Listowel May/June 2012 by Mary Russell

Can’t believe it’s only a week, give or take, till Listowel Writers’ Week. This will be the third time I’ve been to Listowel. The first occasion was when one of my short stories won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story competition. It was based on a meeting I had with the brother of Ken Saro Wiwa soon after the Ogoni activists were hanged by the Nigerian regime. I wrote in a male voice which somehow came more easily to me than I had expected, perhaps because Owens Wiwa spoke so passionately about his brother and their beloved homeland.

Village people close to the Iraqi border

The next time I arrived in Listowel, in 2003, I had been invited to take part in a round table discussion about travel writing with Vincent Brown in the chair but, horrors, I came late to the table and there was no spare chair. This didn’t matter at all, though, because everyone, in great good humour, budged up for me and carried on talking, all at the one time, if I remember rightly.

On that occasion, just one year after John B Keane’s death, I decided to walk out along the road to the cemetery to pay my respects to Ireland’s most popular publican. Not sure where exactly the grave was, I called in to the pub on William Street to ask his wife, Mary, where to find it. Then, after giving me the directions, she added: “And tell him I love him.” When I got to the cemetery, there was only one other person there, tending a grave. That man over there, I thought, will surely think I’m talking to myself, as I muttered Mary’s message. Then I pulled myself together and bawled out: “Mary says to tell you she loves you.”

Car in Damascus

The man tending the grave didn’t turn a hair and carried on regardless so I needn’t have worried at all.

I remember that week was a lovely sunny one and I sat on the warm stones of the bridge, having a quiet think and wondering when I might be back again. Now, that time has come and I can’t wait to get together with my fellow travellers, Manchan Magan and Brendan Harding. We’re on at 6pm on Friday June 1st in The Plaza Centre and I reckon we’ll each have very different tales to tell. My own will be based on My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria, my latest book which is about my travels round Syria and what it was like to be 1) a woman 2) a woman alone 3) a woman alone and on a bike.

My tiny no-star hotel in Damascus

Syria, of course, is in the news right now and my book aims to look at the upside of this complex area and to celebrate a very great country, rich in history and culture and its kind, hospitable peoples. I say peoples because while the majority are Arab there is also a significant Kurdish minority.

Travelling solo, as I always do, meant that I was constantly invited to drink coffee, have a meal and finally to stay the night – which I sometimes did.

Back home, people often ask was it dangerous being on my own and frankly the one thing that did terrify me were the snarling packs of semi-feral dogs that surrounded me and my bike on more than one occasion. That got the heart pounding.

Women not allowed in sufi tariqa (mosque)

By the way, I’ll be bringing to Listowel a folder of photos of Syria which I hope people will enjoy looking at. They cover some of the places I just wasn’t able to include in the book.

It’ll be interesting, talking to Manchan and Brendan, to see if any of the theories come good which I explored in The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt, my book about women travellers and explorers. Given that we each will have very different experiences, motivations and interests and that there may well be a gender difference in our way of travelling, one way or the other, it’s going to be a lively session.

Christmas eve in a monastery, 3000 feet up a mountain

Lively too will be the session with Germaine Greer. She’ll be interviewed by RTE’s John Murray on Saturday June 2nd at 6.30pm at the Arms Hotel. I interviewed Germaine in Brown’s Hotel, in London for The Irish Times. She had just published Sex and Destiny and had been giving interviews all day. Mine was the last one and as we left the hotel together, the waiter ran after her with a fistful of bills for the endless cups of coffee. “You can’t leave without paying these,” said the wretched waiter. “My agent will see to those,” said Greer, continuing to advance steadily towards the door. “No, please, you can’t go without paying,” begged the waiter. “I can’t?” said Greer, taking the bills from him, tearing them up into confetti-size pieces and throwing them heavenwards then exiting, with The Irish Times running behind her, both of us covered in tiny bits of unpaid bills. Utter bliss.

If you’d like to know more about My Home is Your Home, click here. And there’s news of The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt on my website at www.maryrussell.info