I grew up in a big family in a small town in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. I lived and worked in England for thirty years. I now live in Belfast, but I still think of myself as a Tyrone woman. My father was from Glenaan, one of the nine Glens of Antrim, so I feel a strong connection to that part of the world as well.
If you'd told me when I was in my twenties that I would be a published author in my fifties, I would have been astonished. Yet when I look back and impose a narrative on the past, put in the signposts, I can see that this is the job I have been preparing for all my life.
I graduated from Queen’s University, Belfast, at the end of the 1960s, as the Northern Ireland civil rights movement was marching in the streets, demanding fair play in jobs and housing for Catholics, and what would come to be called The Troubles were just beginning.
In those days, female humanities students were advised to become teachers or civil servants. There was no longer a ban on women staying in these professions after marriage. They were considered safe options at a time when it was still legal to fire women for being pregnant. The recommended route into most other jobs was secretarial. I suppose there was an idea that we would learn by osmosis, by being taken under the wing of some man who wanted a “Girl Friday,” as secretaries were described in newspaper advertisements.
I began a postgraduate secretarial course. How old-fashioned that sounds now! There were no men in the class. We had lectures on how to organize the boss’s diary. Have I imagined the classes in flower-arranging?
I was rescued by a telephone call from my father. The BBC in Northern Ireland was advertising for announcers and newsreaders. “Why don’t you apply?” he said.
I went for an interview and audition. The latter mostly consisted of reading aloud a script which included the names of composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert; a few more difficult ones—Respighi, Saint-Saëns - and, to make sure we had gravitas, the German composer of organ music Samuel Scheidt.
I passed. The Controller of BBC Northern Ireland congratulated me and said I was the first female to read the news on the BBC. I knew it was even more astonishing that I was a Catholic. The BBC in Northern Ireland at that time was regarded as synonymous with the Protestant and Unionist political establishment.
As an announcer, one of my duties was to introduce recitals of song cycles and chamber music from a studio the size of an aircraft hangar, big enough to take an orchestra. I would announce, for example, the contralto Una O'Callaghan singing Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” live in the studio. As soon as she began to sing, I would kick off my shoes, tiptoe across the parquet floor in stockinged feet, turn the pages for Havelock Nelson, at the piano, hurry back to my microphone in time to catch my breath, and announce, “That was . . .” It was a wonderful musical education, and deepened my interest in singing, in particular.
I read news bulletins filled with the names of friends I had been to university with, now building barricades and being arrested by the police.
I was, by temperament, an observer, not an activist. I wanted to report what was happening. I left the BBC and got the grand-sounding job of Northern Ireland correspondent for the long-established Examiner newspaper. That was the beginning of a long apprenticeship in narrative. You learn to compose stories quickly when you are in a telephone box, uncomfortably close to a riot, coins at the ready, dialing, dictating your copy from scribbled notes. I moved to London to be a lobby correspondent at Westminster. I became a night reporter on The Times.
In the meantime, the BBC in Northern Ireland had been reformed and shaken up. It was no longer the establishment’s complacent poodle. It had become a terrier, digging out stories, snapping at the politicians' heels. I went back to the BBC as a reporter on Spotlight, a weekly series of thirty-minute films on current affairs. The editor who hired me was Bernard Wiggins, who would later leave the BBC to become the bestselling novelist Bernard Cornwell, Britain’s storyteller, author of the Sharpe books, the Starbuck Chronicles, and many, many more. Bernard had enormous flair, an instinct for a story, and a strong sense of narrative. I learned to capture and keep the attention of the viewers. To signpost the story. To choose the bits of “sync” that best created and maintained tension. To direct filming.
In 1984 I moved to England to report for two forty-minute weekly BBC programmes. 'Brass Tacks' (BBC2) was on film. 'File on 4' was (still is) on Radio 4. The latter was the best apprenticeship of all. Radio listeners are rarely seated, except in their cars. You have to make them listen. Paint pictures for their imagination. Choose the right number of voices, the most compelling bits of interviews. You want the listener to become absorbed, to stop ironing or loading the dishwasher, to sit a bit longer in the car outside their destination to hear how the story ends.
There were about eight television and radio programmes making current-affairs documentaries - from twenty minutes to an hour long - on BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Over the next fifteen years, I was a reporter, or reporter/producer/director for most of them. I travelled to all regions of the UK, to Ireland, Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East, Africa. I reported revolution in the Phillipines, civil war in Angola, economic crises in Argentina, hostage-taking in Lebanon, the break-up of Yugoslavia, the siege of Sarajevo, the first Intifada. I loved my job. But, gradually, most outlets for serious television documentaries disappeared and were replaced by “reality” television shows in which the events unfolded live before the viewers, and there was no need for a narrator.
I knew I was a storyteller. I began to think seriously about writing a screenplay. It seemed the obvious form for me. I was daunted by the idea of writing a novel. Too many words, I said.
A story was rattling around in my head. It had sprung from a chance remark made to me when I was researching a documentary about adoption. The mother of an adopted daughter told me the nun who arranged the adoption had telephoned ten years afterwards to ask about the child. The documentary never got made. It was overtaken by something more current. But the remark lodged like a pebble in a corner of my brain. I wondered why the nun had telephoned. I began to say to myself, “What if? - which is, of course, the starting point for all fiction.
And this is where my own story gathers pace.
Three things happened to me about the same time. I got married. I became a fanatical golfer. The BBC television drama department asked me to find and research a true story for “a millennium drama.”
I took up golf to keep my husband company. I knew that golf courses, especially in Ireland, are almost always in lovely scenery and the hunt for lost balls could turn up a rabbit, a hare, or a nesting lark. But I didn’t know the game could get you by the throat and not let go.
The story I found for the BBC was a cracker. It combined history, politics, and a woman’s hunger for justice and fair play. The drama commissioner “loved it.” It went “into development.” It had a researcher (me), a producer, a writer, even a budget.
It didn’t occupy all my time. I was playing a lot of golf and spending a fortune on lessons. If golf was not to bankrupt me, I had to find a way of paying for my new-found passion. I persuaded an Irish publisher to commission a guide to holiday golf in Ireland. I wrote it with non-golfing partners of golfers in mind. While golfers played the courses detailed in the book, the non-golfers (and golfers who could tear themselves away) could explore the attractions described beyond the 18th green.
By the time I finished writing Emerald Greens, the BBC drama had been stuck “in development” for three years. There always seemed to be a problem. An actress regarded as “box office” wasn’t available. Or didn’t want to do it. A new boss was appointed. The process started all over again. Some of the people whose real experiences I had reported, had died. The producer went off to make a drama series for a different channel. Scripts were written and rejected. The writer despaired. I vowed I would never write a screenplay.
My golf book, Emerald Greens was published. I realized I had written more than seventy thousand words. Writing a novel suddenly seemed less daunting. I put my own screenplay in the bin, and wrote the first sentence of Singing Bird.
Happily, the BBC screenplay became a wonderful radio play and was broadcast on BBC radio 4 in 2003.
Out of all the interviews, glimpses into people’s lives, and asides during my reporting career, why did a conversation about a nun's telephone call stay with me, become the seed of a story?
The answer comes back that the first programme I made for the BBC, 40 years ago, when I was still a newsreader, was called A Question of Identity: A Search for Northern Ireland’s Identity Through the Work of Its Poets and Writers. (Commissioned by the irreplaceable Ronnie Mason who was then Head of Programmes and whose door was always open to anyone with a good idea.) I realize I have always been interested in the notion of identity. What makes us what we are? How do we describe ourselves? It comes from growing up in a divided society, I suppose.
When I was writing Singing Bird I had no conscious thought that I was exploring one of my preoccupations, yet a search for identity is at the heart of the book.
I remember interviewing the Scottish poet Liz Lockhead for a documentary I made for BBC Radio 3. She read one of her poems. It was ostensibly about a bull, but really about sex.
“The poem is about sex,” I said.
“Of course it’s about sex,” she replied. “But if I’d known it was about sex when I was writing it I couldn’t have written it.”
When I read my first draft of Singing Bird, I saw that the songs I used, whether operatic arias, country-and-western and folk ballads, or the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, though separated by genre, complexity, language, and time, dealt with the same situations and emotions. I had given Lena these lines: “Mary likes country and western . . . she says the plots are the same as opera. Love, betrayal, secrets, loss.” But I hadn’t realized how closely the music resonated with my characters and their experiences.
My unconscious mind had created patterns that I now saw. “DoveSono,” the lament of the Countess in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, echoed the country- and-western song “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” in an earlier chapter. The eponymous Figaro finds his mother.
In the second draft, I consciously chose music to marry with the different strands of plot. The reference to Mary’s role as the novice mistress in Puccini’s opera Suor Angelica, for example, is both a clue and red herring. Writing novels, I decided, can be fun.
I enjoy broadcasting as well. This article I wrote for BBC Northern Ireland about my early days reporting for Spotlight might give you some flavour of what I loved about the job.
While I was writing my first four novels, I continued to make occasional radio documentaries and features for BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3, and I made a series for BBC N.I. - The Interview — 30 minute conversations with people from Northern Ireland who excelled in their chosen field, such as the nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, the physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the novelist Brian Moore, the concert pianist Barry Douglas and the footballer George Best. The interview with George Best is archived on the web. Such lengthy interviews aren't fashionable any more. I think that’s a shame.
I currently present the BBC Radio Ulster programme Sunday Sequence - week-about with Audrey Carville. And I'm writing my sixth novel.