The Belfast-born filmmaker turned author reveals a pragmatism born out of the Troubles, her Cambridge education, casual racism in London during the 1980s and how the city's murky underbelly provided both inspiration and salvation for her debut prose
“I wanted to give them a voice – because it felt wrong that they didn’t have that,” Maeve Murphy says of the characters in her vivid new novella, Christmas at the Cross.
The story begins with a young Irish woman recognising she is involved in an abusive relationship and retreating from that. She hides out in a flat she has sub-let, in London’s King’s Cross, surrounded by a shifting population, many of them sex workers, addicts, people with tragedies in their past and their present. She tries initially to remain contained, separate, but the circumstances of her life bring her into abrupt communion with her neighbours, their lives intersecting in ways that will change all of them.
It’s set in the early 1990s and is very much based on Maeve’s experiences. “I lived in King’s Cross at that time,” Maeve says from London, where she still lives (now in Wimbledon, with husband Richard), “and it scorched my brain. Not so much the time, as the place. It was such a contrast to... it was this kind of awakening.”
For Maeve, brought up in Belfast – “a very middle-class up-bringing on the Malone Road” – and who then read English at Cambridge, the two-and-a-half years she lived in King’s Cross was “a watershed moment. I was at around that quarter-point where people have to work out what to do with their lives. I could have gone back to Ireland but I knew my mum would just want me to get a secure job – of course she would,” she laughs. “I would want the same thing if I were a mother. But I was so stubborn,” she continues.
“After Cambridge, people went their separate ways and I just ended up there. Christmas at the Cross is a fictional story but the truthful aspects of it are that it was a rough moment in my life, and I was sort of thrown up into two things. First of all, the poverty and the outcast society there. It was a red-light district, and for an Irish Catholic that was very much ‘Oh my God’ – I was really shocked. I was really scared. It was definitely a little bit like the Wild West.
“But there was also this incredible warmth of community. I had never experienced anything like it – the support and solidarity. When people think of King’s Cross prostitutes, King’s Cross junkies, they don’t think of the humanity. Or just the ordinary people who live in and around that.”
Because of that humanity, although there is certainly much that is bleak in the story, there is hope too. “I wanted a tale that fitted in with Christmas,” Maeve says. The characters “are not redeemed from their sins, but redeemed from a sinful situation, which is male violence”.
That, she continues, “is the power of community, friendship, King’s Cross – for all its debauchery”.
Initially, Maeve admits, she was scared of those who lived around her.
“It felt so different. And then, as anywhere, you just get used to it. There was one woman in particular who became a friend. She was working [as a sex worker] inside rather than outside; she was a neighbour. When you have somebody living near you like that, you don’t think about them just in terms of their work. I just saw her as a human being. She was just a person, she liked TV programmes, she liked talking about food, guys, she cooked a lot. She had dreams of what she wanted. She was full of verve and life.”
There was, Maeve says, “a sort of openness, a strange innocence. People weren’t hiding”.
And, yes, she says there was “a difference in warmth” between that and her time at Cambridge University, something that came about simply because “I was bright, and I was asked by the my school to sit the Oxbridge exams – I was surprised by that. And I got in, and I was even more surprised. There wasn’t a grand plan, I just ended up there. Maybe that’s the issue, maybe if I’d really wanted it... I suppose it took me a while to feel adjusted there. Maybe there wasn’t such an instant warmth...”
But, she continues, “I did make very good friends, and after Cambridge I ended up in a women’s theatre company for three years which I co-founded.”
This was “the late 1980s” and “I think I was a bit of an oddity, as a Northern Irish Catholic. I think I was very aware of my Irishness. I used to get the mickey taken out of my accent. But it also worked the other way around – there was an interest in me because I was different, if you see what I mean. There was a little bit of casual racism, to do with my accent, but it made people interested in me as well.
“In some ways I was lucky, I was there at a time when the Cambridge Left would embrace you because of that. But culturally it was very different.” There was, she says, “that feeling of being different – you were so different to anybody there”.
When she later recounts an episode from her childhood in Belfast it’s not hard to see where this feeling may come from. I ask her about her experiences of sectarianism, and she says: “I survived an attack by Protestant paramilitaries on the local church on the Malone Road. It was a Sunday evening Mass. I was inside. They came to kill Catholics. They got blocked from coming in by two young guys who were leaving early. Both of them were unfortunately shot dead. Sudden lethal incidents [happened] out of the blue, so, yes, I was aware, but also,” she says, “I didn’t really dwell on it either.”
Perhaps not, but she says “there was definitely a sense... I was always aware… I remember not even drinking particularly when I was there [at Cambridge] because I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to think I’m an Irish drunk.’ So where that self-consciousness came from, I don’t know.”
At Cambridge, Maeve made her way to Footlights, the university’s amateur dramatics club, where she joined the committee as secretary.
“It was very, very male-orientated,” she says. “I was the only woman on the committee at that point. It was very male, public school boys, so just quite different. There was one guy in particular who was a bit of a bully,” she recalls. “I bumped into him years afterwards and he apologised. He used to go on about ‘potatoes being a weakness of your people’, ‘drink being a weakness of your people’ and he just went on and on and on. That was probably the one time I did experience it,” she muses, adding, “I’d forgotten about that...”
After university, Maeve began to make films – writing and directing. Her 2002 film Silent Grace was selected to represent the UK for Cannes, and chosen by the Irish Times in 2020 as Number 38 in its list of 50 Best Irish Films. Her 2015 film, Taking Stock, starring Kelly Brook and Scot Williams, built up an impressive list of gongs, including the Independent Spirit Award at Monaco International Film Festival and best female director at WIND International Film Festival in LA.
Once Covid came along, film-making, naturally, stopped. “Covid hit and it was just mayhem,” she says. “This film I’d been involved with for two years looked like it may not happen at all.”
By then, Maeve had published a short story, titled Christmas at the Cross (which then became the first part of the novella) in the Irish Times, and that had been republished as part of an anthology by Bridge House. “I’ve always had this secret desire to write prose,” she says, “almost like this kind of guilty secret.”
Once Covid ceased other activities, “I just had this overwhelming sense that I had to give a voice to those characters, to those young women who were never going to be celebrated, those lives that were so under the radar. And the best way I could do it was through those characters that had been created in the short story.”
She started to write. “It was lockdown that unlocked it,” she says. “I had time to do it. I loved the freedom of writing without knowing how it was going to end. If you’re writing a screenplay, you have to know how it’s going to end if you’re going to get funding. This was a real pleasure. An absolute joy. I had never written like that in my life – it was really refreshing.”
Did she find the process lonely in comparison with the collaborative nature of film-making? “I didn’t mind that. I quite liked that. Also, it came at a special time, most of it was done over lockdown. My husband was at home, so it was nice because we could create structure: go out for our walk at lunchtime, then come back and write. It wasn’t quite the same as me being at home all day on my own.”
There is another aspect of Maeve’s time at King’s Cross that has stayed with her. “That’s when I encountered Buddhism,” she says. “I think that’s quite significant too. You would not expect to find Buddhism in the Wild West of King’s Cross at that time. And it was so not what I expected Buddhism to be: men in orange robes. It was about peace.
“What attracted me to it is that they were chanting for peace in Northern Ireland. And that seemed to synthesise everything together – the Irish Maeve, the Maeve who’d been in Cambridge, all these different things. And the greater identity, the compassionate energy. I don’t know,” she muses, “maybe I did have a troubled sense of identity? And that started that sense of ‘I’m an artist, I’m going to be an artist’?”
It’s something she continues to practise. “I’m a Buddhist because I prefer that spirituality to Irish Catholicism. I’ve interpreted that as judgment, whereas Buddhism is more about compassion for self and others. It just seems kinder.
“I was bringing all those strands together in the novella to create something hopeful. I feel privileged as well, to have had that period. It really opened my eyes to the reality, and pain, of the lives that people live through, and I suppose that’s why I wanted to write that. Not just the tragedy within it, but also the courageous, decent spirit. That’s the surprising thing. I wanted to pay tribute to that.
“I think artists often do end up in places like King’s Cross, and that is one of our gifts – we get to glimpse lives that people often don’t see, and humanise that.”
‘Christmas at the Cross’ by Maeve Murphy is published by Bridge House Publishing, €8, at The Winding Stair bookshop, winding-stair.com/bookshop and waterstones.com