My reading group has chosen The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. To the 12-year-old protagonist, the world is her oyster and she prepares for her entry into it by changing her name from Frankie to F.Jasmine. She also takes time out to sign  herself F.Jasmine Esq. Why she uses the title Esq is unexplained by the writer which adds to the telling as we are left to work out for ourselves that F.Jasmine has probably seen letters addressed like this to her father who runs a jewellery business.

When I was 12, I wrote letters home from boarding school addressed to M.P.Russell Esq having observed that was how letters were addressed to my father. ( The Esq bit seemed fitting enough as he was a civil servant,  a senior civil servant as my mother always corrected me.)

“Why do you put Esq on the envelope,” a girl at school asked. “Does he own land?”

I was non-plussed. People in Dublin didn’t own land. Not the ones I knew. They owned houses alright, if they had the money, But of course, if you came from out of Dublin, in that place called down the country which was everywhere except Dublin, you most likely did own land, fields and fields of it. But those people didn’t have Esq on the envelopes, just plain Mr and Mrs. Of course, with the Esq business, my mother was left out of the equation altogether.


I am now half way through The Member of the Wedding and things are hotting up for our twelve year old heroine. She was, she knew, going to be famous. For what, she didn’t know. Reading the news or participating in a dramatic event of some sort. But definitely famous.

I recognised that almost-famous feeling from when I was her age which was why I practised my signature in different ways: neat and careful, artistic with lots of curlicues,wildly adventurous with enormous flourishes. I worked away on them all during one particular exam when I had finished early and had nothing else to do. Mary Russell  I wrote, over and over again. Mary Russell, Mary Russell Mary Russell. MARY RUSSELL!!!!  Then, calming down: Mary Russell


And when the bell rang to indicate the exam was over. I bunched up the sheet of paper and threw it in the waste paper basket. Except that I had been observed.

“What is this,” asked the head nun, known to us as Quack, holding out the A4 page she had retrieved from the basket and smoothing it out so that my sin of pride ( was it one of the seven deadly sins?) was revealed over and over again.

“Who is it written for and why,” asked Quack and I stalled. How could I possibly explain I was practicing my signature for when I became famous.

Yep, F.Jasmine and I had a lot in common. Though while she actually chose the Jasmine bit of her name, I concealed from everyone that my confirmation name was Fatima.That would have ruined the whole famous thing. Mary was bad enough. As the song went:

For she was Mary, Mary,

Plain as any name can be.

Maybe that’s why I never became famous – though I’m still practicing.



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My interview with Saddam Hussein’s ambassador

Near Abu Nawas Street, there are some interesting new buildings – a staggered landscape of concrete with curves, arches and perpendiculars in grey stone. Close to is a lovely old Ottoman house with broad steps leading up to a fret-worked balcony and double-doors.

Inside, I meet Dr A K al Hashimi who is small, rotund and slightly bald, the sort of Arab male whose presence is preceded by a warm swell of self-knowing charm. Educated in the US, his conversation is peppered with deliciously irreverent references to “Bush the Father, Bush the Son”, so that we both know exactly where we stand.

Previously, he was ambassador to France, a glittering diplomatic post that indicated his high standing with the Great Leader.

His office is expansive, his polished desk huge, the small shrug accompanying his smile, gracious. I dress him in a peacock-blue gown, place him on a divan covered with crimson silk and surround him with dancing girls. Then I pull myself together and accept the tiny cup of black coffee he slides towards me across the shining surface of his desk. I am here, after all, to hear about the sanctions.

“My dear Mary, ” he says, “ I will tell you the facts and you, with your clever journalistic mind, will draw your own conclusions. So, ” and he sips delicately from his own minute coffee cup, “ what we have here are the Uniteds – States, Nations and Kingdom – who are carefully and ruthlessly manipulating one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world. They are doing this in the name,” and he pauses, “of democracy.”

The word hangs in the air between us, swings to and fro. Defies definition.

“What about the invasion of Kuwait?” I begin but he waves my interruption aside dismissively.

“This has nothing to do with Kuwait.”

He smiles, refills my coffee cup, drinks himself before starting to recite facts and figures to support his claim.

“They control our oil output and, in that way, delay production.”

I rack my brains for figures related to this: the US, I know, uses 21million barrels of oil a day and half of that has to be imported. Fuel security is therefore a big issue for America, as it is for all of us.

But Hashimi has the bit between his teeth and demands my attention: “Listen, the UN – and remember, Iraq was a founding member of the UN in 1945 – the UN Resolution 661 allocates us 41bn US$ for health over 10 years but only 46% actually reaches us which amounts to 150m dinar per year and divide that by twelve, share it out among 24 million Iraqis and it’s less than 50c per person per month.” He shrugs. “Then we have the dual use restrictions. We can’t have this and we can’t have that because it might be used to make a bomb. A bomb? What bomb? Take, for instance, a pump. A pump is categorised as dual purpose so we can’t get any replacement parts for our failing electricity system. But electricity is health. So, our sanitation schemes suffer, we get polluted sewage, our children get dysentery and they die. ” He shakes his head and looks hard at me, determined I get his message: “It all results in a degree of deprivation that did not exist before.”

While he takes another sip of coffee I try to work out the rush of figures. Do they add up to what he says? I’ll have to check later because he’s returned to the dual use issue: “My dear lady, dual use? What is not dual use? Look at your pen. It can be used to write a feature for your newspaper or a love letter. Or it can be used to write an equation for a nuclear weapon,” and he smiles but with his mouth only.

“You know, we used to be the most important country in the region,” he continues, “not like some corner of Africa or South America and we always had good business partners. But they are turning away now. The international community wants to make us one big refugee camp run by the UN. So, everyone is getting nervous because we are becoming more aggressive. Especially the Americans so they say things about us – that we are a military dictatorship. Are we? Can you see riot police on our streets? Or check points everywhere? Are there armoured personnel carriers in Baghdad? Have you seen any? Are people being killed on the streets?”

I shake my head. It’s true. I haven’t actually seen any of these things.

“They have ruined our economy. Before, 3000 dinar would buy you a big car. Now, as you know, all you get is a bunch of false flowers. Do they think Sadaam Hussein is a one-man show? Of course he’s not. He has support, people behind him. He’s leading a whole economic and educational system. No, capitalism thrives on crises not on stability and that’s what it’s all about.”

Suddenly, like a machine that has run out of fuel, he slows down and asks a question to which there is no answer: “The US is afraid. They think we have nuclear weapons, chemical weapons.Weapons of mass destruction. What can Iraq do to show that it doesn’t, that it is not a threat?”

Extract from my book My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria

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Fallujah, Chilcot and the right to silent protest.

Fallujah. First time round.2004

When Fallujah was attacked and bombed by US forces in 2004, I later joined a friend in standing outside the House of Commons on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Between us, we held a sheet on which was written in red paint the number of civilians killed during this first battle of Fallujah.

The number was something in the region of 600 people, all Iraqi, all civilians.

Our presence on the pavement was a silent witness to these deaths. No leaflets were handed out and I made no attempt to engage people in a discussion.

Nevertheless, at the end of the afternoon, I was charged under the newly passed Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.

This law was one of the more repressive Acts introduced during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister which sought to curb the individual’s right to protest.

You have to wonder what it was Blair feared that he had to go to such ridiculous measures to stop people speaking their minds.

Perhaps we’ll find the answer in the Chilcot Inquiry.

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Here Comes the Sun

May Morning in Oxford when young women  shiver in their flimsy frocks and decorate their hair with flowers and young men invite them to come gather their nuts in May while they party through the night leaving older people to set their watches before they go to bed so that they are up and out and converging on Magdalen College for 6am.

And the tower of Magdalen will tremble with the sound of the bells ringing while the choristers sing out the Gaudi which was first sung in the reign of Henry Vlll though few will know what it is they are celebrating, its meaning long since forgotten.

But some will know it’s Bealtaine, the great Celtic fertility feast and that Oxford and a village nearby are the only places in England that have continued to mark this sacred time for centuries as have many other places including the Roman Temple of Bel in Palmyra one of the few times when town and gown come together for a bit of merriment.

And if you don’t know the words of the Gaudi, you can always sing Here Comes to Sun….



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Expand your vocabulary and have a drop of whiskey at the same time.

I was lucky: the day was full of summer promise with a blue sky all the way from Dublin to Cork.


Then onto the little two-carriage train out of Cork to the Distillery at Midleton.

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I liked Midleton: wide street, small lanes off it, old shop fronts. Not stopped time so much as time not being in a hurry to go anywhere.

I was in a slight hurry though, to meet up with a master cooper at the distillery.

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And here he is, opening the cooperage.

Midleton 20042016 013

See? My vocabulary is already expanding. Cooperage.  Useful if you play scrabble….

Ger Buckley is a master cooper as was his father and his grandfather and you can see this in the way he deftly taps the metal bands on the barrels to  knock them into place. If they’re not in place, the staves move apart and the precious whiskey leaks and we can’t have that.


Here are a few of the tools a cooper uses.

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The one I got to use is known as the dog and here are a few of them.

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They’re used to ease the staves back a bit in order to stuff some rushes into the leaking spot.

You can see that one of the dogs is varnished: that one was owned by Ger’s grand uncle who was employed as a master cooper on one of the tall ships. Remember them?   He had to varnish his tools to make sure they looked good, the tools of a professional, experienced cooper.

A visit to Midleton opens a whole new world so if you go there, make a day of it. There’s a grand coffee shop and also a restaurant, not to mention a full range of whiskies.  Come on, what’s stopping you?

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What’s it like when your book is remaindered?


Mary Russell

My books, my homing pigeons

First you write a book and your publisher sells it. Fine. Then it’s remaindered or the publishing house closes. Happened to me twice – and on both occasions I bought 50 copies of each book, giving them later to unsuspecting relatives at Christmas or substituting them for those bottles of cheap wine you bring to dinner parties.

Fool. I should have bought the lot because now I’m forced to go cap in hand to second-hand booksellers – Amazon even – looking for copies of my own books to buy. Why? Because my most recent book – a travel book about Syria before the war – has reawakened an interest in my remaindered books and I get asked for them at book festivals and when giving readings.

A check of second-hand online booksellers reveals more than 50 copies on offer, which is great. However, closer investigation proves dispiriting. ‘Pristine condition’, trills the seller, meaning it’s never been read – though distinguishes between ‘gently-used books’ and, I suppose, those that have been hurled around like bags aimed at a carousel.


‘Some tanning’ means the book has been lying on a window sill among the dried up geraniums for aeons.’Ex-library’ means no one was reading it and anyway they needed the space. But at 0.01p per copy plus £2.50 postage you can’t complain especially if you manage to sell it at a reading, which is the whole point of the exercise.

So what’s it like, having your own book return complete with pages turned down or possibly a coffee-cup ring? One came winging back to me with a postcard inside  from one reverend person to another, describing his holiday in Scotland with  Hilda though glad to to be back home and hoping the recipient enjoys the enclosed book.

Another had, inside, one of those address stickers Oxfam send to encourage you to buy your Christmas cards from them – except the name was that of one of my neighbours. And he never said. Cheek.

Then there are the sellers.A hospice in Sussex badly needs  £3 million and all I’m buying is one book and, oh look, here’s one that’s run by an NGO that helps people facing discrimination. Then there’s Tree Savers who are committed to recycling books rather than pulping them which, in the second-hand book world is tantamount to stamping on butterflies. According to the Publishers Association, 61 million books were returned unsold to publishers in the UK last year and that’s a lot of trees but nevertheless, says the PA, pulping is a last resort.

The idea of pulping a book is so terrible that now I lie awake at night worrying about adding to the crime of deforestation and the effects on the environment. Up till then, I thought saving  my own books from pulping and wearing bamboo socks would do the trick.

However, take heart. No book is an unwanted book, a librarian in Killarney tells me. They’re simply redistributed or sold to readers.

The problem is space. At home, you can pile them up on the stairs or under the bed, but neither of these options is open to libraries. And no, no books are pulped, Jane Mason of Oxfordshire County Libraries says firmly. Instead, they circulate theirs among their 43 branches, which also hold regular book sales.

Where do they all come from, these pre-used though much-loved books? James Carruthers, who runs the Oxfam Bookshops, says many just come through the door as donations. Jake Pumphrey, responsible for The Last Bookshop – with branches in Salisbury, Oxford and Bristol – says he is in the secondary market not the second-hand book trade, which means he buys remaindered books from publishers at a reduced rate: ‘Publishers often print too many copies and with warehousing so expensive they sell on to us.’ Anything other than pulping.

Newspapers are usually awash with books. The Irish Times, for which I freelance, regularly holds an internal sale, the frenzy of which leaves the Harrods one standing. There’s also the case of the review copy. One of my books was self-published and my publicist – yes, that’s me as well – sent out review copies to all the reputable broadsheets and within two weeks some of those were being offered on Amazon. Cute hoors, those newspapers.

My recent trawl through the booksellers led me to one who advertised The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt quite poetically: ‘Unread, slight scent to mask damp smell: kept in an attic for 20 years.’ I emailed him and we chatted. ‘It was my mother’s,’ he said, ‘and I found it after she died. I’ll miss it but it really belongs to you.’

Reader, I bought it.


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What went on in Palmyra?



The camel trains that passed through Palmyra  were enormous, often numbering  2000 with a further 300 donkeys used to carry surplus baggage. The caravans carried oil, spices, grain, straw, salted fish, wax, dyed fleeces, wools,bronze and marble statuary, wine, skins, fresh and smoked meat, slave girls, almonds, pottery and much else..

Life in the desert was dangerous especially for those not familiar with the trade routes.  In winter, the camels could go for maybe three months without water but in summer the margin of safety shrank to two weeks.The caravans, therefore, were usually led by an experienced horseman whose job it was to locate water supplies and wells en route, making sure that water skins were adequately filled for the next stage of the journey. If not, there would be many bones left to whiten in the desert sun, vultures circling overhead marking the spot.

Guides too were needed for the sandstorms that blew up without warning brought the whole caravan to a halt, leaving everyone except the most experienced guides disorientated. Thus the traders, camel drivers, merchants and guides of Palmyra were considered the best of their kind and moreover, because they were used to travel and to dealing with foreigners, they were adept at adapting to Greco-Roman and Persian languages and customs.

Small wonder then that Palmyra was such a coveted if distant outpost of the Roman Empire, one that had to be watched in case its rulers should get ideas above their station and strive to extend their boundaries of power.


Palymyrans lived well. The main avenue  was lined with some 375 colonnaded pillars  built of porphyry, the capitals decorated with  acanthus leaves,  pomegranates and pine cones, the whole column  gilded with bronze. The theatre had special raised seats for senators and visiting dignitaries.  The Tariff court, with its huge rectangular doors was imposing and its baths and banqueting halls spoke of prosperity and power

Along the colonnaded streets, the pillars still have the brackets which once supported statues of local notables – judges, merchants and owners of khans. One such man had no less than fourteen statues erected in his honour and a look at the tax system reveals just how carefully life was monitored.  Slave owners were taxed according to the age of the slave  and whether or not they were to be exported. It cost 25 dinarii to bring a camel load of aromatic oil  into the city  and 13 dinarii for a donkey load. If the oil was transported in alabaster containers it cost more than if  it came in goatskins the latter being of inferior quality. Prostitutes were required to pay a  monthly tax which was based on the equivalent value of one night’s work.

Water rates were charged at 800 dinarii per month for, in the desert, water is a most precious commodity but  with up to 1000 animals in a camel train each carrying a profitable load this tax provided a regular income for Rome..

There was little doubt, therefore, that the people of Palmyra were seen as influential merchants with Syrians generally regarded as the leading bankers of the region to the point where an exasperated  Juvenal made the often quoted complaint that “the Orontes ( Atissi)  is encroaching on the Tiber.”

But Rome benefited greatly from Palmyra’s prosperity and it was the Emperor Hadrian during his visit to Palmyra in 129CE who recognised this by conferring on the city the title of  Hadriana thus granting it free status,  the ensuing and lavish celebrations paid for by a local entrepreneur.

And while the male citizens of the upper classes went about their business in the senate and the market place, their wives and daughters also conducted themselves as only highborn women can. Slaves were employed in abundance with the clear distinction between freeborn and slaves underlined by the varied use of the veil – as important in pre-Islamic society as now.

Highborn women as well as women given the status of official concubines were expected always to veil themselves while  slaves were forbidden to do so.  There was even a code – the Ashur Code – which laid down strict rules about the veil in which, as usual,  women of lower status  came out worst: “ A harlot must not veil herself…he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest  her, produce witnesses and bring her to the palace tribunal; they shall not take her jewellery away but the one who arrested her may take her clothing; they shall flog her fifty times with staves and pour pitch  on her head….”

This is from my book on Syria. Have a look at it by clicking here:



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