is home to some of the kindest and friendliest people in the world. I do, however, think it is full of a lot of those little children whose wisdom is drowned out by louder voices.

During the Peace Process, the LGBT movement stood as a social force for inclusion. As John Nagle states in his 2016 book Social Movements in Violently Divided Societies, 

“If Northern Ireland’s narrative told of discrete and homogeneous cultures characterized by sectarian violence, then the organizers of Belfast Pride positioned the LGBT movement as an example of cultural pluralism that provided new models of peaceful coexistence.” (p.147)

The 1998 Northern Ireland Act places importance on equality, not just between religions, but between genders and sexualities. However, in a society so concerned with ‘peacebuilding’ between nationalism and unionism, between Catholics and Protestants, there is still a need for peacebuilding between genders and sexualities. Since the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, records show increasing levels of homophobic attacks and attitudes. Hayes and Nagle (2015) argue that homophobia has now 13906915_1773214556257878_5572443452938902080_nreplaced sectarianism as the major expression of societal hate.

I believe it is up to my generation in Northern Ireland, the generation of ceasefire babies, to change this.

I wasn’t in Belfast for Pride this year, but I am extremely proud of Belfast and my post today comes from my pride in my very best friends and their expression of the right to love whoever they want.


Generation Why?

We are the millennials;

The future of this here wee country,

We may be young and we may be free,

But we are tired and we are hungry

For the lives that we were promised,

Before we were even born,

By men on a hill in Belfast

When Northern Ireland was torn.

 

We are the generation

Of Good Fridays and Peace Processes;

But we were raised and we were left

Cleaning up our parents’ messes

In morals, money and mutiny,

And fighting their hatred and division

With words instead of pipe bombs,

Uniting each and all religions.

 

But can someone please tell me,

Cos google doesn’t seem to know,

When the Taigs became the Queers

And the Huns became the Lesbos?

The enemy doesn’t march on The Twelfth,

He kisses his boyfriend in the park,

And an IRA gunman

Is no longer the worst thing you could cross in the dark.

 

No, it’s a woman who was born in the wrong body, the wrong life

Who has the cheek to dress in what she feels is right.

It’s the drag artist who performs in the Kremlin on a Tuesday

And lights up the lives of the LGBT community.

 

The all-knowing politicians

Armed with their mighty conscience clause

Shoot us back to the dark ages

With their barbaric backwards laws.

And the equality that was promised

To both the orange and the green

Is left back in the nineties

Or somewhere in between.

 

We are the noughties kids,

Generation Y- Why, why do we need discrimination?

To characterise our country

And determine our legislation?

If your religion can’t allow you

To see that this is wrong

Leave it with the Troubles,

Because WE are moving on.

 

 

 

 

 

An Education of One’s own

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, urging young women to write themdownloadselves into history, to give voice to the metaphorical ghost of “Shakespeare’s sister” (symbolic of the voiceless women of history), to travel the world and to be financially emancipated from men.

Woolf could scarcely have imagined the surge in women’s writing since the digital revolution. How could she have predicted that a generation of teenagers and young women would be telling stories on the world-wide web; publishing blogs and ebooks, updating their Facebook statuses and sending tweets from their mobile phones. There now exists a digital record of real women, real lives; and the supposedly “fairer sex” are stepping beyond their subjective position in literature and writing their own representation.

Woolf’s literature transcends her era of first wave of feminism. When she writes,

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,”

she combats the class issues that Marxist feminists nearly one hundred years on are still battling with, and her empathy with men as by-products of a patriarchal society, rather than innately misogynistic, bears resemblance to the He-For-She campaign of the Twenty-First Century, recognising that men are victims of patriarchy too. Yet, my focus is not on Woolf as a kind of proto-post-feminist, but rather on how relevant her message is to young women today.

Belinda Webb, writing for The Guardian in 2012, highlights the neglect of working-class women in literature. She states,

‘ I have often found it ironic that the feminists who cry foul at patriarchal cultural imperialism and the championing of male writers at the expense of better women, then go on to repeat the process among women along class lines, whether they know it or not.’

Webb, in her tribute to working-class writer Carnie Holdsworth, raises an important point about the English Canon and the neglect of the female proletariat. As any student of English Literature or of Women’s Studies will know all too well, academics in the last few decades have placed a significant focus on writing “Herstory” as opposed to “His-tory”. Yet, this re-canonisation has largely been written by the middle-class.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean at all to diminish the important work that literary feminists have been doing. Nor do I mean to overlook or discredit the working-class women who have succeeded in English literature; Pat Baker’s Union Street deserves a special mention here, for not only writing herself into history, but giving voice to women’s untold stories from working-class streets and neighbourhoods.

If women have been neglected from the English Canon, working-class women have been abandoned and left to starve. Virginia Woolf knew it, Belinda Webb knew it, and young women and girls today should know it, too.

Despite my working-class roots, I have benefited from an education system that did not discriminate in terms of class or wealth; I received the same education that children of doctors and lawyers did. However, I was educated out of my class; I was taught the world views of the middle class and indoctrinated into capitalism. My education separated me from the working-class, and yet I felt distinctly alienated by the middle class. I had an affinity with Jimmy Porter and the Angry Young Men of the fifties. And I wondered, where are the angry young women?

When I was young I read Jacqueline Wilson books (as did all of my friends and the majority of young girls in the noughties) and there were real working-class girls. Look at Tracy Beaker, who if you didn’t read about you watched on CBBC, and her aThe_Dumping_Groundanger with the world and the “Dumping Ground” (the children’s home she lived at). The mix of children from different classes and backgrounds that were thrown together in the seemingly symbolically communist Dumping Ground, the antithesis of the capitalist nuclear family, showcased a group of young people disenfranchised with society’s ordering system.

Of course, I had no idea until just now that my love for Tracy Beaker was prefiguring my increasingly socialist tendencies. Just as I had no idea that the stories of these young girls were being written by a middle-class woman. Now, Wilson’s class in no way diminishes her accomplishment, and I am not here to shame middle-class women for having a place in English literature; women should write and they should be accepted regardless of their place on the social hierarchy. My point is merely that just as women have been tasked with providing accurate representations of themselves, the working class female must step up to the mark and ensure that her voice is being heard.

Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. I no longer believe this to be true. To write fiction a woman must have access to education, and that should not be dependent upon class or wealth.

Failing that, send your tweets and update your status as many times as you wish. You have a right to write.