Monday Mystery: The death of Annie Borjesson

On December 4, 2005, the body of Annie Borjesson, a 30-year-old Swedish woman, was discovered on the shore of Prestwick, a town on the west coast of Scotland. A few days later, on 7 December 2005, a local newspaper published a brief account of her death:

An area of Prestwick beach was cordoned off at the weekend after a woman’s body was found washed up on the shore. A dog walker discovered the 31-year-old woman’s body about 8.30am on Sunday near to Maryborough Road. A police investigation team quickly sealed off the area but there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.

Police ruled the death a suicide by drowning, but Annie’s family wasn’t convinced. As they began to investigate, they found some unanswered questions.

Annie’s body arrived back in Sweden. There, the undertakers claimed she had several bruises that she seemed to have incurred while she was still alive. The autopsy in Scotland contained only a few notes.

Body was heavily contaminated by sand and seaweed…….lungs were congested…..air passages contained ‘a frothy material’. Conclusion: death by drowning.

Official reports had concluded that other marks on the corpse were the result of collisions with debris in the sea. Pieces of tissue removed during the post-mortem were also examined by the Swedish forensic service. A professor in strasbourg found tiny diatom shells – algae – in the sample and identified them as navicula lanceolata. It was an unexpected discovery. Far from confirming that Annie had drowned, it tended to cast doubt on the conclusion of the post-mortem. Navicula lanceolata is a freshwater rather than a seawater diatom.

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Annie lived in Edinburgh, but on December 3, she traveled 129 kilometers to Prestwick Airport for unknown reasons. There was a flight to Gothenburg around 6.30 that evening, and another the following morning. The family assume that she was intending to fly home. It transpired that she had an appointment in Sweden with her hairdresser, Inger Nossborn, on Monday. She tried to withdraw cash using her credit card twice, first £100, then £50. Both times, she didn’t have enough funds in her account to complete the transaction. She was later captured on CCTV.

In the first image from the airport, Annie was wearing a winter jacket, later found near her body on Prestwick beach, a red and white fleece, trousers and trainers. She also carried a shoulder back. In the second shot, around 3.16, she was seen walking towards the car park. Independent investigators recreated the route Annie took through the airport. Comparing this to the victim’s CCTV footage, they determined she would not have been able to complete the route in the recorded 55 seconds unless she had been running.In total, she spent less than five minutes at the airport. A friend later saw the footage and said Annie appeared to be walking around looking “annoyed and angry.” She then began walking toward Prestwick itself. She wasn’t familiar with the town, which was about a mile away from the airport. A witness later claimed to have seen a figure standing on the beach near the sea. The person was about 150 yards away, he and a friend reckoned. He or she was standing motionless at the edge of the water. By the time the friends turned for home, twenty minutes had elapsed since the first sighting, yet it seemed the lone figure on the shore hadn’t budged. There was no one else on the beach. It occurred to the man that the person might be contemplating suicide. He mentioned this possibility to his friend. But they thought no more about it until the following morning.

The entire investigation was shrouded in secrecy. Scottish authorities refused to release tissue samples that could help clarify the cause of death. When the family accessed Annie’s email account, they found that it had been wiped. A friend discovered that the victim’s phone company had failed to register any of the calls she had made to Annie during 2005. The phone company refused to discuss this.

This friend soon began to receive silent phone calls. Family members too had problems with their email accounts. It later came to light that Annie’s hair had been cut after her death and thrown away. Maria also discovered that her friend’s full name – Annie Kristina Borjesson – was almost identical to that of a journalist in the United States who, it was thought, had been investigating rendition flights through Prestwick Airport.

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Annie’s family continues to campaign. Her mother met with the First Minister of Scotland and a petition of 3,000 signatures was signed for more information about Annie’s death.

Questions still remain unanswered.

Why would a woman living in Edinburgh travel 80 miles to commit suicide?

Why was she running in the airport?

And what did she mean, a day before her death, when she said to her family on the phone:

I have to take care of myself.

Clicks (or how flowers fought for life in the graveyard)

I’ve decided to write a follow-up piece to How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war, a blog post I made recently about the current state of journalism in this alternative-fact, clickbait era. In the post, I argued the evolution of journalism can be compared to the landmarks moments of 20th-century military history. Today, inspired by a number of polls I ran on twitter about my own writing, I want to show you the graveyard those wars have left us.

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Perhaps the most liberating thing about writing in the 21st-century is that we have a platform to do it from. The most restrictive thing, on the other hand, is that we’re all struggling to share it. The metrics of running a blog are views, visitors, followers, numbers reached across social media platforms etc. The eyes of the reader become a sort of currency, a few gold coins that we’ll draw swords and pour blood over if needs be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say blogging is cut-throat, but there’s no room in the graveyard for names easily forgotten, no space in its garden for flowers afraid to bloom. It’s a bit Shawshank in that respect.

Get busy living or get busy dying

You might consider that quote a bit of a paradox. After all, a cemetery is home to a great many dead things. Even so, there’s life in these worn headstones, breath in these knotted grasses. A graveyard is a place where people are remembered, not forgotten, and nothing remembered can ever truly die. Writing, as a craft, is broadly similar.

Much of the day in, day out blogging you see from your smartphones is an homage to the words of those gone before us, a silent prayer to the greats buried deep. Their work has fed ours, as sure as soil feeds a garden, and we slender flowers rise to guard their final resting place. If that joyous sentiment was all there was to it, then blogging would be ever-spring. The problem, however, is that we’re not the only ones here in the grasses.

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Part of running a blog is acknowledging its limitations, the cap the world places on its growth. The first flower rising is often cut by the wind. Many blogs bring a new concept to the world only to see those behind, watching and learning from their mistakes, shoot past them and reap summer glory. It’s the risk that comes with innovation, with trying to punch through the frost.

Many more blogs, latching onto the light, fall into the trap of the seasons, the belief in the eternity of the high-shining sun. But reader taste is as fickle as the hand that flicks the pages of summer, and if ill-equipped come the whisper of autumn, even the most beautiful blogs are laid to rest with a shrug of the shoulders. Often, a few words are read at their graveside about the nature of fads.

Life in the garden also means growing under the shadow of trees, those blogs so dizzyingly tall that they must dare to scrape at the sky. In Ireland, these branched giants ply their trade in areas such as fashion, makeup artistry, activism, and tech. They are the “influencers”, the writers whose words seemingly matter so much that those visiting the graveyard will stake claims on their survival. And whether or not us flowers beneath them think their evergreen coats impressive, these aged trees are affecting us, tunneling their roots deep into the earth of society, determining the extent of our growth.

The battleground at the surface is so pock-marked and close-quarter that at first, we do not notice the weeds.

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The greatest threat life faces in the graveyard is the economics of life itself. Food, water, sunlight. Perhaps a scrap of land to call home. That’s all anything really needs here to take root among the crumbling stones. But while flowers juggle these requirements with great difficulty, weeds have mastered the art of it. Their aim is not to flourish, of course, just to grow. But in life, growth is enough. These are the blogs, facebook pages etc that know traffic is what counts (if your entire revenue is ads especially), and are only too happy to sacrifice quality on the altar they’ve fashioned from a headstone. These blogs add nothing to the conversation, to the diversity of life in the garden. They simply want a click, to draw you to their page as a spider does a fly to its web. People rarely leave these sites satisfied with what they’ve read, but unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to pull the weeds up once they’ve gripped firm. LadBible, Benchwarmers, TheLiberal.ie. There are many species of weeds, their tactics all roughly the same.

I, like many other bloggers, hope they’re a flower in the garden, though that is no easy task. It means the hard road to summer, and oftentimes the sure hand of death in the winter. It means contending with the swift-choking weeds and the long-reaching trees, even if only to one day feel the light slip through the branches, warm our face for only a moment.

But it’s honest. It’s head-down, hone-your-craft honest. It’s giving readers what they deserve, not what a clickbait headline sells them.

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Above all, it’s honouring those in the garden. We flowers are the watchfires, the timid little things that shiver against the onrushing night. But instead of dying, we continue to burn, to stand guard, to remember. We continue to live among the fallen.

And if the names faded from these gravestones could whisper, perhaps that’s what they’d ask for.

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Monday Mystery-Sodder children disappearance

It’s been a while since I’ve revisited the Monday Mysteries series. This installment tells the story of the Sodder family, the house fire that claimed their home, and the mystery surrounding the fate of five of their children.

Prelude (1895-December 23rd, 1945)

George Sodder (Giorgio Soddu) was born in 1895. An Italian, he emigrated to the United States at age 13. Entering through Ellis Island, he said goodbye to his brother who turned straight for home. He quickly found work on the railroads in Pennsylvania and eventually married Jennie Cipriani (a fellow Italian-American) and settled in Fayetteville, West Virginia.

The couple lived in a two-storey timber frame house alongside many other Italian-Americans. George’s business prospered around the time the first of ten of their children were born, and soon the Sodder’s were one of the most respected families in the neighbourhood. However, by the time the last of their children were born in 1943 (Sylvia), George had become known for his outspoken views, especially against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, often leading to arguments with other immigrants. His eldest son Joe was already fighting among the allied forces in Europe. A year later, Il Duce was dead, but the tension was still very much alive in Fayetteville.

On more than one occasion this came to the fore. A visiting life assurance salesman warned him that “your house will go up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed”. On a separate occasion, a man seeking work went round to the back of the house and pointed to a pair of fuse boxes, warning George they’d “cause a fire someday” (though the house had been recently rewired and checked).

Weeks before the incident, his older sons had also noticed a strange car parked along the main highway through town, its occupants watching the younger Sodder children as they returned from school.

Christmas Eve, 1945

The Sodders celebrated Christmas Eve at home, missing only two of their children-Joe, who was at the front in Europe, and Marion (their eldest daughter), who was working a shift at a dime store downtown. When she did arrive home, she brought gifts to surprise three of her younger sisters (Martha, 12, Jennie, 8, and Betty, 6). Delighted with their new toys, the children asked could they stay up later than their bedtime. At 10:00 p.m., Jennie told the children they could stay up a little later, as long as the two oldest boys still awake (14-year-old Maurice and 10-year-old Louis), remembered to attend to the animals outside. George and the two oldest boys, John, 23 and George Jr., 16, tired from work all day, were already fast asleep. Jennie then took Sylvia (2) in her arms and went to bed.

At 12:30 a.m., the telephone rang. Jennie woke and went downstairs to answer. She didn’t recognise the voice on the other end of the line, a  woman asking for a name she was not familiar with. In the background, Jennie heard the sound of laughter and clinking glasses. She assured the caller she must have dialed the wrong number. Later, she recalled the woman’s weird laugh on the telephone. She hung up and decided to return to bed. As she did, she noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn, two things the children should have attended to. Her daughter Marion had fallen asleep on the living room couch, so she assumed the other children had gone back up to the attic where they slept. Jennie closed the curtains, outed the lights, and trudged back upstairs.

She awoke an hour later to the sound of something hitting the roof. A loud bang, followed by a rolling noise. She listened for a moment, and when she heard nothing further, drifted back to sleep. At 1.30am, she woke to the smell of smoke. When she investigated, she found George’s office ablaze, fire ringed round the telephone line and the fuse box. She quickly roused her husband and their eldest sons.

George, Jennie, Marion, Sylvia and her two eldest brothers, who all slept on the second floor, escaped the house. They shouted to the children upstairs in the attic but heard no response. The stairs to the third floor were consumed by flame. John Sodder later said in a police interview that he went up to the attic to alert his siblings, though he then changed his story to say that he only called up and did not actually see them.

Outside, George and his wife struggled to rescue the children still trapped inside. They tried to contact the fire brigade but their phone wasn’t operating. Running to a neighbour’s house, Marion was met with the same ill-luck. Nearby, a driver who had seen the fire couldn’t reach an operator from the phone in a tavern.

George climbed the wall of the house and broke an attic window, slashing open his arm as he did so. He sent his sons to fetch the ladder they kept at the side of the house, but it was nowhere to be found. They tried to use a water barrel to extinguish the fire. Its contents were frozen solid. In a last desperate attempt to reach the attic, George tried to pull both of his business trucks up to the house to climb up to the window. Despite having worked fine only the day before, neither truck would start.

Over the next hour, the Sodders watched their family home burn to the ground. Low on manpower due to the war, the fire department did not respond until later that morning. By 10 a.m., the Sodder home lay in ruin. 

Morris, a firefighter and Jennie’s brother, helped search through the wreckage.

A few hours later, he told his sister the news. There were no bones in the ashes.

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The aftermath 

A few days after the fire, George bulldozed the site of their home, the family intent on making a memorial garden. The chief of the fire department wanted to conduct a more thorough investigation, but the Sodders could not bare the sight of their ruined home any longer.

An inquest into the fire the next day determined it was an accident caused by faulty wiring. Among the jurors was the insurance salesman who had threatened George two months previously.

Though death certs were issued for the five children who were presumed to have died in the fire, the Sodders still had questions. They argued the blaze could not have been as a result of an electrical fault, as the Christmas lights remained operational early on in the fire. They also found their ladder at the bottom of an embankment some distance from their house. On top of that, it was discovered that their telephone lines had been cut, not burned by the fire. A man was arrested in relation to this, though he maintains he meant to cut a power line. His identity remains unknown. George Sodder argued he may have also tampered with his trucks.

Jennie Sodder, on the other hand, wanted to follow up on the call placed to the house shortly before the fire. The placer of the call was eventually traced, though when questioned she maintains it was a simple case of wrong-number.

In 1946, her recollection of events received a boost from a local bus driver, who passing by the house that night had seen unidentified men throwing “balls of fire” at the house. When Sylvia found a green rubber ball a few months later, George postulated the noise his wife had heard was a form of grenade being thrown at the house, and that the fire had started on the roof.

Other witnesses claimed to have seen the children themselves. A woman who watched the fire from the road said she had seen some of them in a passing car. Another woman said she had served them breakfast the next morning at a rest-stop.

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Over the following years, the Sodders never gave up hope, offering a reward for information about the surviving children and erecting a billboard on U.S. route 19. This was met with a flurry of sightings and tips, all of which ultimately led to nothing. The most notable was the following photo, sent to the Sodders in 1967. Jennie found the letter, postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. The picture inside was of a young man with features resembling Louis’s, who would have been in his 30s at the time if he was alive. On the back was written:

Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35

The Sodders hired a P.I. to follow up on the letter, but no contact was ever received again.

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Today, Sylvia is the last surviving member of the Christmas Eve fire. Only two at the time, she maintains it was her earliest memory, and that her siblings survived.

Whether they did or not, we’ll likely never know.

 

 

Mist Rock-Chapter 1-At Summer’s End (excerpt)

I’ve decided to post more details about Mist Rock and the world I’ve been working on here on this blog, feeding you pieces of the project for the foreseeable future. Today, that comes in the form of an excerpt.

Writing a novel can be a little daunting, not least because it has to start somewhere. For me, I tried several openings. Some of them started with action, others with lengthy narrative, others again with simple dialogue. Each of these had their merits, the only common ground between them the immediate introduction of the main character. I settled on a Prologue/Chapter 1 combination in the end. I felt it gave the reader the best chance to fall into the story, to wake up in the world of Mist Rock as though it were normal. Below, I’ve pasted a portion of Chapter 1, which follows Marke Calin on the last day of summer. Hope you enjoy!

A fresh breeze breathed life into the red banners hung limp over the gatehouse of Mist Rock. In the Frost Garden, petals drifted to the dirt, leaving the last of the summer growth naked in the dawn. The final patrons of the Long Shadow Inn stumbled out into the morning while beyond, the first rays of light slipped over the east wall and licked up the streets, kicking the city from its slumber. The sound of distant birdsong, the smell of roasting meat and the feel of late summer heat on the skin.

Marke sensed it all from his doorstep on Winden Street and sighed. The early embers of the fire, a sight he’d quick become used to. He’d spent weeks now wrestling with his decision about the academy. But today summer came to an end. By the time the last flame went out tonight, he would need an answer.

One of his fingers picked at a patch of old paint on the doorframe, the crust giving way with ease. He gazed out over the terraces towards the west wall, where far-off spear tips propped up and down on the battlements, guards shaking off the blue blood of the night’s cold. Raising an arm, he shielded his eyes from the red-gold light on the rooftops, saw only shadows where once there’d been men.

And I have to decide whether I’ll become one of them.

In the yard alongside his house, a horse snorted, stamped its hooves in the dirt.

“I’m coming,” he said, grabbing the sack at his feet. “Can’t I enjoy one last sunrise in peace?”

Marke circled round to the back of the house, edged open the gate into the yard. It was nothing more than a small patch of earth between their home and Ms. Redmin’s, a dusty field where they kept their horses. He smiled as Dawnbreaker trudged out of the barn to meet him, the white socks of her feet brown from where her hooves had sprayed dirt. Bowing her head, breathing warm on his face, she rubbed her nose at his shoulder.

“Yeah it’s good to see you again too,” Marke said, emptying the sack of grain into a trough. “Now go on,” he added. “At least one of us should eat a good breakfast.”

Dawnbreaker neighed and stooped to her meal, as idly Marke brushed his hand down her flank. Across the yard, the rope that used to hold Ms. Redmin’s horse lay loose in the dirt. It had been sitting like that for weeks, its charge presumably still returning from Greatbay. He frowned. The horse’s saddle would now be empty.

Alongside him, Dawnbreaker lapped up water, her muscles flexing as she quenched her thirst. He stared at the liquid sloshing about in the trough. It had been a long, quiet summer in the capital. The heat had been nothing short of relentless, the air as dry as the Sarsaril Desert-if the traders were to be believed, of course. And with no storms in the Mistlands, Marke struggled to remember the taste after rain, the shake of his bones from the cold. He’d nearly started to believe it would continue forever, but those who worshipped the stars pointed to signs in the sky, warned that soon winter would be upon them.

Marke risked another glance at the house opposite. Trembling on a plate on the windowsill, a single red light waved back at him, a candle exhausted from its work overnight. He was pulling his gaze away, when from out of the corner of his eye, the smallest sign of movement stopped him. He gulped.

“Good morning Ms. Redmin,” he called, peering into the shadows at his neighbour, his heart sinking low in his chest. The thin woman in the window ignored him, pinched the wick of the failing candle then with a shaky hand slid another one to take its place. Meeting his eyes for the briefest moment, she pursed her lips and vanished into the depths of the house. At his side, Marke felt Dawnbreaker nudge him.

“I didn’t mean to upset her,” he whispered, his eyes fixed on the white slender candle.

The horse threw back her head and snorted.

“Yeah. I worry about her too,” he said.

In the window, the little yellow flame bounced on its wick, swelled against the crisp morning air.

I wish just this once hope like that could mean something, Marke thought, pulling his cloak fast round his shoulders.

It had been nearly two moons since the news of Erek’s death, yet each day the hurt only pressed nearer, a thorn sliding into his heart. Marke had been returning from the market with his mother when he saw Ms. Redmin collapse into the arms of a guardsman, who stood speechless clutching a letter. That had been the last time she’d left the house, only opening the door to let in close friends since. Letting few people in had always been in her nature. Her husband had abandoned her before Marke was born; Erek had been their only child. And so as the visits of Winden Street residents died out, Ms. Redmin was left alone, her last remaining company her grief.

Marke stirred from his thoughts as the gate knocked behind him. He turned to see his sister trudging towards him, her dark hair tied in a plait down her back, her blue dress hanging low at her ankles. She placed her hands on her hips when she reached him.

“Mother said I’d find you out here. You know, it’s not normal to whisper to horses.”

Marke shrugged. “In the Narelands it is. I heard they can talk to them as though they were men.”

Nadia arched an eyebrow, “Slowly then,” she said, grinning as she crossed her arms. Her smile faded as she followed his gaze to the window. “I’m sorry. I know Dawnbreaker’s been there for you since Erek passed. Maybe more than your own sister has been.”

Marke’s hand instinctively found her shoulder. “You know that’s not true. Even when I’m out in the fields beyond the wall, my heart is here at home. I think it always will be.”

Nadia regarded him curiously. “I thought you made your decision last night.”

Marke turned away from her. “I did. Then…..I unmade it. I just-I just need time.” He swallowed.

Time was the one thing Marke didn’t have. The days had slipped by since Erek had left, weeks melting away after word of his death. And when he’d heard they hadn’t recovered a body, years seemed lost in a heartbeat. Marke’s mother told him Ms. Redmin took that especially hard. In the Mistlands, burials were an ancient rite, a custom those in the south hadn’t observed for centuries. But Greatbay was now Erek’s grave, the waters off of Amarin his final resting place. The letter said he was killed in a sea battle near the coast, saptor ships falling on them before they could muster. Raids out of Varen weren’t uncommon, but Erek had sailed with the Kraken fleet, making his murder a declaration of war, another threat to their empty throne.

“Why are you up so early anyway?” Marke said, pushing thoughts of the decision from his mind.

Nadia tapped the bag slung round her shoulder. “I have classes in the Arches again. I like to get there early so I get a good seat.”

Marke sighed. “You know, they’re only compulsory until you’re eleven.”

Nadia narrowed her eyes. Scarce thirteen years to her name, his younger sister carried herself as though she were a queen.

“It might surprise you to learn I like those classes. It’s not often someone from Winden Street does. Some teachers begged me to continue. Even Mr. Overs says I’m the brightest pupil he has, and he doesn’t like anybody. Besides, mother said she’s going to put my name in again for work in the citadel.”

Marke forced a smile. His sister had applied twice already to practice as a scribe. Both times she’d been denied. The last rejection letter had come in spring, filled with the same vague excuses as the first one.

“How can I be too young?” Nadia had shouted as she tore up the parchment.

Marke’s mother offered her a sympathetic smile. “It’s the way of the courts, little bird. One day you’ll understand. Lord Christopher said to apply again next year.”

“What’s the point?” Nadia said, her eyes filling with tears. “In a few moons I’ll still be young, poor and worse off because I’m a girl.”

Her father had been in the room at the time. He’d slammed the door as he returned to his workshop, and for a whole moon, Marke had never seen him work so hard.

“Well we all can’t be great heroes, can we?” Nadia teased, easing Marke’s hand off her shoulder. “That being said, this time of mid-morning is ever so dangerous. If only I had a brave knight to escort me to my classes,” she said in a faint voice, passing a hand to her forehead.

Marke watched Dawnbreaker return to her stall.  He rolled his eyes as he turned to his sister. “Fine. I’m heading uphill anyway.”

The pair of them shuffled out of the yard, Marke fixing the gate shut as they left. “You know, that tongue of yours is going to get you into trouble one of these days,” he said.

Nadia took a deep breath. “Funny. I always imagine it getting me out of it.”

Mist Rock

When I was eighteen, I stood on a hill above the town of Ballyheigue, Kerry, and paused to look through a hedgerow. Far-off below there were houses, a beach, a row of mountains and a dark ocean meeting them. It was august; there was a cold wind pressed hard against me. Above, the clouds struggled across the sky, bloated with the promise of rain.

I stared at the mountains yawning over me and thought of the crown that they wore. Their peaks, so mysterious, knifed the blue-grey ceiling, disappeared from view as though to another world. And there, for a moment, that world was all my mind saw. A pale woman. A bright sword. Snow, blood, poison. A winter storm and a cloaked figure in it. A fortress ruined by time. 

To stop short of melodramatic, I kinda ran home to write it down. I didn’t even know what the idea was but thousands of words came with it. I kept them all, stored them, tried in vain to make some sense of them. It would be another two years before I sat down with it again, finding it by chance on an old laptop. That same night, I decided to start this very blog. Perhaps it’s fitting they one day met again.

The scene I saw in the hedgerow later became the first chapter of this novel, which for now is called Rise of the Exiles. It’s the first installment of Mist Rock, a fantasy series that all spiraled out of those five seconds on that hill in North Kerry. Of course that vision, six years old this summer, now has words to run with it.

Yet here he was now, his eyes as distant as a white winter sun, his smile as foreign as a strange summer flower. She could nearly pretend they were elsewhere and those features might have made sense, might have drawn her to kiss him, to love him, to know him as she knew herself. But they weren’t. They were in the depths of the forsaken mountains, breathing blue cold, waiting for her to die.

Over the next year or so, I’m hoping to edit the completed first draft, sending it out for feedback with the aim of deriving something worth publication. Yes, that is obviously a big ask, but the dreams we chase probably should be. Regardless of how it turns out, I’m currently just very excited to share this with you!

I’ll leave you with a map of this new world, a synopsis of the story and a quote from it that you can take with you 🙂

An empty throne is the best time for a war, they say.

 Farelia Aelia, Queen of Kraken, has been dead for nearly twenty years. The country she left behind, ruled by a council in Mist Rock, teeters on the brink of destruction. Saptors, a reptilian race long banished, look hungrily to their borders, as armies of Varen gather with them. Among these rebels, two claim a right to the crown.

 In Mist Rock, Marke Calin has his eyes set on a place in the Golden Lance Academy, a school that trains guards of the realm. His father was once a student there, though half the city now thinks he’s a murderer. But soon tension with classmates and exam struggles are the least of his worries; it seems the enemy has far greater plans for him.

 The dark corridors of the academy are not as empty as they look. Shadows are growing longer, students are being stalked, guards are sleeping in fear.  Something was lost with Farelia Aelia seventeen years ago.

 It appears the Exiles have come to find it.

You believe in a cause. Now give people cause to believe in you.

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How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war

William never really liked the term “British Intelligence”.

He sits at his desk and watches the monitor flicker. On a field of blue, two red dots are edging closer, the little lights certain to meet. Around him, the Yanks are shouting, pressing alarms as they slam down their phones. He turns back to his computer and tries to ignore them-tries to forget why the whole room is in chaos. Blinking, it seems as though the Russian ship has stopped moving. William rubs his eyes, pushes himself close to the screen. The ship, one bright drop in a dark ocean, freezes for only a moment, just long enough for a sigh of relief.  But then, even as that breath comes, it’s off again, knifing through the water towards Cuba. At this rate, it will be less than an hour until they’re forced to take counter-measures. War games, much like chess, tend to happen with such sobering speed.

William looks at the picture on his desk, a black-and-white shot taken twenty years previous. The three men are sitting there: Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. The last had his hat off, his legs crossed, his eyes pressed to the floor. The Tehran Conference. Hadn’t they decided to storm France that day? William feels they had. In fact, he’s sure they made a great many decisions, determined what pawns would be sacrificed.

He brings his attention back to the screen and frowns. Yes, he really did hate the term “British Intelligence”.

I’ve decided to write about journalism today, more specifically about the death of it. Even so, I’d like to start by focusing on the positives, acknowledging that it’s not all quite doom and gloom just yet. We’re at a cliff-edge, to be sure, but we might still be able to climb down, remember the precipice as only a reality-check. After all, the top of the mountain is what we aspired to, and if this is indeed the summit, there’s no use only dreading the fall.

Journalism has come a long way from the few-copy newspapers of the 1700s. Recently, its transition to the digital landscape has made for some amazing strides forward. Now, journalism is not only instant, it’s ubiquitous. Anybody with a smartphone can break a story, debate world issues, be a voice for the people around them. Where before our interpretation of events was filtered, stirred and flavoured as to how we might like it, now we’re brewing coffee ourselves, sipping-happy before “big media” has even pulled out a cup. When bombs rained down on Palestine, the world knew. The evidence was all over Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. It came right from the very source, live, and when the heart of that story beat we listened. With the internet, the news is always pumping, a constant lub-dub tap of fingers. We’re taking pictures at every angle, analysing, debating future history on a scale of millions. Digital journalism has become the great equaliser, a platform for professionals and journeymen alike. The online community is now our ultimate conversation, the great pinnacle of human interaction. We’re talking, we’re shouting, we’re screaming. Marching on Washington online. Interestingly, we’re still being heard. Because now businesses and governments both can’t ignore us. There’s money in this new journalism. And whether or not it’s healthy-whether or not you like it, this journalism is shaping public opinion.

William looks at the only other photo on his desk. In it, his eyes, fixed in a younger face, stare back at him unmoving. Perhaps they don’t recognise him. Alongside his younger self stands Peter. Well, not Peter-Piotr. Simple, smiling Polish Peter. In the background are a pair of Spitfires, their brilliant colours lost to the camera, the heat of that British summer day gone with them. That’s our only photo together, William realises. The Few. That’s what they called us. The room grows as loud as an engine, voices roaring in his ear.

Two weeks after the happy little moment in the photo was captured, they’d gone up against the germans again. The Luftwaffe: Hitler’s well-behaved boys, who’d gotten bored of lighting up ships and factories and instead turned their attention to cities, to people. Break their moral. Hit them where it hurts”. That was what the high-command wanted, and so day and night the waves of bombers lapped up over the British coast.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. William had those words in his ears when he climbed into the cockpit. Shakespeare-at a time like this! Mad. Fitting.

They met the Messers and those Jabos just outside of London, English fighters screaming across the sky, lions leaping at their prey. Black clouds and black wind. When the lions bore their teeth, they chewed off a wing or two, sent metal drops of fire into the countryside below. They must have looked awfully funny from the ground, the RAF, flying in V’s like King George’s ducks. Was that what the children thought the Blitz was-a squabble, a great mess? Those of them that weren’t in tunnels pointed to the wrecks, listened for bombs, watched tracer fire light up the sky. Guy Fawke’s every night of the summer.

The morning after the dogfight, William found out Peter had gone down with his ship. Almost British of him. A boy had found him in a field, face down, maybe still smiling. “Look Mummy, that Pole got covered in Red.”

In London, William tried to find Betty. Maybe she wasn’t at home, he thought, when he saw her house had blown half way into the street. They’d been courting for a year: dinners, walks, the occasional trip to the cinema. And oh-my was there talk of marriage. Now he saw her mouse-brown shoes sticking out of the rubble, a scene like the Wizard of Oz. She’d loved that one, talked about the fields of poppies all the way home.

William later found out Hitler liked it too.

‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

Perhaps the first sign of the shift in the world of journalism was the tabloid. It isn’t a modern phenomenon. Not really. They’ve been around for quite some time. A condensed version of the news, often geared for the masses. Is that really such a dangerous concept?

The battle began in earnest when these papers challenged the grip broadsheets had on the news. After all, they’d already conceded to radio, television etc. If they were to lose on their own soil, were they really a news empire to be reckoned with at all? Tabloids, outside of their physical and read-easy convenience, gave people a side of the news broadsheets had for decades shunned away from. There’s a lot of money to be made in gossip, scandal and the shiny world of celebrity culture. Tabloids fed off that, made an arsenal out of human emotion. It wasn’t long until they felt bold enough to challenge the status quo. They cast the first stone, moved before broadsheets could stop them. It came to a head about twenty years ago, one great battle to establish a victor. For broadsheets, it may have been their Waterloo. Instead, it was their Trafalgar. Their Kursk, their Midway. Their Stalingrad.

The movement of news to online platforms gave broadsheets the much-needed jolt they were looking for. They might not have had a copy in everyone’s hands, but their words were getting out there nonetheless. They were surviving, making key moves to close out the war. Enigma broken, tabloids followed but lost all their ground. They certainly looked feeble on D-Day.

On the screen, William watches the dot come to a halt. Is it stopping, or is the computer slow to keep up? He thinks of the cogs turning in the Russian war machine and wonders can they match the pace. Once, he’d hoped the wheels would turn faster, back when the USSR had been allies, back when they’d been friends. You come from the east, we’ll come from the west. Hadn’t that been the way of it?

He remembers that day in the boat, his stomach rolling inside of him. The nausea of flying had never been that bad. They were off the French coast, backs to the white walls of England, bobbing towards Normandy. William the Conquerer, come again, sent back the other way to France-that was how he felt as he sat there. They must have made quite a sight for a German boy with his binoculars. A thousand ships, the ghost of a fleet setting sail for Troy. Wilhelm would have a Luger in his shaky hand. Which way would he point it?

They hit the beach with dawn, landing on the Gold sand, sweeping over the German lines as though they were high tide. They had at least expected a welcome party. Over at Omaha, the Yanks were damming up the English Channel with their dead. The Germans there must have had British ancestors. A proper good way to greet guests.

William sat on the beach after with the others. From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.

More Henry V.

William remembered smiling about it. Shakespeare, his namesake, must have known a thing or two about writing.

Once the move to an online platform had been made, journalism lost a run of itself. Now that everyone had access, whole armies of writers swarmed over the internet with blogs and forums and start-up magazines. I’m counted among them. The sad reality of being a part of it is that it’s hard to be heard anymore, one voice lost among thousands. Very few people at all will ever read this, too busy with the rest of the noise. The more dilute our information becomes, the less impact it has. Perhaps the integrity associated with journalism is gone. It’s drowning in a sea of click-bait articles, viral videos and facebook-rants-of-that-fella-down-the-road-who-thinks-he-knows-Enda-Kenny’s-thought-process. The amount journalists invest in pieces nowadays is measured in puddles, not oceans. It’s not about what you write; it’s about how you promote it, how you get a response out of as many people as possible. You want their likes, their views, their retweets. Their emotions are sort of desirable, so long as you get the traffic.

But in a world of political instability, increasing levels of hatred, declining mental health, melting ice caps and “alternative facts”, the importance of clear, accurate information is paramount. We don’t have the luxury of wasting away a day on LadBible anymore. The time to stand up and be counted is upon us. The hallmark moments of our generation are here.

*sigh*

Perhaps I’m just afraid we’re moving too fast, generating information that we just can’t handle anymore.

After all, if too few of us reach the enemy lines, we’ll hardly make an impression at all.

William smiles. The Russian ship is turning around, heading home, leaving them safe for another day. Perhaps they aren’t all that bad, those communists. He keeps that thought to himself. He feels an outsider enough as it is.

His father said in the First World War the Commies gave the Germans a lesson. Meanwhile, he added, they were stuck in French fields, going nowhere.

“I lost my hearing very early on”, he said. A howitzer blew a hole in the ground next to him, left a constant ringing in his ears. He hadn’t been able to mark the whistle after that. When they were going over the top, he saw the men around him stand up-that’s how he knew it was time. One day his friend George climbed up ahead of him. When William’s father followed, he found George had fallen, face pressed to the mud, almost kissing it.

“Come on George,” he said. “You won’t kill Kaiser from down there.”

For years after, he told William about the Somme: the rain, the explosions, the way men would trudge to their doom. The clouds never left those fields, he said. It was always dark on the Somme.

Near the end, he woke up screaming in his sleep and William had to run to his bedside.

“Turn off that damn typewriter,” he shouted, crying, rolling about in William’s arms. His son, terrified, waited until he calmed down, thought of the typewriter kept in the attic. Nobody had touched it in years.

On the morning of his father’s funeral, they passed the fields of flowers by their house, the bright petals waving to them in the breeze. And William thought of the memorial in France, where the names of the dead were engraved, the list running into thousands. He imagined that soon they would fade. He imagined that soon they too would be forgotten.

Later, after all was said and done, he took the typewriter out of its dusty home in the attic, thought of the simpler times it must have seen.

He pressed a single key, heard its sound and realised that his father, deaf, must have dreamt of the chatter of machine guns.

Candles

candles

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. To put it into perspective, my last post was titled “The words I spoke to Autumn”, and today marked the first day of Spring. That’s not to say I haven’t kept busy on the writing front, but so much of what I’ve been working on is in private, under wraps, sheltered away while I stubbornly polish it. Safe to say it’s a story for another day.

I decided to write this post, “Candles”, in response to all the noise out there in the world at the moment. There’s been a lot of news coverage around the fallout of the U.S. presidential election, the Brexit vote, the conflicts in the Middle East and our own troubles closer to home. Regardless of your interest in politics, it’s becoming quickly impossible to ignore. Drowning airwaves, plastering TVs and seeping into social media newsfeeds-these events are perhaps the great hysteria of our decade, maybe even the landmark moment of our generation if certain commentators are to be believed. And yet, by and large, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

It’s hard to keep a finger on the pulse in this rapidly changing world, that same little flutter at the neck now starting to move and crop up elsewhere. Even so, I’ve managed to pin down one thing. One sober, irrevocable truth.

Confidence is almost extinct.

Acquaintance

A few months ago, I was chatting over coffee with someone I knew reasonably well. To this day, I can’t remember who it was, though for the sake of the argument it doesn’t really matter. At some point during our exchanges, the blurred face turned to me.

I didn’t know your parents had such normal jobs. It’s nice.

I can recall being taken aback at the time, sort of vaguely uncomfortable, like I’d just caught my name in conversation or blinked to find a light on my face. For a few months, I didn’t know whether to read the remark as a compliment or an insult, though I’ve now settled on the fact it was unintentionally the latter. And recently, it gave me pause, made me think about why they said it in the first place. My only conclusion is that the person assumed my parents were extremely well-off, and as a result, I must come across as the son of that, which in layman’s terms can equate to pretentious.

I think part of growing involves trying to see yourself in the eyes of others, attempting to become “self-aware”. It’s by no means an easy task, opening yourself up to the one person who knows you best. All the same, the above story is an example of what I call a minute-mirror, a quick snapshot of who you might be. And as with most photos, very few of us ever like how they turn out. Perhaps the silver lining here is that we can learn a lot from these polaroids, shaping ourselves in time for the next flash. What we can’t do, however, is change how the camera sees us.

The generation I was born into is the most over-labelled and over-scrutinized of all time. Scarce thirty years to our name, we’re already to blame for the deterioration of human nature, the collapse of what people considered good values. All the same, one of the only constants between us, Generation X et al is what I’d actually consider one of the more damning aspects of society we’ve allowed to continue.

Modesty.

Ronaldo

Saturday, 18th of June. A summer evening in the depths of Cork City, where alone I watch Portugal fight it out in a group game with Austria at the European Championships. The match is tied but the Iberian side have just earned a penalty. To nobody’s surprise, captain Ronaldo steps up to take it. Approaching slowly, perhaps waiting for the Austrian keeper to move first, he drives the ball into the post, watches it bounce helplessly away to safety. I’m on the edge of my seat and I sigh in disbelief. On the screen, the Real Madrid forward does roughly the same. And then, as if to rock my house to rubble, the RTE commentator explodes through the speakers.

“THE SHEER ARROGANCE OF THE MAN”, the man-child shouts, lambasting the Portuguese forward for literally kicking a ball wrong. He fails to mention the same player has been on fire all game, dancing in and out of the Austrian defence to shoot close on a number of occasions. And as Ronaldo’s side stutter even more, the man behind the mic pours on the grief.

I’ve often found the case of Cristiano Ronaldo rather unsettling. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most witch-hunted men in sport. Engaged in a never-ending battle with Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi, Ronaldo has become a pantomime villain of football, an easy target for budding sports journalists and that lad in the pub. All because he is confident.

I don’t believe Ronaldo is arrogant. I truly don’t. We see on a number of occasions in plain sight his genuine interaction with fans, his play-acting with team mates and his willingness to engage with the wider community. Yet all that is nullified in the eyes of the press when he complains on the pitch, takes off his top or celebrates because he’s on the scoresheet again.

Just so we’re all clear, we’re talking about a man who unknown to the world only a decade ago, has gone on to win three premier league titles, an FA Cup, three Champions League medals, a European Championship, four Ballon d’Ors, a rake of other individual awards, has more goals in the Champions League than anybody else, has more hattricks in La Liga than anybody else and has scored more goals for Real Madrid (arguably the greatest club in the world) than any other player. I’m sorry, but if a man who accomplishes that much in ten years wants to take off his top and be happy about a goal, fucking leave him off.

On the other hand, we have Lionel Messi. The Argentinian, likely to go down in history as one of the greatest players of all time (and rightly so), has become the people’s champion of football. The tricky forward, known for his solo runs, turn of pace and amazing vision, does not celebrate with as much vigour as Ronaldo, nor engage in as much sponsorship or modeling. As a result, people have elected him a sort of demi-god, a humble master of football who couldn’t harm a fly if it accused him of tax fraud. Though to be clear, Messi was not born yesterday. The Barcelona legend is not under some impression that he’s only “kinda okay” at football. Every time he’s interviewed he’s pointing at his team mates as though that goal where he slithered through six defenders on his own was “all down to the team”. It’s an attitude that endears him to thousands, makes it seem as though the poor crator hasn’t even come to grips with the fact that his legacy will endure forever.

The dichotomy of Ronaldo and Messi typifies the great issue we have with confidence. Messi is “one of us”, a shake-your-hand, smile-for-the-camera, aren’t-we-all-friends-kinda guy. It’s the same tactic politicians use to garner your vote. First, they are among you, then they are you, and suddenly you’re ticking a box with their name next to it. While being humble is applauded, confidence is viewed as some sort of disease, a blight likely to leave us starving if we tolerate too much of it. And yet confidence, so easily skewed into arrogance if your job is to make headlines, is undoubtedly the default position of human nature. The modesty we see in the world today is for the most part false, a cloak-and-dagger show put on by people who’ve learned a thing or two about Narcissistic Supply. Open up even one of your social media newsfeeds and tell me it doesn’t read so. Generally, the not-so-humble entries range from “I’m terrible at life”-25 year old with a car, a steady job, a long term relationship and solid family support to the more obvious “I can’t believe I went to the gym and forgot it was closed.” And of course, the point that I’m making is that those engaging in this behaviour are actually the victims. They are in all respects blameless, forced to reduce their self-worth to zero by a society that values meekness and obedience. A society that values shadows.

Stars

The interesting thing about human nature is that it differs from the individual to the collective. Alone, we’re somehow starting to have far greater company than with others.

Modesty is a social construct, akin to eating with cutlery or using politically correct terms. But while the latter two are virtually harmless, modesty can become so deeply rooted in the collective expectations of a people that to not conform makes you a pariah. We start to dwindle, quash our passions and accept that perhaps we’re not destined for anything at all. The only successes we share are those deemed suitable by whatever background generation we’re part of. Ten years ago the concept of posting “food plans” or “gym pics” to social media would have had you laughed out of any room in the country. Now, those are accepted in culture, woven into the fabric of the very small tapestry we allow the world see. Gym goals, car purchases, engagements. Throw in the common house cat and that’s about all you can share with the world without being labelled an egomaniac. And so we plod along, internalising all the pride we want to show others, belittling ourselves so that we can click “add to cart” on popularity.

Perhaps the only well-defined group of people who don’t engage in any of this finger-to-lips behaviour is celebrities. The culture we’ve built around them, as a result, is essentially escapism, a brief look at the sort of lives we’ve been denied. People wonder how hours are spent in front of reality TV shows, failing to understand we ogle these stars because they’re the uncaged birds, the liberated few, the candles brave enough to keep burning.

But even in the celebrity world, the weeds of a forced modesty are taking hold. Now even those privileged few who’ve come unshackled have to watch for the signs, knowing even the slightest slip would have the daggers of collective humbleness down on them. It’s not uncommon for an idle tweet to turn into character assassination.

“Et tu, Buzzfeed?” they cry, as the knives of social media plunge into them.

Storm

And of course, while reading this you may be rolling your eyes, thinking to yourself “Well yes, but I am truly modest, not modest because I am made so.” If so, I hope you know you are the humble-esque equivalent of those who say “Well I just don’t see colour” when confronted with the idea of racial prejudice.

And what harm, you say, if the world insists on a quiet voice here or stifled celebration there? Isn’t it nice just to keep hush, to play a ghost, to pretend we’re smaller than we truly are. Well, if Ronaldo didn’t take his top off tomorrow, the world wouldn’t fall down around us (probably). That being said, the pursuit of a pseudo-modest society has far-reaching consequences. Firstly, it impacts on us, the small wavy flames, the ever-candles who light the darkness. While it’s perfectly natural to have a lack of confidence, to tremble on a wick as you sit there, it’s artificial to make a wax out of modesty. If we you were to wake up to an empty world tomorrow, your default setting would not be modest. You would grow certain, sure of yourself against the things that life threw at you. As a candle, it might make sense to burn slowly, not waste oxygen or risk snuffing out. And yet, that attitude begs the shadows to come closer, draws the night on you before its due. Something similar was once said in Coach Carter

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us

And while modesty as a social construct lives at large in the world, it makes its home here in Ireland. This is the land where to be “a slob” or “a dote” is desired while “to have notions”, “to be brazen” and “to fuss” is almost a flogging. We’re a head-down, one-fist-pump-then-back-to-the-half-back-line society that values meekness over metal, silence over fury and death stares over well, anything resembling a solution. It’s a small wonder our elected Taoiseach will crawl over to Trump in March, holding shamrock as though it were a sacrifice. What was it Edward Burke said about the Irish-“All it takes for evil to flourish is for your man to say era be grand.”

And of course, those polarized across the political spectrum are relying on this modesty. It’s how religions rose, kings ruled and governments held us to ransom. They are trusting that we won’t come close to the fire, afraid we’ll only get burned, forgetting it’s cold out here in the wilderness.

And so here at last, I am asking you to turn your back on modesty, abandon a system as dangerous to mental health as it is human progress. Understand, this is not a world where to be not-humble makes you arrogant. You forget, Goldilocks found three bowls at the table, one of which, warm with confidence, was just right.

Vigil

The world does not benefit from you burning low, little ever-candle. Remember, there are forces out there in the darkness at work, people who would have you waver, flicker, go out without as much as a hiss. They’re counting on you being a meagre light, a pale flame, only a whisper of fire. But in times such as this, you can’t afford to play small. Because soon the wind will whip hard, and the stars will drop out of the sky and the moon will go black and all that’ll be left will be you: the soft, modest candle.

And seeing the gloom yawn up over you, watching it swallow all the other teardrop lights, you may realise something.

Perhaps it is time you burned brighter.