Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Return of the Prodigal Grandson

At ten minutes past two, on Friday morning, one of my great-uncle Ivans passed away. I had, or have, two uncle Ivans - my father's uncle and my mother's. The Uncle Ivan who passed away on Friday was my father's; the youngest of my late grandfather's five brothers. He was seventy-eight years old and, in keeping with an old Ulster Presbyterian tradition, he was buried from home. 

I would by lying if I said I had been close to Ivan, in anything except genetics. At the time of his death, I hadn't seen him in nearly ten years, since my own grandfather's funeral.  If I'm honest, my memories of the five brothers as a collective are patchy, even before that. All five of the Russell brothers looked so alike that, to a child, when gazing up at them, it was often difficult to tell them apart. But I can remember that my grandmother, May, who I spent most of my  childhood Saturdays with, always spoke of Ivan with great fondness. I think he was her favourite brother-in-law. In fact, I know he was. My grandmother and I are too alike in that respect; we never did bother with hiding our favouritism. Thanks for that little trait, Granny...

The funeral was held in Lurgan, a town about twenty miles south of Belfast. Once upon a time, going to Lurgan was the happiest route of my life, because it meant I was going to my grandparents'. But then, Granny May lost her battle with cancer and, eighteen months later, my grandfather, strong as an ox, fell from the roof of a church he was working on and died later of complications. I was fourteen years old and, with them gone and their house sold, there was less and less reason to come to Lurgan. Unless it was to visit their grave, with the simple words The Lord Is My Shepherd engraved in gold letters at the bottom. Grandpa chose the verse himself.

Driving back into Lurgan on Sunday was therefore a pretty surreal experience. Everything seemed somehow both foreign and achingly familiar. It was in Lurgan that I'd had my only serious personal experience of the Northern Irish Troubles, as a very young child, during an IRA car bomb scare, when I was whisked out of the town centre by my grandfather and deposited in their house, before he dashed back in to try and retrieve my grandmother from the other side of the police line. It was in Lurgan that I had my very first memory - I was walking in Lurgan Park with my grandfather and I apparently ran off to try and walk on the ice that had frozen over the lake. The ice broke under me after a few steps; so my first memory is of my arms outstretched in front of me, trying to clamber back up out of the water, before my grandfather's arms reached in and pulled me out. I don't remember anything else really after that, apart from the fact that he saved me and that the sleeves on my jacket were beige, with a  dark stripe somewhere near the elbow. 

But despite all those memories, I'm not a Lurgan boy. Apart from my  paternal grandparents, I didn't really know anyone there. I grew up elsewhere - in Saintfield, Belfast and County Down. I have no trace of that distinctive Lurgan accent. Like the people of south Belfast and south Down, I tend to emphasise the last syllable of my words; the good folk of Lurgan emphasise the first. Only a few months ago, I remorselessly teased a close friend, who is originally from Lurgan, when he asked me how my I-talian lessons were progressing. It was good natured teasing, though; secretly, I sort of loved hearing it. 

Inside Uncle Ivan's home on Sunday, it was accent role reversal; as soon I began to speak, I suddenly felt very conscious that my accent sounded different to nearly everybody else's in the room, except my mother's. It possibly even sounded affected. God knows, it wasn't helped when I was asked what I was doing with myself for living.  Honestly people, there's just no good way of saying "I'm a writer" without sounding either incredibly pretentious or like an unemployed wastrel. Why didn't I become a lawyer?

As more and more people filed into the small living room where the service was to be conducted, my mother and I sat on a sofa in the far corner, as my dad caught up with old relatives. I looked around, particularly at the men. Many of them were my age, or thereabouts; practically all of them were my close blood relatives and, yet, to all intents and purposes, they were strangers. I didn't know them; they certainly didn't know me.  I don't know how to describe how I felt. Maybe it was a little lonely?

The minister, from a small local Presbyterian church that Uncle Ivan had gone to Sunday school in back during the 1930s and which my grandfather had remained faithful to until the day he died, cleared his throat and announced we would begin. There was an opening prayer - the kind that only a Northern Irish Presbyterian minister is truly capable of. Long, sonorous, much more like a conversation with God than a formal prayer. Then he started on three readings from the Bible - one from the Psalms, one from the gospels and  one from the epistles. They weren't short readings. They were long and had a lot more theology in them than simply offering hope of eternal life to the grieving widow and family. They were all punctuated by prayers and reflections on the nature of God, Heaven and sin.

As I bowed my head for one of the prayers, it struck me how absurdly provincial - backwards, even - this service would have seemed to many of my English and American friends. I began to think that maybe these kind of home-grown services which, as a child, I'd thought of as the closest thing to holiness imaginable, were basically a bit ridiculous once you came back to them as an adult. But then, somewhere around Psalm 23, it all came flooding back to me. I remembered what it was like to be part of this, rather than simply an observer.

I looked around the room and I began to see it properly. I saw the minister, his hands shaking with multiple sclerosis, defiantly leafing through the pages of the Bible and speaking to his makeshift congregation. Not at them. I saw elderly relatives whose names and faces I knew, watching him intently and nodding as he mentioned the mercy of Jesus and the reality of God. There was total certainty on their faces and I remembered what it had been like to feel like that. I watched as everyone rose, dressed to the nines in understated black mourning, and filed out neatly into the street to walk behind the coffin as it was escorted from its last earthly dwelling place. The entire street  where Ivan had lived came to a halt; they drew their curtains as a mark of respect and many came out to stand by the roadside and pay their respects. As the coffin was placed in the hearse and we drove to the graveyard, ordinary men and women on the streets of Lurgan doffed their caps to the coffin as it went by; some crossed themselves. Many bowed their heads.  They didn't know this man; they didn't know whose funeral this was, but they paid their respects anyway. In a really strange way, the whole thing had a kind of weird, sad beauty to it. Like someone had turned the mute button on the hysteria of modern grieving and brought everything back to a more quiet, more dignified, maybe even a more sincere, way of doing things.

At the reception afterwards - tea, coffee, homemade cakes and sandwiches in the local Orange Hall, where an official portrait of The Queen still stands framed by two immaculately-maintained Union Jacks - there was a return to some kind of good humour. Food and, of course, tea was being pressed into my hands by the pushy women of the Orange Order whose mission in life seems to be to magic up industrial-sized quantities of food and drink at a moment's notice. How they do it, I have no idea, but may God in Heaven help you if you don't say yes when they offer you a slice of their homemade chocolate cake. They don't trust a man who doesn't eat. Fact.

I sat next to my great-uncle Jack. He's eighty-eight now. As a child, I thought he was my grandfather's twin. Turns out, Jack was actually three years older. As we sat chatting with him, he told me how he could remember clearly his first day of school - eighty-four years ago. But he struggled to remember what happened last week. Jack had worked all of his life as a builder, in partnership with my grandfather. I'm told that between them they built half the homes in Lurgan; although maybe that's just a family boast. Dad asked him if Grandpa had been a bit of a rascal at school and Uncle Jack shook his head: "No, no. Bobby was good. Bobby was always good." I was about to say something about Grandpa's famous ability to cheat at a game of Lexicon or Scrabble (he'd spell out dubious place names from the Bible and then insist he be given points for them) when Jack spoke again, "I meet your Grandpa every night. Every night I dream that we're back out working together. And then I wake up and forget for a wee minute that he's gone. Bobby was the best man I ever knew. The best man." Mum's eyes filled with tears and I had to bite the inside of my lip until it nearly bled to stop them coming. (A South Down accent is one thing, but crying in public is something I'd never recover from.)

And he was. Since the day Grandpa Bob died, I've met some of the most brilliant and fascinating people from all walks of life, but Uncle Jack is right: wee Bobby is still the best man I ever knew. I was brought up on stories of the family that went right the way back to John de Courcy and the tomb of Saint Patrick. As a child, I was fascinated by the debutantes, rebels, knights and merchants who were said to dot our families' histories. But looking back on it now, my Grandpa Bob was without question the most honourable, the most decent and most genuinely good man I ever met. He was a builder, who worked with his hands every day that God sent him, except Sundays, Christmas, Good Friday and the two weeks a year he took off to go on holiday with my grandmother to the north coast. And he was my hero. Somewhere between Down High and Oxford, New York, Malone, Meredith Harper and the best part of a decade, I think I'd forgotten that just a little. It was nice to remember. The two of them really were absolutely wonderful grandparents.

I'm not a Lurgan boy. I don't really know it now, except in memory form. But going back there on Sunday brought back a lot of memories. It made me remember all the things that my family have done for me and how all the bits of us, the many families and experiences that we all have, make us into who we are. It also made me remember how proud I am to be Bobby's grandson.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Ehm... is this the cutest ad ever?

Okay, I very rarely get emotional but this public service ad from Australia is, I think, one of the cutest things I've ever seen and very well-directed. What do you guys think? Big thanks to my friend Eric for forwarding it to me. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Hartman Family Thanksgiving

Blake Hartman's first proper experience of November in Belfast hadn't exactly filled him with confidence for December. In contrast to the cold but bright fall days he was used to in Connecticut, Belfast seemed to count a November day as a good one if it happened to be dry. Or rather, if it didn't rain. There had probably been so much rain the day before that the ground and the leaves were still wet. And it was always overcast. No wonder everyone here hated Fall/Autumn.

Today, however, Blake's usual sense of homesickness was far, far worse. It was Thanksgiving and he was three thousand miles away from his mom, his grandparents, his cousins and his friends. It hadn't been helped by the dozens of cards he, his dad and his brother had received from home, with their friends photographed as a family to send out holiday good cheer. 

His dad was at home right now organising a big Thanksgiving dinner for them, but it would be the first without their mother's cooking, the first without friends calling over, the first time they didn't sit down after a long day of watching the parade and playing tennis outside. It was the first Thanksgiving away from America and Blake hated it.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Captain America."

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Emma Rutter (Year 10, Friends' Grammar School) reviews "Popular"

Okay, so many of the Facebook fan page followers might remember that last month I went to speak at Friends' Grammar School in Lisburn (behold their crest, above) and had a really great time there. It's a great school and the audience was a lot of fun. I spoke a bit about what it's like to be an author, read from chapter one of the book and then did a book signing (luckily, signature has definitely improved since the first time I did at Waterstones in Belfast when the first five books looked like a drunken spider had been dropped in ink and allowed to wander across their front page...)

Anyway, one of the Year 10 students at Friends', Emma Rutter, has written a review with her thoughts of Popular and a big thanks to Emma for writing it and Mrs. Black for sending it to me. Love this review and hope you do too!

Gareth Russell: Popular by Emma Rutter

The bitchy, backstabbing - and totally beau - debutantes of Belfast. 

Meredith Harper, Kerry Davidson, Cameron Matthews and Imogen Dawson are the monarchs of Mount Olivet Grammar School. The trend-setters, the queen bees and the heart-achingly beautiful, everyone wants to be them - and don’t they know it.  But what the outsiders don’t see is the web of scandal, silences and intrigue that lies behind the glamorous front.

It’s the tale of their lives, in and out of school. It’s the book which reveals the struggles between friends, the decisions faced by the possibly-gay Cameron, the troubled relationships between the characters. It’s an insight into the lives of the A-List, filled with dinners, parties and lots and lots of sparkle.

The characters are all different, yet each of them needs each other indefinitely. Where would Meredith be without her bezzie Imogen? And can you imagine ditzy Kerry with anyone other than Cameron to soothe her down at the time of a Fabulously Induced Breakdown? 

Coming from Northern Ireland myself, I thought it was a great idea to have a book set in good old Belfast. An attempt to change the misconceived idea that Ireland is just a green country filled with leprechauns, terrorists and and endless amount of pubs, it’s part of a new generation of books set in an alternative area to the typical England or America.

When I first looked at the book, I thought to myself, “This is just an Irish version of Gossip Girl.” How very wrong I was! I really love the fact that both the characters and the storyline are extremely believable (and I confess that, as I was reading the book, I found myself placing people I know into the shoes of many of the characters!) All the little local details (such as the Ulster Tatler) add a richness to the storyline which nothing else could replace. Throw in the artfully constructed sentences and the emotional journey taken by most of the characters during the book, and you’ve got yourself a deliciously indulgent read that’ll leave you begging for more.

UK readers can purchase Popular HERE.

'Distressingly familiar': an Australian review of "Popular"

Viewpoint, Australia's leading young adult literature magazine, includes a new review of Popular in the current edition (Vol. 19, no. 4). Printed out of the University of Melbourne (coat of arms; left), the magazine is dedicated to reviewing all major new novels for Australia's booksellers and teen readers. The review is by Katy Gerner, a writer and reviewer from Sydney, who didn't expect to like Popular based on its cover, but here's what she had to say.

Popular: Have you got what it takes? by Gareth Russell

When I first picked up Popular, I expected (a) it to be about a bunch of mean American girls and (b) that I wouldn't like it. (I went to a high school full of mean 'popular' girls and I don't like being reminded how nasty females can be to each other.) However, the girls and one boy were Irish, although pretty mean, and I did enjoy it. Russell stands back from his characters and describes them almost mockingly, and puts them in undignified situations for the reader's amusement. 

His plots did not go in the direction that I expected them to. I was expecting a 'Benedick' and 'Beatrice' denouement but it didn't happen. Sometimes, the main characters had moments of enlightenment about their behaviour which I thought would lead to a change of character, but no, they happily slipped back into their old ways. It also wasn't clear who were the true 'baddies' and who were the true 'victims'. This aspect of being unable to guess what the characters were going to do next or what was going to be done to them, made the story compelling.

The nastiness and self-destructive behaviour in Popular is believable, perhaps because Russell saw it when he was a teenager. The introduction says, 'nearly all the book is based upon events that have happened during his schooldays - the more ridiculous they seem, the greater the chance that they are close to real life.' I did wonder, as the characters worked so hard to avoid any school work, and their exam answers are distressingly familiar.

Popular is the first of a new series. I'm wondering how the characters will cope after their exams having deliberately sabotaging their schooling? Or what they are going do to their livers? Perhaps Russell is arranging an embarrassing ending for them, better even than the scene on page 105. One can hope so.

Katy Gerner is a Sydney writer an reviewer. She also survived her high school years, although she still has nightmares about them.

Copyright to Viewpoint magazine is owned by the University of Melbourne

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Dictatorship of the Bathroom (Part 3 in "Halloween")

On Halloween night, Mariella Thompson, dressed head to toe in shimmering ancient Egyptian-themed costume and jewellery, poured another drink for her friends, Natasha Jenkins and Lavinia Barrington, who had come to her Halloween house party as "shady bitch hunters," which seemed to involve skin-tight black leather trousers, black leather jackets and various accessories which were apparently their tools in prosecuting the war against shady biatches and their shady ways. Inebriated and spiteful, at one point earlier in the evening Natasha had shimmied drunkenly over to Gemma March and said, "Watch out, Gemma. Tonight, we can hunt you!"

So far, the party was going well and Mariella was distinctly relieved that no-one had vomited. At her last party, Tangela had made the whole thing v. irritating by going projectile directly in the face of Mariella's elder brother, Hugo, who had understandably failed to see the funny side of being coated in lime vodka-scented throw-up. Adjusting her serpent-topped crown and glancing swiftly round the room, Mariella spotted no-one who seemed to be on a one-way ticket to Vom City. 

In the Thompson family's large den, the drinks were flowing as freely as the gossip and the two shady bitch hunters, Natasha and Lavinia, were perched on a comfy blue ottoman, when Mariella sat down to join them. They were part of a larger group which included three members of the upper sixth popular clique, Sarah-Jane, Olivia-Grace and Louise, a few members of the First XV rugby squad and two members of the fifth year group - Imogen Dawson, currently snuggling up to her boyfriend, outside centre Stewart (dressed atrociously, Mariella thought, as some sort of demented version of d'Artagnan, Jack Sparrow or a 17th century hobo) and Cameron Matthews. Holding court with his rowdy banter was Peter Sullivan, a six-foot fifth year rugby player who, at some point in their lives, most girls in senior school seemed to have had a reluctant rite-of-passage crush on. Conversation had turned to Nicola Porter, a once-pretty fifth year who had since tried to transform herself into an easy-going sex symbol and had thus earned for herself the undying hatred of every popular girl at Mount Olivet. Mariella, who considered Nicola to be a boy-crazy desperado with bad hair and fat thighs, had banned her from ever coming within a five mile radius of one of her parties after Nicola had shamelessly flirted with Mariella's then-boyfriend, Richard Murland, at the Helen's Bay Country Club Young Members' annual mixer back in July.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The ALPHAREADER review of "Popular"

Danielle Binks, author of the ALPHAREADER blog (, a really great young adult review blog, has given Popular five stars out of five! To quote: -
"I loved reading about the life and times of Irish teens. I especially loved the fact that Russell’s teenagers are neither middle-class ‘Skins’ or spray-tanned O.C. bitches. Russell’s Mount Olivet teens are in a world all their own. There are very different rules of popularity for Irish cliques; attending Mass is a chance to hobnob and being on the Lady of Lourdes fundraiser board is a sign of status. I love, love, loved the fact that ‘Popular’ is about Irish teen cliques – not the typical (and done-to-death) American ‘Mean Girls’ variety. Yes, the characters reference Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, but their lives are decidedly Irish, right down to their religious-laden quips;

‘What are your plans for revision, Imogen?’ asked Cameron, taking another drink of Diet Coke
‘Saint Jude,’ she replied. ‘Well, I mean, it’s sort of staggered really. I’ll start off with Saint Giuseppe and Saint Thomas Aquinas, but I think in the end it’s all going to come down to Saint Jude.’
‘Oh, he’s very good,’ said Meredith.
Decipher: Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.

Russell’s characters are also delicious dastardly darlings. These teenagers are the richest of the rich, getting their own spreads in the Ulster Tattler and residing in Belfast mansions to rival even the cliff-side residences of Orange County. Fair warning, few characters in ‘Popular’ are redeemable or even likable. Meredith is an Ice Queen who rules by iron fist and double-dealings. Imogen is a pretty girl who knows it, and Kerry is wholly concerned with usurping her best frenemy. These characters are horrendous . . . but Russell writes them with so much panache and ‘OH-MY-GOD!’ antics that they bypass annoying and head straight into horribly entertaining. Like a car crash you can’t look away from, the characters in ‘Popular’ are often times so depraved and annoying that they’re entertainingly fabulous."
Check out Danielle's amazing review in full HERE

What do you guys think? Do you agree with her? Personally, it's one of my favourite reviews of Popular so far!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The All Hallows Friendship Quest (Part 2 in "Halloween")

Here is part II in this blog's 3-part Halloween story, following some of the characters from Popular as they celebrate All Hallows. For part I, Fireworks, click here.
The rain had gone and the wind calmed down by the following afternoon when Cameron stepped off the 8B Metro bus in the city centre. Saying a silent prayer that no-one from school would see him using the peasant wagon, he checked the road twice and ran quickly across it. Turning left, he very nearly collided with one of his best friends as she emerged from Rio and Brazil BT9 with a shopping bag slung over her left arm.

"Heysies," she smiled. "Where are you going?"

"I'm meeting a friend for coffee in town. I'm actually already kind of late. What are you doing?"

"Were we supposed to have coffee today?"

"No. It's with ... someone else."

A dark look crossed over Kerry's face. "Oh."

"It's one of the guys," Cameron explained quickly. "It isn't Imogen or Meredith. Or Catherine - obviously."

"I'm sure it isn't," she shrugged. Her eyes darted away and Cameron was seized with a terrible memory.

"It really isn't. Do not follow me to see if I'm lying."

"Fine! But I'll be calling them. I will be calling them, Cammy. Callingsorama."

"Fine. But I swear, we wouldn't make plans without you."

Kerry's face brightened into a pretty smile. "So, how excited are you for Mariella's bash ce soir?"
"So excited," he replied dutifully. "It'll be amazing."

"It will. I heard your ghost costume is super-hot? I'm going as an angel. I got new lipgloss for it. I was going to go as a mermaid, but I can't move in the outfit. Like, not even a little bit."

"You'll look amazing as an angel, Kerry. Good call. Listen, I'm running seriously late - can I call you later?"

"No problema," she smiled. "See you later. Enjoy having coffee with boring people!"

As Kerry sailed off down the street in search of her mother, Cameron dashed across the pedestrian crossing towards the city hall. A large gathering of indies, emos, goths and faux-Satanists were congregated on the black and gold benches nearby; one pubescent couple in matching hells' angels boots were making-out vigorously and Cameron repressed the urge to vomit. A group of girls looked at him with undisguised loathing as he passed by, although he had no idea if he had ever before seen or met them in his entire life. Blake was standing up ahead of him, on the cobbles near the main gates, looking at his phone. Cameron debated whether he should speed-up to show contrition for being fifteen minutes late or to slow down to appear non-chalant and cool. Unfortunately, he was still grappling with this decision and walking in a bizarre half-run, half-skip, when Blake turned to look at him. 


His smile belongs in a Colgate commercial, Cameron thought enviously. "Hey. Sorry I'm late."

Blake extended his arms to hug him, but Cameron had already fallen in to step beside him and had to turn awkwardly for the embrace. Americans are huggers, idiot!

As they broke from the hug, Blake looked at him with a glint of amusement in his eyes, as if he knew the hug had been awkward, but they weren't quite close enough yet for him to tease Cameron about it. 
"So, where are we going?" Cameron asked.

"I thought we'd go grab a milkshake or something... What?"

"You're so American."

Blake smiled again. "Thank you."

They were about to cross the road when Blake put his hand out in front of Cameron to stop him proceeding. When the black taxi that had been approaching passed by, they crossed over and began walking down Donegall Place.

"How are your classes going?" Cameron asked politely.

A little, rare smirk tugged on Blake's lips. "Do you care?"

"I mean, I’d definitely pretend to," teased Cameron.

Blake turned to look Cameron in the eye as they walked. After a few seconds, he smiled and looked down. "Class is good. The curriculum a big change from the one I had in America, but if I work hard, I should be fine. I think."

"And how are the guys in your form class? Still circus-worthy?"

"You said that, not me."


"They’re okay," Blake said neutrally. "But I think I’m kind of ready to start making some real friends now."

"Oh! Is that what this is? A mission?"

"Would that annoy you?"

Cameron shrugged and smiled. "I dunno. You are a Baptist. That's a bit gross. You might give me a W.W.J.D. bracelet and then, it'd all be over."

Blake ignored the jibe. "Do people usually have to make an effort to become your friend?"

"Yes. But they usually fail," Cameron joked.

"Which means you think I have a good chance of succeeding?"

Cameron paused for a moment and regarded Blake quizzically. "You’re far more confident than you seem at first, Blake."

"And you're far less."

"Shut up. By the way, Blake, quick question, since you've organised everything for today so well and are so familiar with Belfast - have you any idea where we're going?"


"Kerry!" Imogen's greeting contained a faint tone of confusion as she swung open her front door and found Kerry on her doorstep, Rio and Brazil bag still swinging from her arm. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing," she smiled, stepping in. '"Just checking you were here. I saw Cameron in town and thought... Anyway, how are preparations for tonight going?"

"Really well. I very nearly wobbled and changed my costume."

"To what?"

"Sookie Stackhouse. But I changed my mind, because she has a stupid name and, frankly, she's a whore."

Kerry had  no idea who this Stackhouse creature was, which meant it must be something to do with either Harry Potter or vampires. "Cameron's having coffee with someone who's not us today."

Imogen shrugged and sashayed into her kitchen. "Must be Mark."

"He is very tall," Kerry mused. "And not fun. Imogen, I'm not kidding, wait to you see my angel wings for tonight. I truly look like Jesus's beffers."

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Fireworks (Part 1 in "Halloween")

Mariella Thompson was a girl who very seldom felt stress about anything, but this year she had fought long and hard for the privilege of throwing one of the most important non-birthday related social events of the school year: the Halloween house party. As one of the most popular girls in sixth year, Mariella had cunningly torpedoed any rival party ideas as far back as July, when she had "casually" suggested to Anastasia, her group's uncontested queen bee, that she should throw this year's Halloween blow-out fiesta. And once Anastasia had given her permission with a graceful shrug, Mariella had worked hard to make sure no-one in the senior school popular groups organised a rival party. To ensure she remained unchallenged, she had traded a new year's pre-drinks with Olivia-Grace Wallace, pleaded with Lavinia Barrington, negotiated with Meredith Harper and flat-out bullied Tangela Henton-Worley, Sarah-Jane Rogan and Celeste Fitzpatrick. Now, with only one day left until Halloween, Mariella was gazing at her own reflection in the first-floor girls' bathroom and silently praying that she would successfully throw the party of the year. After all, the social committee elections were coming up next term and now definitely wasn't the time to be dropping the ball when it came to party planning.

Halloween is a difficult time in any socialite's calendar and throwing a party for it is, without doubt, a double-edged sword. Unlike birthdays, new year's or Christmas, Halloween has no set rules to monitor your guests' behaviour and, as a result, a Halloween party can end up being magical, irritating, tacky, fantastic or just plain embarrassing. It's a v. useful time for girls to figure out who the closeted whores in their extended social circles are. Anyone who puts the word "sexy" in their costume title is almost certainly just looking for an excuse to turn up in public dressed as Whoregasma, Queen of the Tramps. At the other extreme from the chlamydia parade are the people who go to frustratingly minimal effort with their costumes. For the last couple of years, it has become very difficult to avoid seeing someone on Halloween who's just lazily dunked themselves face-first into a vat of talcum powder, put on a leather jacket and called themselves a vampire. That's fine if you're trying to go as one of the hotties from True Blood, but if it's Twilight or Vampire Diaries-inspired, it becomes a good deal less sexier. (Seriously, Edward? She has the personality of a cactus and you want to live with her forever?!) Mariella, who had actually embraced the vampire craze to go to last year's (awful) Halloween party at Louise Mahaffy's as Lorena Krasiki, had spent twelve weeks planning what to go to her own party as, eventually settling on Cleopatra, which she felt was glamorous and, with the right amount of bling, might just avoid being tacky. 

Sweeping out of the girls' bathroom and ignoring a friendly wave from Cristyn "clingy" Evans, Mariella nearly collided with Imogen Dawson and Cameron Matthews. "Hey, you two!" she beamed. "Looking forward to tomorrow night and stuff?"

"Yeah, so much," smiled Cameron. "How're preparations going?"

"Super-stressful, but nothing I can't handle. What are you guys going as?"

"A Tudor ghost," Cameron answered.

"It's so erotic," Imogen said, enthusiastically. "He's got these leather trousers and one of those pirate shirts. It's all very Jonathan Rhys Meyer, circa season 1." 

"Beau!" gasped Mariella. "I totes love it. What about the rest of you?"

"Well, I was going to come as Evita," Imogen said, "but I'm not allowed to, apparently, in case I bitch-slap everyone at the party until they agree to listen to me singing Don't cry for me, Argentina. Again. Then I considered Kimora - obvi. But finally, I've decided to go as Venus. Which I think is appropriate. Kerry's going as a mermaid and Meredith's going as Jackie O. What about you?"

"Oh, I'm going as Cleopatra. Natch. Anastasia's going as Kate Moss and Natasha, Lavinia and Tangela are all going as shady bitch hunters. You know, to hunt down shady bitches and their shady ways."

"So cool," nodded Imogen. "Okay, well, we'll see you later."

Mariella smiled, hugged them both and swept off down the corridors, in her never-ending quest for fresh gossip. As she walked away, Imogen turned towards Cameron and arched her eyebrow: "I really hope this thing isn't a train-wreck, like her sweet sixteenth."


The rain was pounding down on Belfast that night, as Cameron Matthews sat staring out of his bedroom window. Gingerly opening the door to his balcony, Cameron stepped out and was hit in the face by a blast of cold, cruel wind. Wrapping his arms tightly around himself, he stepped forward and inhaled. From here, he could see leaves being ripped off the trees that lined either side of the road in Malone Park and the hedges that lined his family's garden were bending slightly with the force of the gale. The middle three fingers of Cameron's right hand rubbed slowly in a small circle on the navy-blue cashmere sleeve of his left arm. This was nice, he thought; pleasantly dramatic and weirdly soothing. He felt some of his own thoughts and feelings drain out of him, as if they were getting swept away with the weather. For a brief moment in his overly-cerebral life, Cameron Matthews had managed to stop thinking. He was brought crashing back to reality by the vibrations of his phone in his back pocket. Reaching in, lifting it out and staring at the screen, he saw the caller ID, Blake Hartman (school), and a sudden bolt of pleasurable panic shot through him. Moving quickly across the balcony and back into his room, he clicked answer before he had closed the door behind him, nervous of missing the call.

"Hello?" he asked, in a voice that he knew sounded far too questioning. No-one answered phones with that level of curiosity since the invention of caller ID.

"Hey, it's me. It's Blake." Another piece of redundant conversation, but whatever. Cameron slammed himself back against his balcony door and locked it.


"Em, yeah, hi." Blake laughed a little on the other end of the phone at the awkwardness of his own sentence. "How are you? Are you ... Is this a bad time?"

"No! No," Cameron said, trying to keep the slight breathlessness caused by the door body-slam out of his voice. "No, now's fine. Good, actually. I'm not doing anything. I stayed in tonight. How are you?"

"I'm good. I stayed in, too. How are you?"

"Fine," Cameron said, slightly more calmly. "You?"

"Yeah, really good," Blake answered. Cameron thought he heard him sit down. Or maybe stand up. Either way, he'd moved. "So, what are you doing tomorrow night?" Blake's voice sounded almost theatrically casual on the other end of the line. 

"For Halloween?"

"Yes for Halloween, dinkus!" Blake laughed. "That is what tomorrow night is, isn't it?"

"Okay, jerk," Cameron smiled. "I was just checking! Ehm... well... I'm supposed to be going to this house party that Mariella Thompson's having. Do you know her? She's one of our friends in the year above. Her little sister Jenny is best friends with my sister. So... yeah. We're going there. I'm going as a ghost. That's stupid, I know. But it's actually a really good outfit. I think. Imogen thinks it is. But a ghost is dumb, right? I dunno. Anyway, yeah, I'm supposed to be going to Mariella's. Why?"

"Oh, okay. Cool."

"Did you ... I mean, did you want to do something?"

If he could have seen him, Cameron was almost certain Blake would be shrugging for the next sentence. "No, it's okay. I mean, yeah, I wanted to see if you wanted to do something. But it was nothing big. It's fine. I should've assumed you had plans. It's really short notice.  It's fine."

If it's fine, then why do I feel so bad for going to Mariella's now? Cameron hated guilt more than Kerry hated work or Imogen hated sobriety. "What was it?"

"What did I want to do?"


"There's a fireworks display over Belfast Lough and I thought that maybe we could go. Fireworks are cool and Halloween's like a big thing in America. And this is the first... But it's fine. I'll get Jack to go with me. Don't worry about it." 

Oh god, spending Halloween with your 11 year-old brother. Tragic! "Well, you should do something fun. I'd like to do something with ... It'd be cool to hang out, I mean! I could ask Mariella if you could come? I'm sure she wouldn't mind."

Cameron bit his lip and silently groaned at his own stupidity. In the first place, of course Mariella would mind. She'd arranged this guest list with the same care and consideration that most people put into arranging their last will and testaments and, even if she didn't mind, nothing was worse than being the plus-one pity-recipient of a party invite. Mercifully, a soft chuckle came down the phone, "No, that's okay, Cameron. Seriously, don't worry about it."

"I feel bad, though. It's your first Halloween here."

"I told you, it's fine."

"I could go late to Mariella's?"

"It's fine."


There was a pause and then Blake sighed. "But..."

"But what?"

"See, it sort of seems like you owe me."

Cameron smiled. "Oh, really? Don't you think I'm giving you enough by gracing you with my friendship?"

"Oh, it's a friendship now?"

"Well, sort of. More of a community outreach programme, to be honest. To the impoverished. It feels good to give back, you know? Like Brangelina. Only not annoying."

"Shut up."

"So how do I owe you, then?"

"Well, you did promise that we'd hang out on the regular and since movie night at your house, we haven't. Which basically means you broke your word, Cameron. Which means that you're a liar and you are not a gentleman. And now you're leaving me stranded in a new country on Halloween."

"Haha. Ouch. What do you want, ass-face?"

"I wanna hang-out!"

"Well, so do I! I'm just... busy."

"Because you're like so popular and stuff?" teased Blake, doing a worryingly good impression of the Malone accent. Cameron sensed this skill was going to be used to haunt him. 

"Well, I don't like to brag, but yes. And anyway, what are you doing celebrating Halloween? Aren't you the pastor's son? Shouldn't you be staying in and praying for all the little pagans?"

"You're so funny, Cameron. So. Funny. Can you meet me tomorrow afternoon?"


"That was a quick response. I didn't even tell you what time."

Cameron felt himself start to blush. "Oh. I..."

"I'm teasing you. Remember, it's okay to actually show feelings sometimes."

"You're annoying me."

"Tough. Front of city hall, tomorrow, 2 p.m.?"

How do you deal with a bad review?

Okay, so this really made me laugh. Mostly because it's so true and because it's refreshingly honest. It kind of how got me to thinking though about how people cope with bad reviews in life. Anyone have any of you good tips/hilarious stories on how to cope when you get a negative review about being you, something you've done or just generally being alive when some super biatch would rather you weren't?

Anyway! This is from the blog of the American novelist Christopher Gortner, who's the author of some really great historical novels like The Confessions of Catherine de Medici and The Tudor Secret. (You can read my review on Tudor Secret on this blog.) Christopher put down his thoughts on how he copes when one of his books get a bad review. What do you think? 

"I got a really bad review a few days ago. No, let me re-phrase that. Not merely bad. Rotten. Dreadful. As in, this reviewer said everything I imagine someone saying in my worst nightmares about my book. I wasn’t expecting it -writers rarely do - and at first I sat there, stunned. I couldn’t believe anyone could take such offense to what is, in the final say, fiction. A novel. Entertainment... 
Bad reviews are, of course, part and parcel of being published; it comes with the territory and there’s no handbook to teach you how to deal with the emotional impact. Some authors cry. Others get drunk. Some call a friend to gripe. Most get mad. A few take it in stride, or at least pretend to. After all, it’s your book someone just skewered—the tangible fruit of years of labor. You’ve sacrificed valuable time with family and friends; forgone movies, restaurants, sex; you’ve walked the dog aimlessly in circles, muttering like an indigent to yourself; burned or forgotten meals; lost sleep; tussled and agonized over a single word, even screamed at your computer when no one was looking. The hard truth is writing is tough and writing a novel is the epitome of toughness. It takes perseverance, ego, and more than a touch of insanity. I mean, you spend all this time by yourself, locked in your head in a room staring at a screen or piece of paper, conjuring imaginary things, and hoping, praying, someone else will care enough to want to read it, let alone publish it. Then, insomniac, battered and badly in need of a shower, you turn the manuscript in and have to deal with everyone else’s opinion of it— your agent, your editor, the marketing team, the booksellers. In their own ways, they will each shape your work into something that can be packaged and sold to the public. Sentences you slaved over will be cut without mercy; scenes shifted here or re-crafted there; a character will be eliminated and another, to your astonishment, will attempt to hijack the plot. You’ll go back over the same lines time and time again, until you can recite them from memory and your spouse or significant other will look at you furtively as you sit hunched at your desk, crab-handed over those first-pass pages, and remark perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking of taking that oft-delayed vacation. 
In the end, the idea that started as a seed in your febrile brain, was nurtured on imagination and ... will become a cooperative project, a team effort. A Book. And then, it gets sent out. To anonymous people and places you’ve never seen. Newspapers (though these are less and less); trade magazines; online sites; bloggers—hundreds of eyes will peruse your painstakingly crafted prose and, within a few lines, maybe a few chapters, if you’re lucky, pass judgment. To review or not review; to like or not like. After all, this person who will now review your book has no stake in your well-being... They don’t know if you’re a nice person or a mean one; if you talk on your cell phone when you should be driving; if you donate to an animal shelter or spend too much money on shoes. All they care about is that ... moment which you have no control over, when they read your words for the very first time and had a reaction. Or didn’t. So, those words you hoped and prayed were worthy of attention will now, finally, garner words of their own, for better or worse. In some cases, as in bad reviews, you’ll almost wish they hadn’t. Almost, but not quite. Because in the end, even a bad review is still a review. It means someone cared enough to take the time to say: Hey, this sucks. Don’t bother. Buy a DVD instead. Check out the latest Ikea catalog. Collect stamps. Browse online for new underwear. Do anything but purchase this lousy book.Yes, someone cared. And isn’t that what every writer dreams of? I know I do. So, how did I deal with the bad review? How else? I cried. I got mad. I pretended not to care. I poured myself a stiff drink and called a friend to complain."

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

See you soon, princess!

I can remember the day Kerry Rogan and I met for the first time. We were eleven years old and it was our first day of high school. As fate and the future luck of tequila manufacturers everywhere would have it, we were both put into the the same house at school, Rathkeltair, which to be completely honest with you is totes the best house at Down High. Some of them, I'm not saying which ones, have a distinctly Hufflepuff-y vibe to them. No lie. 

Anyhoo, Kerry's surname is Rogan and mine is Russell, which meant that when it came to Miss Hopkins' Geography class, where everyone was seated in alphabetical order, Kerry and I were next to each other. It was magical, it was fate, it was the least productive table in the class. 
At that stage, I was at my physical peak - a podgy eleven year-old, with curtains and a posh accent. (Deffers did not help matters by being the only boy in the year to wear a scarf. But, oh well, everyone's wise with hindsight.) Kerry was a radiant being in blonde curls, with a fringe which we have mutually agreed shall never be discussed ever again and which she soon ditched faster than I ditched full fat Coke. I shifted in my seat to say hello to my new Geography partner, presumably resembling a baby killer whale in motion as I did so. "Are you Laura Bell?" I asked.

"What?" came the response.
"Are you... I think I sat next to you in Miss Patton's Maths class before break? Are you ... You're Laura Bell?"

"No," came the cold response. "I don't know who that is."

Conversation slowly died off. As Kerry turned regally to stare out at the classroom as if vaguely confused/irritated about the precise point of Geography or what role it was going to play in her life, I sat and cursed myself for assuming that in a class sat in alphabetical order I would be sitting next to someone whose surname started with "B." Actually, I probably wasn't that smart to realise why I'd been wrong. Knowing me back then, I was probably thinking about crisps.

Eventually realising that we would either have to talk to each other or face the dreaded prospect of listening to the teacher, Kerry turned back towards me and re-initiated convo. A lifelong friendship was born and, yesterday, she went to Australia for the year. It's the first time since that day in Miss Hopkins' classroom that we won't be with in travelling distance of each other. And, frankly, me no likey.

When you say goodbye to a friend, it's easy to put on rose-tinted glasses and pretend everything was always perfect. (Our friend Sarah's particularly good at this, literally. She once bought a £600 pair of rose-tinted Dior sunglasses because the shop assistant panicked her by telling her they were the only pair anywhere on the island of Ireland and if she didn't buy it now, she'd never be able to own a pair. This is the girl, after all, who, when her student loan arrived, ran up and down the corridors of her college halls squealing, "Free money!") But I digress. Just because Kerry is off on the other side of the world, there's no point in pretending everything between us was always a bed of roses. (The flowers, not the chocolates - I got thin.) For the first two years of our friendship she repeatedly called me "Gavin," because she preferred it to "Gareth." We were banned from group discussions in Geography because we were a) too argumentative and b) too stupid. We were sent out of Miss Gorman's GCSE English Lit class after we both took a game of slapsies just a little bit too far. I initiated the world's longest and most unnecessary fight when I claimed (wrongly) that only sick people were allowed to bathe in the water at Lourdes and when I found out that this wasn't the case, attempted to re-start the fight by claiming that what I meant was only sick people should be allowed to bathe in the water at Lourdes. And she (Kerry, not the Virgin Mary) once lied to me that she had been punched in the face so I would leave Oxford in the middle of the night and come up and see her in Manchester. She greeted me at the train station with a shrug: "Everything's fine. Just got bored." 

The night before Kerry left for Australia, we sat by the fire as she did her tan and nails (essential travel prep - much more important than the suitcase, which had yet to be packed), and watched Gone with the Wind. And I got to thinking (SATC ref - necessary) about the decade or so of friendship we've had. Kerry, my love, we are both shrieking banshees of human beings, at times utterly and entirely ridiculous/delightful; we are incapable of sticking to the vaguest concept of a budget and we live lives centred around naps, shopping and drinking. I haven't a clue what I'm going to do without you this year. I do, however, know that you're going to have an amazing time in Australia with Emma. And, think of it this way, Ken, we're finally doing the one thing I shrieked, screamed and hissed we were never going to do: growing up.

Lol jk - see you in Geog, principessa!
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