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Here are a couple of anecdotes both told to me and both giving an insight into a relationship.Names have been changed.

1. Jill usually went to bed before John got back from the pub.That was the routine and one which they both accepted.It worked well except for one part of it. Jill always knew when John was back from the pub because she’d hear the downstairs door slam. This was followed by his footsteps as he climbed the stairs.At this point her body started to go rigid, waiting for the moment when he would come into the bedroom and started to get undressed as he always did. By this time she was stiff with anticipation.And why? Because every night- without fail – he would take off his trousers and throw them across the end of the bed where her feet were.

“This is the one thing that drives me mad,” she said and I knew it would have driven me mad too.Every night week in week out…door slams, footsteps on the stairs, trousers off and then wham! They’re thrown across her feet. So awful was this inevitable action that I never thought to ask why on Earth she didn’t ask John not to do it.

In any case , they separated soon afterwards.

2 there’s a funeral in the village church and we all sing what were the words of the favourite hymn of the departed- a dear old soul who had been our neighbour.The final lines was :”You in your small corner and me in mine.”

Afterwards we stiff outside chatting.It was a cold afternoon in February and Judy, now retired from running the village post office, pulled her fur coat round her. “I left Jim in bed with the paper but I told him you wait, the funeral will be over by three and then I’m coming right back so you keep that bed warm.”

I was surprised to find myself slightly shocked that a middle-aged couple should climb into their warm bed at three in the afternoon. But of course it wasn’t really shock: it was envy.

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Enjoying Arab hospitality

This coming Saturday, June 29 at 4pm I will be talking about all the generous hospitality I have had in the many countries I have visited including Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Sudan.

We’ll be at Gallery P21,

21 -27 Chalton Street NW1 1JD  tel +44 207 121 6190 amd info

In Western Europe, we know a bit about giving bit have forgotten how to accept with grace.  I relearned that I bought some olives from a stall holder in Souk Saruja, in Damascus.  I was  in a bit of a hurry  as the man loaded a bag with olives and I put out my hand to get them and  be gone again. But no. He noticed the nad was leaking olive oil everywhere and so he transferred them to another bag and this tiome tied a knot not once but three times to be extra sure while all the time I was anxious to get the bag and diasppear into the crowd. As he quietly went about his task I realised how ungracious I was being and had to slow myself down to match his speed – and to recognise the carfeful job he was doing.

In Palestine, I learned the sign which had to be given in order to  leave the table which, with food still on it and unesten, might have given offence.

 

So many  pitfalls.  Come to the Gallery 21  on Saturday tat 4pm to join in the discussion and to see some of the tiny cups we drank coffee from in the desert.

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40 years since the tragic loss of life during the Fastnet Race

Memories of a perilous, treacherous night at sea

The Irish Times – Saturday, August 8, 200

MARY RUSSELL

Thirty years after the Fastnet yacht race that claimed 15 lives, survivors and seamen talk about sailing through the horrendous storm, with waves wrecking lifeboats as well as yachts
IT LIES JUST off Cape Clear Island, a jagged collection of shale and quartz that spells danger for unwary sailors. An Charraig Aonair, it’s called in Irish – the solitary rock. Rising from it is the Fastnet Lighthouse, its loom visible for 27 nautical miles in good weather. Except that, on the night of August 14th/15th 1979, sailors on the Fastnet Race were experiencing weather that was the worst they had ever encountered.

That year, 303 boats set out on a 608 nautical mile course from Cowes to Plymouth, via Fastnet, on what many label one of the most demanding yacht races in the world. On board the 30-foot Silver Foam, with her crew of five, was 18-year-old Munster man Dermot O’Flynn.

Thirty years on, in a Dublin hotel, O’Flynn recalls what happened: “We left the Solent on Saturday afternoon, in a light wind. It was a fantastic sight, the largest fleet ever in the race,” and his face lights up at the memory of a rainbow of spinnakers curving across the sky. “But at around 10pm on Monday, the storm hit and it was horrendous.
“With Force 10 winds the noise was deafening. The storm started in the Great Plains of North America, crossed the ocean and when it hit the shallow waters between the Scillies and Fastnet, the wind was against the tidal currents and you got short, irregular waves that were very violent.”

Out on the raging sea that night was another teenager, 18-year-old Matt Sheahan, crewing on his father’s boat Grimalkin. After the boat capsized twice, and having seen his father knocked unconscious and later swept away, his body never to be found, Sheahan and two crew members abandoned Grimalkin, leaving the remaining two crew members on board, unconscious and trapped beneath a tangle of ropes and sails.
Their best hope of survival, Sheahan thought, was to get into their life raft and get help to the stricken Grimalkin.

In his book, Left for Dead, Nick Ward, one of the unconscious men, tells of how he regained consciousness to find himself abandoned on a storm-wracked boat, nursing the remaining crew member who eventually died. Fastnet 1979 was a race during which such terrible things happened.
Had O’Flynn and his crew ever considered not doing the race, I asked. His answer is emphatic: “No. The Fastnet Race is the Everest for sailors and no one knew that that storm was on the way.” The statistics of the 1979 race show the power of the sea: sails ripped, rudders snapped and boats dismasted. Gear, knives and food tins hurtling about below were such a danger that it was safer to stay in the cockpit. Of the 303 boats in the race, 85 completed it, 194 withdrew, 19 were abandoned while five sank. Worst of all, though, was the fact that 15 people lost their lives. Of that 15, nine drowned or died of hypothermia, while six perished because their safety harnesses broke.

Life rafts simply disintegrated in the appalling conditions. Many boats did not have VHF radios partly because some owners, focused on winning the race, feared that radios merely added weight to a boat. Another serious factor was conflicting weather reports. Kevin Lane, former admiral of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, crewing on Moonduster in that fatal race, switched on his radio on the Tuesday morning to get the shipping forecast only to learn of the terrible loss of life. “We didn’t keep radio watch,” he says in Crosshaven. “We were racing, don’t forget, and it was hard going. The 30-foot-high seas meant you could stay on the helm for only 20 minutes at a time. Our one meal in 24 hours was a few tins of

paghetti. I’ve never told the crew this, but some of the spaghetti spilled on to sails lying on the deck and I had to scrape it off and put it back in the tin before handing it round with just one spoon for 11 people. We finished the course, though survival was more important than the race.”

Sailors were not the only people at sea that awful night. “I’d been out earlier,” Diarmuid O’Mahony, retired coxswain of Courtmacsherry Lifeboat says, on a sunny day in west Cork. “I was just in bed 10 minutes when we got the shout [call-out] at 2am. It took us four hours to reach the area. The seas were so high it was almost impossible to see anything.”

Eventually, after nearly 22 hours at sea, they located and towed the Casse Tete V yacht, with 11 people on board, back to the safety of Courtmacsherry. All the lifeboats along the coast were out that night including Baltimore, Ballycotton and Dunmore East and between them they saved 45 sailors.

It was in Dunmore East that O’Flynn’s Silver Foam sought shelter. By then, his parents – holidaying in Donabate – were frantic, having had no news and fearing the worst. “We got in to Dunmore East about four in the morning,” O’Flynn tells me. “Everyone was down at the harbour and had their headlamps on to light us in.” He rang his parents and by 6am was downing a pint of Guinness.

Much has changed since then. Participating boats must qualify and must have VHF radios. “The greatest innovation,” says O’Mahony, “is the personal locator. Some even come clipped to life jackets.” Safety harnesses now bear a 200kg load. The old rule – never step down into a life-raft – still stands. “Abandon your boat only if it’s sinking or on fire. That works 99 per cent of the time, though 1 per cent of the time it doesn’t,” says O’Mahony.

The Courtmacsherry all-weather life boat, powered by two 850hp engines which take it up to 25 knots, has an enclosed wheelhouse and a crew of seven with mechanic Mícheál Hurley out first to get things fired up for a quick getaway.

Over at Crosshaven, care-worker Geraldine Farrell volunteered for the lifeboats, expecting to make the tea. Now she is a sea-going member on the three-crew high-speed lifeboat that does inshore rescue work, their mission to bring help as quickly as possible. Is she ever afraid? “You have to have a bit of fear,” she says. “If you become complacent with water you’re in trouble.” And who are the other volunteers? She ticks them off: “A fisherman, a hairdresser, a barber, a jeweller and there’s a fellow who does windows.”

The Courtmacsherry coxswain, Sean O’Farrell, was formerly a cartographer. “Charts and maps aren’t all that different,” he says as we leave the lifeboat station. When I wish him well, he smiles: “What we say here is: May all your shouts be on flat seas.”

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Nothing new about armed maritime escorts

 

There’s nothing new about armed ships escorting British traders to their maritime destinations.( Royal Navy to accompany  UK-flagged ships in strait of Hormuz 26/07/2019) It happened a great deal during Napoleonic times. In the Irish port of Cork, there were often up to 70 ships in harbour waiting both for fair winds and for the trans-Atlantic naval escort to be organised. However, it was Walter Raleigh, favourite pirate-sailor of Queen Elizabeth I, who put his finger on it, writing: “Whoever commands the sea commands the trade; whoever commands the trade  commands the riches  of the world and consequently the world itself.”

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Visiting the birthplace of Syria’s much loved philosopher poet.

Yesterday, the @guardian carried a report by Martin Chulov about the latest bombing in Syria. It took place in the famous town of Maarat al Numan, not far from Aleppo. The town had been home to one of Syria’s much-loved philosophers, al Ma’arri. And so I took a  local bus there to find out more. This was before the war in Syria had become so terrible. Here’s the story:

I get off the bus at the top of the town and start assembling my meagre vocabulary in order to get to al Ma’arri’s tomb.

Abu ‘ala al Ma’arri or, to give him his full and glorious name, Abu ‘ala Ahmad ibn abd Allah ibn Suliman al Tanookhy al Ma’arri, was a writer I think I might well have got on with. He had a quirky, iconoclast take on life – a refreshing antidote to the strict, humourless way in which religion in Islamic countries today is sometimes both presented and perceived. He was also a vegetarian and an atheist – and therefore a very rare bird indeed in these parts.

Al Ma’arri was born in Ma’arrat al Numan, in 973CE and spent the greater part of his 84 years here. An illness left him blind from the age of five and he was forced to develop other compensatory skills including that of an exceptional memory which allowed him to study at Antioch, Aleppo and Tripoli – three of the great centres of learning at that time. His literary career was helped by the fact that he had a small private income.

In his 30s, he travelled to Baghdad where he established himself as a writer with very individual views and where he was much in demand at literary get-togethers. Those same views, however, worked against him when he decided that rather than sullying his art by selling his work he would simply recite it or offer it for discussion. Such high ideals, however, required a patron and unable to find one, and his own private income not being enough to survive on, he ran up against hard times and two years after arriving in Baghdad left it again to return to Ma’rrat al Numan. By then, he was 37 and on the way to adopting a lifestyle that was to characterise him for the rest of his long life.

From then on, he withdrew into himself, renouncing the excesses and vagaries of contemporary life. His own was governed by three things: his blindness, his writing and his solitude.

If this had been all I had to go on, I might have written off al Ma’arri as an eccentric recluse. However, his views marked him out as a very rare writer indeed for he spoke loud and clear of possibilities other than the orthodox.

The idea that there was only one true religion was one he rejected out of hand and, writing some seventy years before the First Crusade, was remarkably prescient: “Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity.”

Read more about the town in my book My Home is Your Home

 

 

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Blackwells Book shop presents some good talks.

Blackwells in Oxford are offering some interesting talks on various subjects – and which are all free!

I went to one last week about travel writing or, to be precise, how to be a travel writer .  The speaker was promoting his book which was a howto on that very subject: how to write about travel and, possibly, make some money while you’re at it.  All good practical stuff  on how to write a travel blog, how to write a newspaper travel feature, how to write a travel book. It was inevitable that, having written a book about women travellers and explorers ( The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt) I should be disappointed though not surprised to find female travel writers, including Ireland’s own, Dervla Murphy, were rarely mentioned in the discourse and this in Oxford, Gertrude Bell’s own university town. Sara Wheeler appeared briefly in a photo shown at the beginning of the talk  but  that was it.  What we did hear were the entertaining anecdotes and quotes about Redmond O Hanlon, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Rory MacClean and many more – all of them excellent travel writers.

But where oh where were the dictinctive  female voices of travel writers like Ella Maillart, Alexandra David Neel, Christina Dodwell, Ann Davison, Mary Kingsley,  Hester Stanhope and the sublime Jane Digby.

When my book Blessings  of a Good Thick Skirt was published in 1986, it filled a gap for there was hardly anything then published neither about women travellers and explorers nor by them.  Now, 33 years on, the ratio of male to female  travel writers is pretty much the same as it was then.

Perhaps this is a sign of changing times with fewer women setting off on a quest in their mid years. If this is so then that is as it is. Meanwhile, we can feast on a treasure trove of travel writing  from those who have gone before and who are still travelling, giving us travel writing which will energise and inspire. Pick up that book and get going.

 

The Travel Writer’s Way by  Jonathan Lorie is published  by Bradt.

 

 

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Crossing the road

First fix is in the coffee shop.  Regular cappo. Newspaper headlines not too bad. England won the cricket. No cartoons of politicians’ various arses. So far so good. Then work calls so time for the first challenge:  getting back across the busy road again. No lights at the pedestrian crossing so we are dependent on good offices of car drivers. Some glide along carefree as a lark at dawn, ignoring waiting pedestrians. Despite the fact that lights at next crossing are red, six cars press on. Then one, seeing the red lights ahead, stops and waves me across to the mid-road island. Great. Better still, the bus as the second and final section also waves me across. I feel myself carried forward on a surge of drivers’ goodwill  and think if I were to rise up on my toes and flap the sleeves of my jacket I might even fly the rest of the way home.

Then again, that might just be the effects of the caffeine.

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