Mary Russell
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My Own Version

Mary Russell was born in Dublin, the last of four children. She was educated first by nuns of the Dominican order and then, for eight years, by the La Sainte Union nuns at Our Lady's Bower, Athlone - a town which straddles the provinces of Leinster and Connaught and which lies more or less in the middle of the Bog of Allen. The education provided at The Bower was gender-specific: French, Art, History, Latin, Music, Domestic Science, Needlework, Hockey. There was no science laboratory and the one girl who chose to study science had to do so at the local boys' school - much to everyone's envy. The ethos was standard Catholic boarding school of its day: girls wore white veils and white gloves to Mass every morning and, because it was a French order, addressed the nuns as Madam.

The only males to cross the threshold of the convent were the chaplain, the doctor and Herr Rasfeldt, who taught singing.

After leaving the Bower, she went to University College, Dublin and took an Arts Degree. During the holidays, she went to London and became a number of different things including ward orderly, garage forecourt attendant, teacher. She was also an au pair for a time in Italy but has blanked out that experience.

On her way back from Italy to Dublin - where her father was hoping she would get a good steady job - she stopped off in London to earn enough to buy a winter coat having earlier blown the money given to her for that purpose.

London took hold and she stayed there until she met a writer called Ian Graham Rodger. They fell in love, married and had three children who are all now grown up. During this time, she started writing for The Irish Times and for Irish radio.

In 1980, she woke from the long dream of domesticity, plunged into an MA course at the School of Peace Studies at Bradford University and started writing regularly for The Guardian. The following year, she travelled to Lesotho, the first of many such journeys. That year also, she wrote a four-part series on solo women travellers for the Guardian Women's page. As a result of this, a literary agent invited her to edit a book about two women wild-life photographers caught up in the Malvinas or Falklands War. When Survival South Atlantic came out, she was asked by the publisher if there was anything else she would like to write which is how The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt came about. This was an exciting time but it was also a terrible time. The 80s saw the worst of the Thatcher years and during the miners' strike of 1984 Ian, a staunch socialist, died of motor neurone disease.

  Mary Russell, with bike, boarding Marseille ferry for Algiers

The following summer, Mary Russell spent a month travelling through France from Le Havre to Marseille with her tent on the back of her bike. From Marseille, she caught a ship to Algiers and continued down into the Sahara where she spent some time with the Saharawi, a desert people displaced by the invasion of their country by Morocco.

One day, watching a TV programme about the then Soviet republic of Georgia and learning it was the place where Medea was born, she decided to go there. Her first visit - a week-long stay - was financed by the sale of a play to BBC radio. She returned the next Easter for three months. Her book Please Don't Call it Soviet Georgia is about her time there.

Other journeys followed - to the Arctic, South Africa, Hungary, Russia and the Eastern Caribbean. In 1998, she was invited to contribute to Penguin's Amazonian, a collection of new travel writing, by women. She chose to write about Sarajevo and her journey around Bosnia immediately after the war there.

At this time, she was starting to write short stories, often drawing on her travel experiences. Some of the stories have been published in different editions of the London Magazine as well as in collections including Nocturnal Emissions (1997) The Phoenix Book of Irish Short Stories (1998) and Signals 2 (1999).

In 1999, she was commissioned by the Irish publishing company Town House to write a travel book in which she looks not only at the places she has so far visited but also at her reasons for going to these places. This was a revealing project as often the reasons for going to certain destinations did not make themselves evident until after the journey was completed, and sometimes even not until four or five years later.

Journeys of a Lifetime was published in Ireland by Town House Books and in the UK by Simon and Schuster in June 2002.

Most recently, her travels have taken her to Israel, Syria and to Iraq (see Print,  for her pieces in The Irish Times and The Guardian on Baghdad and Damascus respectively.)

My Own Version

I was nine when I was sent away to boarding school and it was there that I learned the true meaning of loneliness. I missed my mother singing as she dried the dishes, the sound of my father rattling the pages of The Irish Times, the smell of toast in the kitchen. But of course my parents sent me away for my own good and I got over the loneliness eventually and settled down to boarding school life: playing hockey, falling in love with the gym teacher and developing a love of words. (The French word crepuscule was a favourite though never its cumbersome English version crepuscular.)

Convent life was hothouse life. Love and desire hid on every landing waiting to jump out at you. Girls got crushes on each other and to my horror, I fell in love with the most forbidden fruit of all: the school chaplain.

Life was full of puzzles. You always, it seemed, had to be one thing or the other. You had to favour the Romantics - Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. Or Milton. You had to like Debussy and Chopin. Or Beethoven.

If you liked them all, as I did, you were frivolous and shallow. To this day, I remain frivolous and shallow.

University was fun. There was male company, racy Dublin girls, the beginnings of sex. There was also the chance to read and I spent the whole of my second year sitting in the National Library reading - though what I now forget.

When I arrived in London, I was what they called, in Soho, a mystery - a naive young woman from out of town who was up for anything. London was parties and a bedsit in Earls Court - thirteen in all and thrown out of two. It was  learning how to back-dial in order to call home for nothing – illegal, of course, but who cared about that? London was getting free tickets for whatever was on at the Royal Court or the Arts Theatre because you knew, in the biblical sense, one of the actors.

Then I met Ian and my life took an unexpected turn. He was a writer who knew only how to write – nothing else. We were poor but didn't know it. Ian's writing career progressed. He wrote a number of  stage plays – Cromwell at Drogheda was one – as well as a vast number of radio plays for the BBC. The Elizabeth R series of TV plays concluded with his  Sweet England’s Pride in which Glenda Jackson, now  an admirable Member of Parliament,  played the dying Queen Elizabeth. Occasionally Ian managed to have something of a regular income from his work as radio critic for The Listener and later the Guardian.

It was not in the plan that he should die when he did. When I find myself doing the things he used to do - obsessively watching the post for a letter from a publisher, down on my hands and knees sorting through the bills and receipts which I must make sense of before sending to my accountant - I sometimes think that I have taken up where he left off. It's a strange feeling.

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