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Q&A with Clare Stevens, writer of "The Garden Seat"

A photograph of a family sitting outdoors on a garden seat with a blanket on the lawn
The Garden Seat (courtesy Clare Stevens)

We here at The Wild Umbrella, a journal of writing from Ireland and the world, are very thrilled to have kicked off our featured work with "The Garden Seat," an essay by Clare Stevens. Clare is a freelance writer, editor and occasional publicist, specialising in classical music, choral music and music education. Born and brought up in Belfast, she went to a Scottish university, spent 30 years living in London and is now based in the Welsh Marches.


Umbrella non-fiction editor Róisín Sheerin talked with the writer about the essay – the first of the featured work we've chosen from our initial call for submissions –  what it was like to be a child during the Troubles, and how memory influences creative work. Here's a shortened transcript of their 30-minute conversation, condensed for reading here on our website.


Róisín Sheerin: Hi, Clare. It's nice to meet you. I really enjoyed your piece. It was very affecting, and yet you have a kind of a neutral way of writing it. Sort of dispassionate, I think. I was wondering, first of all, as it's about the garden seat ostensibly, do you think that inanimate objects sort of have feelings, or souls or personalities? Or is it what we project onto them?


Clare Stevens: Definitely the latter. In all my thinking about this, I have never considered that that the seat is responding in any way, but on the other hand, objects and items are hugely important to me. You can't see because of the muted background, but I'm surrounded not only by a lot of books, but by items that connect to my past and my family's past. A napkin ring from my grandmother's boarding school days with her initials engraved on it. All sorts of other items, and a poker work box that I've just recently acquired that belonged to a distant cousin but means a huge amount to me because it was done by the far side of her family farm. So the objects are symbolic of the relationships and the experiences, rather than having any feelings themselves.


RS: Yeah, because obviously the the second garden seat does not nearly have the same value as the as the first garden seat.


CS: Not really, no. It did in its way to my mother, because she had so personally chosen it, and it represented a different stage in her life. But it didn't connect with all of us in the same way that the original one did.


RS: And were there any arguments in the family over who should have it?


CS: Actually, we were all incredibly generous to one another about items, and I was the one with a big garden, and so it was that it would come to me.


RS: It's a beautiful garden, the photographs really show that. But you do get a sense of that from the writing as well, and it just seemed like such an oasis. And like, on the other side of the hedge, there are horrors happening.


CS: That's exactly it. And that's one of the reasons why I have wanted to start writing about my past growing up in Belfast in the seventies because we were in an oasis, and you could tell one story, which is the one that I have told for most of my life, of "Oh, we were fine. We were away from the Troubles." But actually we weren't, and you just put it exactly the right way: They were on the other side of the hedge.


RS: Did you mentally compartmentalize the Troubles?


CS: Yes. I was really interested in the political aspects of it. I followed every development, watched lots of news from an early age. But the mentality of both our family and our school was, "Nothing's happening, carry on. What really matters is your exams, your schoolwork." My sister was interested in craft needlework and she just sat day after day...making clothes for her dolls. I wrote, I wrote diaries, I wrote stories, I read, and we just blocked it out.


RS: That scene [in the essay] is amazing, where you see the paint cans popping...

CS: They're just etched in my memory. Flying, many many feet in the air like a firework exploding. But the thing about that day was that nobody reported on that incident. It was minor. All the reports were about the Oxford Street bus station because there were horrific casualties there. So the fact that there were other bombs around the edges of the city were almost overlooked. And the two on either side of our house were just tiny. I always thought it was a mile away, but recently I just looked it up and it wasn't a mile; it was less than half a mile. But the bomb under the bridge was five hundred yards.


RS: And when you go to look at the aftermath with your father and it gets referred to as "our blast."


CS: Oh yes, definitely. For years and years after it was "our bomb."


RS: I get the impression that you like to keep things. Did you keep your diaries?


CS: Yes, in fact I just recently reminded myself that I actually have my primary school newsbooks from P3, describing the big snow of 1963 for instance, and family life. The arrival of my baby brother home from hospital when he was born. But then I have got a really rich store of diaries from my entire secondary school career, which was in the autumn of 1968, exactly the time that the Troubles properly started with the big march in Derry.


What is the most vivid illustration to me of how it affected me as a musical child is that my girls' school used to do joint concerts with the equivalent boys grammar school, but just at the time the Troubles broke out, they stopped doing that. So I didn't sing in a full choir...until I went to university when I was 19. It limited my musical experience a lot, so it was definitely something that affected us.


RS: Did it take you long to craft "The Garden Seat" or had you been sitting on it a while?


CS: I'd been sitting on it for a while. It definitely wasn't finished but I had done the bulk of it when I saw the call for submissions for The Wild Umbrella, and then actually it didn't take that long, and I didn't have that long before the deadline, so I thought "I just have to do this."


RS: Do you have other sections that are ongoing on the back of this?


CS: Yes, but I've been more digging things out and rereading them and transcribing things, and it could go in so many different directions because I've got interesting stories from my grandparents' lives and even my parents' lives as well. I'm finding it really difficult to decide which should I do first. Should I do my own, or should I do theirs...there are tiny bits of research that isn't always here. Should I do that while I can, or I should just sit and do my own.


RS: I think dilemmas like that can sort of freeze you, and then you don't do anything because you don't know what to do first. So you say "I'll decide tomorrow and I won't write anything today."


CS [laughing]: Yes, that's the kind of thing we all feel.


 


Headshot of Róisín Sheerin
Róisín Sheerin

Róisín has performed in a number of roles including poet, actress and comedian. Having just completed the M.Phil. in Creative Writing at Trinity, and turning her writing hand to non-fiction, she is mostly appearing these days as herself.



Headshot of essayist Clare Stevens
Clare Stevens

Clare Stevens is a freelance writer, editor and occasional publicist, specialising in classical music, choral music and music education. Born and brought up in Belfast, she went to a Scottish university, spent 30 years living in London and is now based in the Welsh Marches.

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