Saturday, December 20, 2008

An unfortunate Christmas

“Ah-ah-ah-choo!”
It was Christmas Eve and Santa had come down with a heavy cold. He couldn’t believe it.
“I don’t believe it,” he said to himself. You see.
He picked up a passing elf and wiped his nose on him and then got back to packing the sleigh for his annual trip around the world.
As he loaded on the final present, his wife appeared in the doorway.
“Ho, ho, ho, Mrs. Claus,” he said, demonstrating his remarkable ability to remember names.
“Ho, ho, ho, dear,” his wife replied. “Have you seen the weather outside? It’s raining polar bears and penguins and you know that old sleigh doesn’t have a roof. And you seem to have come down with a very bad cold.”
“Ah, don’t worry, my love,” replied Santa, picking up a calculator for a good little boy in Castleknock called Brian. “It’ll take more than a few drops of rain to put Santa off!”
“I know, but would you not consider taking the mini-bus? Or maybe the Jeep? I just don’t think you should go out in the rain, dear.” And she ran off giggling back into the house.
Santa sighed and loaded up the last of the presents, which just happened to be a batch of Lionel Ritchie CDs for some very naughty boys in Porterstown.
“Rudolf!” he called. “Get your nose over here! We’re just about ready to start.”
“He’s in The Jolly Igloo,” remarked Prancer moodily.
“Since November 12th,” added Dancer.
“Why do you think his nose is so red?” asked Chancer.
“Really?” said Santa, somewhat shocked. “I always thought it was an evolutionary illuminatory appendage designed to light my way around the world on foggy Christmas Eves.”
“You flatter yourself,” said Comet. “Nope, he’s in there telling all the elves how much he really loves them and buying them all pints.”
Santa thought for a while. “Okay,” he said. “Plan B. We’ll just have to use the eight of you and forget Rudolf.”
“You mean, go back to the way things were before the Great Nasal One barged in and took all the limelight?” said Blitzen. “You want us to dig you out of a hole after you’ve kept us as bit-part actors all these years? Dream on, buddy. Pints, lads?”
And with a roar of high spirits, the eight reindeer trouped out to The Jolly Igloo.
“What would three gardeners do if they came across a patch of weeds?” asked Mrs. Claus, popping her head around the workshop door.
“Hoe, hoe, hoe,” answered Santa but he didn’t feel particularly jovial at that moment.
In the end, there was nothing for it but to hitch the sleigh up to the minibus. He had tried contacting the local employment agency but the answer-phone informed him that it was Christmas Eve and they were all in The Igloo.
“You’ll have to drive,” Santa told his wife. “I’m still on a provisional. If I’m caught, I’m really for it.”
“Of course, dear,” answered Mrs. Claus. “We can’t let all the boys and girls down, can we?”
Santa sprinkled the minibus with his magic powder and off they set to Norway and the Philippines and down to Australia and Venezuela and all across the world. Mrs. Claus turned out to be quite a good driver – “I should be,” she said, “considering all the endorsements I’ve got” – and managed to land on all the rooftops without careering over the gable wall. While Santa baled down the chimney, she’d check her SatNav and punch in the coordinates for the next good boy or girl on the list.
All was going well. They’d done every country in the world bar one and were just coming to the end of Ireland. There was only Dublin 15 left to do and the sun was starting to come up on Christmas Day, when all of a sudden nine reindeer landed on the roof they were currently delivering to.
“Santa!” yelled a particularly vocal reindeer as a soot-encrusted figure emerged from the top of the chimney.
“Ssssssshhhhhh!” whispered the other eight quadrupeds at the tops of their voices.
“I love you, Santa,” sobbed Rudolf, throwing two hooves around the portly gentleman’s neck.
“Shanta, we were...hic!..bang out of order,” said Donner, wobbling unsteadily on the rooftop. “And we’ve come to help.”
“Ah, lads, I’m very grateful, so I am, but sure we’ve only Dublin 15 left. Mrs. Claus and I will have it finished in a jiffy,” said Santa nervously.
“No, Shanta, we inshisht,” spluttered Rudolf, starting to unhook the sleigh from the minibus.
“Three cheers for Santa!” roared Vixen, hoisting a bottle of Paddy’s to the sky.
“Ssssssssshhhhhhhh!” shouted everyone.
“Watch out for the sleigh!” called Mrs. Claus but it was too late. Still laden with several hundred presents, the sleigh slid noiselessly down the roof and disappeared over the edge.
There was silence for what seemed like a minute but was in fact only sixty seconds and then eleven heads peered soberly down into the yard below.
There were presents everywhere, scattered far and wide, in hedges, in ponds, in flower beds. Most had become detached from their labels and had become unwrapped. A Tibetan terrier scurried down the road clutching an X Box.
A church bell sounded. Then another. The sun poked its nose above the horizon, sniffed and then went back down again for another five minutes.
“Come on!” yelled Santa. “The children will be waking up soon. We’ve got to get this last lot delivered!”
“But we don’t know who owns what!” wailed Dasher.
“Never mind,” said Cupid. “The important thing is that the children get some sort of present, so they know that Santa hasn’t forgotten about them.”
“Gosh yes!” agreed Santa. “Do you remember that time we forgot that little boy and Nat King Cole had a field day?”
And so they all set to work to gather up what presents they could find and tore around, delivering them at random. In some houses the children were already up and searching for their presents and they had to pretend to be a hat stand to prevent discovery.
It was touch and go but they did it! Every child got a present and the magic of Christmas still remained for all the girls and boys throughout the world. It was nearly noon by the time the party arrived back at the North Pole and, while Mrs. Claus cooked the turkey, Santa and the reindeer celebrated Christmas in The Jolly Igloo.
And that, dear children, is how you came to get a clockwork mouse from Santa this Christmas and not that WII Fit that you had been asking for. It was simply an unfortunate accident.
Nothing to do with the recession at all.





Monday, November 24, 2008

Doing it with tiles

As I have said many times before in this column, DIY is not my forte. I have no idea what my forte is (and whatever it is, it’s nearer fifte anyway) so by choice I am more a GSETDI man myself. (Get somebody else to do it)
Things simply don’t get fixed in our house. The towel rail has been hanging off the wall in the downstairs loo for the best part of a year now and the extra shelves I promised to put in the corner kitchen unit when we moved in eight years ago still haven’t materialised.
Its not that I am lazy. The spirit is strong but the know-how is lacking. My father hadn’t a clue about how to fix things about the house and so I never learnt anything. I blithely blame him for my lack of knowledge of all things practical.
About two years ago, on holidays in Roussillon, my wife put her eye on these enamel house number tiles which were going for a veritable chanson, she claimed. “That’s fair enough,” I said, “but where are you going to put them?”
She gave me a withering stare. “I was maybe going to stick them up on the landing, next to the picture of the men carrying a boat on their heads,” she declared.
So we bought the tiles and even before we flew home I was starting to get palpitations about putting them up. Such a simple thing, lots of people have them. But what do you use to stick them up?
“You’re the man. You should know these things,” my wife said, when I idly pondered the conundrum out loud. Obviously she hadn’t a clue either.
At home, in post-holiday mode, the tiles of course got put away in a drawer for safekeeping. After about three weeks, I was reminded “not to forget the tiles.”
Now for me, DIY is a pastime best practised on your own. Not being terribly sure of anything I’m doing, I prefer making a hames of the job on my own, so I can tidy it up before she gets home and then pretend I hadn’t got around to it in the first place.
One Saturday she decided to go to the Blanchardstown Centre to buy a pair of boots, which I knew from experience could easily take up to eight hours. With a hammer, I delicately removed the old number plaque adorning our front wall.
I then took down my Rovers biscuit tin, which I laughingly call my tool-box, and emptied it out on the kitchen table to see what “things-for-sticking-up-tiles” I had. Well, it was a toss up between a well-worn tube of superglue – how come it doesn’t stick to the inside of the tube? – and something called No More Nails, which I had bought once for some long-forgotten and probably fruitless purpose.
I plumped at first for the superglue which, in my experience is great for gluing up the sole of your slippers when it comes loose. Sadly though, such was the accumulation of dried glue in the nozzle that the remaining glue was trapped inside forever.
I checked the instructions on the tube of No More Nails. Apparently this was brilliant stuff and stuck everything from custard to Uranium 238, apparently rendering the manufacture of nails quite superfluous. The fact that it failed to mention either tile or brick among its lengthy list didn’t deter me and I applied a healthy coat of the white toothpaste-like goo to both tile and wall.
I must have held the four tiles pressed solidly to the wall for around thirty minutes, (though in all probability it was more likely nearer two) before I nervously released some of the pressure. The first one dropped immediately and as I stooped to catch it, the second one dropped. And then the third. And the fourth. Somehow, none of them smashed as they hit the ground but lay there mocking me. From around the world, I could hear a large collective sigh of relief from nail manufacturers.
I had plenty of time to tidy everything away before my wife arrived back from the shops with a handbag and jacket but no boots, though of course she immediately noticed the missing number plaque from the front wall.
Naturally I told her that I’d taken it down only to find that I had no suitable adhesive to stick up the new tiles.
“What about the cement and sand in the shed?” she asked.
I’d forgotten about those– they were the remnants of when I’d laid an unintentionally rustic path up to the garden shed years ago and I’d hung onto them in case they might come in useful.
Of course, time passed. Without a house number, our poor postman was totally confused, being unable to figure out that our number must lie somewhere between the numbers on the houses either side. We got a spate of wrong deliveries and god knows where half our post ended up.
Eventually my wife again went shopping for a pair of boots and I proceeded to the shed. Now it is about 25 years since I’ve worked as a labourer for a couple of plasterers but 4:1 resonates somewhere in the recesses of my brain as being a good ratio of sand to cement. So I grabbed an old paint pot and measured out three trowelfuls of sand, figuring the more cement there was, the stickier it would be, and one trowelful of cement and then slowly added water from my Rice Krispies mug.
To be fair, it looked like concrete. Only problem was, not only would it not stick to the wall, it wouldn’t stick to the tiles either. Another disaster, though it did leave a nice pale rectangle on my brickwork.
After that episode, the tiles again were forgotten about for months, until my wife came across them one day, even though I thought I’d hidden them quite well.
“What are we going to do about these tiles?” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what to stick them up with. Sellotape? Back to back stickers?”
She picked up the phone and speed dialled her brother-in-law. “He says to cover the wall and tiles with PVA glue and then use tile grout to stick them up,” she said. “Think you can do that?”
We bought the PVA glue and a small tub of tile grout, despite the fact that we searched Atlantic high and low and there was no tile grout for outdoor use to be found.
Naturally I had to wait until my wife once again went up to the Centre to buy a pair of boots before I could tackle this mammoth feat of DIY. Sure enough, two weeks ago, off she went and I set to work.
Of course it took me 45 minutes to figure out how to open the PVA glue (pierce the cap with the prong of a fork) and having negotiated that little technicality it was plain sailing except for the PVA glue running down the wall like spiders abseiling down a cliff face.
When she came home, clutching two tops and a pair of trousers, the tiles were up and pretty solid they seemed too, even though I say so myself. Now I was a handyman, a genuine DIYer, though I resisted the temptation to ask if there were any other little jobs she wanted doing around the house, just in case she took me up on the offer.
Strangely, my wife seemed unimpressed by my handiwork.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Have I put them too high or too low? They seem solid enough. It’ll take a jack hammer to shift them now.”
“Oh, they’re solid enough,” she said, with one of her famous looks that can kill a man dead at forty paces. “Trouble is, we live at number 89, not number 98.”

Friday, November 7, 2008

In the money

Recession? What recession?
Like everybody else in Dublin 15, the R word had invoked a sea change in my attitudes. Instead of refusing my children’s requests through sheer laziness or miserliness, there was no need for me to choose my words carefully.
“Sorry, I can’t give you a hug. There’s a recession on.”
“Sorry, I can’t give you a hand doing the washing-up. Haven’t you heard about the recession?”
In addition to this, it also provided me with the perfect opportunity to bore the pants off them with lurid tales of how we survived the last recession “way back in the eighties,” informing them in a superior and patronising way that they didn’t know that they were born. Of course, my wife raised an eyebrow when I regaled them with stories of barefooted urchins queuing outside soup kitchens on street corners, whilst portly bankers twirled their gold pocket watches and strolled merrily by, but I think they got the gist.
However, I have just received some exciting news that has totally banished the R word from the Goulding household. While the origins of the email that I received are very much shrouded in tragedy, it appears that there is a silver lining to events that will safeguard our future during the austere fiscal times ahead.
I was contacted by a Reeter Khobe from Sierra Leone, who is obviously still very distraught at the death of her husband General Khobe during the civil disturbances there. Quite how Reeter got my email address is unclear, though possibly she saw the online version of this paper and recognised me for the fine, upstanding gentleman that I am.
Apparently, the late General managed to deposit US$15.7 million with a securities company before he died. Obviously the military in Sierra Leone are paid much more than our poor impoverished soldiers, though it appears that our’s tend to survive civil disturbances better.
Anyway, poor Reeter just needed a foreign bank account to transfer these hard-earned funds into, as domestic legislation presumably precludes her from waltzing out of the country with it in a bum bag. She therefore contacted me in her hour of need, simply requesting my bank account details, pin number etc, which of course I was happy to provide. In return, she has promised me 20% of the account, which my calculator informs me works out at a cool US$3.1 million.
US$3.1 million. Yes, read it and weep, suckers. I have already put my eye on a lovely six bedroom Georgian villa in old Castleknock and am just waiting for poor Reeter to get back onto me with final details of the transfer of funds.
And if you are currently turning green with envy, you will doubtless turn bright puce on hearing that the following day, apparently, my email address was electronically selected out of more than 250,000 addresses worldwide in the Coca Cola grand lottery in conjunction with the British American Tobacco Worldwide Promotion. Yes, more than a quarter of a million email addresses from “every continent” – presumably including Antarctica – and I just happened to be one of the ten lucky ones to scoop GB£2 million.
Apparently there are a few legal niceties that have to be gone through first before my prize can be claimed. Naturally I must reply to Mrs. Joy McKenzie at her Zambian email address with details of my bank account, pin number etc, which I am only too happy to do. I have heard of Coca Cola, so I am satisfied that this is a genuine communication.
Armed with this further increase to the Goulding bank balance, I am considering buying the four bedroomed Georgian villa next door to my six bedroomed house and converting it into a kennels for the Labradors that we intend to breed.
And of course, when you’re on a roll…
Today I received notification from a Dr James Ubani of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation that a special account had been set up in my name under the instruction of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The fact that such an important letter was entrusted to someone who cannot find the lower case on a computer worried me slightly but Dr Urbani’s urgent entreaties that I only had two days to verify my account with my own bank account details, pin number etc meant I had to act quickly to safeguard the fortune contained within.
To be honest, I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out why the International Court of Justice should be favouring me in this way. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps it has something to do with Slobodan Milošević, whom I interviewed once about the shortfall of funding for the Mulhuddart CDP. Maybe he remembered me in his little cell in the Hague and willed me most of his estate before he died?
I am now thinking of buying up the rest of the street and flattening it for croquet practice. I have also contact Boeing about the provision of a private jet.
My only concern is in the ability of the banks to cope with such straightforward transfers of funds. I mean, they really seem to be a stupid lot. Why, only last week, I got notification by email from both Abbey Bank and Lloyds Bank that they feared that my account may have been accessed by an unauthorised third party.
In order to protect the security of my funds, they asked me to verify my bank account details, pin number etc, as they felt there may be some unscrupulous people out there who would actually try and defraud me. Laughable, I know, but with my new-found fortune, I can’t afford to take any chances.
The ironic thing was that I do not have an account with either of these two financial institutions and quite thankful I am too, what with all those breaches in their security. Naturally, I replied to them both to inform them of this and also furnished details of my actual bank account, pin number etc, so they could see exactly where their error had occurred.
I fear though that I am doing some disservice to Lloyds and Abbey though, for disappointingly my own bank appears to be experiencing some logistical difficulties of its own. Obviously the system cannot cope with all this money flowing in because my bank manager keeps phoning me and claiming I am overdrawn.
No wonder the banking industry is in the state its in.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The office Christmas party

Cartoon Fergus Lynch

I am not gregarious by nature.
I work best on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. Put me in a room full of people – even those I know well – and I feel overawed and withdraw into myself.
Alcohol has a similar effect on me. Whereas it tends to break down people’s inhibitions and loosens the screws at the back of the tongue, I tend to get progressively quieter the more I consume.
All in all, I am not the best person to ask to a Christmas party.
This does not deter them however from asking me. I am sure they feel they are doing me a great favour by cajoling me into going and they do not take my protestations that “I would sooner be trampled underfoot by rampaging oxen” seriously.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy – a right barrel of laughs if ever there was one – the author takes a trip to Hell, remarking on the different degrees of tortures prepared for sinners according to their depravity on earth. I was surprised to find no mention in the odyssey of the wretched beings forced to attend an office Christmas party in perpetuity as a punishment for their worldly wrongdoings.
It is a long time now since I ran out of excuses. There are only so many uncles that need to be buried just before Christmas. It is unlikely that my ears would need syringing three Christmases on the trot. Missing the bus and not being able to find a matching pair of socks are excuses that have both been viewed dimly in the past.
Nowadays I just go, on the proviso that I’m determined not to have a good time.
As a professional curmudgeon, I think the thing that horrifies me most about the Christmas party is the camaraderie on show. It may well be a time for peace on earth and goodwill to all men but I find it hard to reconcile the manager who is unapproachable and dismissive for fifty weeks of the year with the New Age reveller who keeps slapping you on the shoulder and telling you to call him Tom.
I think it is an order thing. I know where I stand with this particular individual and react accordingly. However when the lines become blurred and Mr. Burns suddenly metamorphosises into Ned Flanders, life assumes an unreal quality that I find deeply disturbing.
I am at an age now where, to the younger staff members’ disbelief, I do not equate pouring copious amounts of alcohol down my throat in record time with enjoying myself. I watch my less restrained co-workers gleefully pronounce that they are “going to get locked” and hark back to the good old days when I would do the same. Nowadays I know that the following day will be a complete wash out if I follow suit and do not judge the cost to be worthwhile. In short, my hair is not long enough to let down any more.
And then there is the girl – it normally is a girl – who spends the evening taking photographs of everybody and getting other people to take photographs of her. These photographs are then passed around the canteen the following day to those poor souls who were unfortunate enough not to attend. “There’s me and Sheila with a drink.” “There’s me, Sheila and Donal with a drink.” “There’s Donal and me with a drink.”
“It looks like you had a brilliant time,” I remark on these occasions, wondering whether she actually did anything at the party apart from taking photos of various permutations of fellow workers with bottles of drink.
Of course, the one big advantage of being a miserable old sod and observing, rather than participating in, the general mayhem, is that you never get that cringing feeling when you wake up the following day and remember what you said to that girl that you never really noticed before but who had scrubbed up pretty well last night. There can be few tortures currently in use by CIA that are more dreadful than the period between waking up after a Christmas party at which you’ve made a complete ass of yourself and the sheepish and crestfallen entry back into the workplace. During that time, all possible options from emigration to resignation invade your head, for you know that everyone will be talking about you and your lurid antics and what little respect you ever had will be lying on the floor along with the pine needles and bits of tinsel.
Of course, it’s never quite as bad as you feared as most of your co-workers will have been too intoxicated themselves to have noticed your little indiscretions.
Except for me, that is. That’s when I come into my own.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reaping nature’s windfall

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum, which to me seems a strange thing to get het up about. Labels that stick into the back of your neck, umbrellas that turn inside out when you look at them sideways, the hit record “Dancing on the ceiling” – these are all subjects that I could wax vehement on for hours. Vacuums, I have no particularly strong feelings about either way, which shows that, in this regard at least, I am not really “at one” with nature.
Where my thinking does coincide with that of nature is in our joint abhorrence of waste. At least I assume that nature abhors waste, though I’ve never actually heard her mentioning this fact personally. Bushes grow berries, bird eat berries and spit out the seeds in disgust, young birds grow, new berry bushes grow – it is all what Elton John was rabbiting on about in “The Circle of Life.” Nothing in nature, it seems, should be wasted.
I got to considering this fact the other week whilst striding down to Dunnes in Ongar to see if they had any Werther’s Originals, for which I have developed a sudden and unaccounted for craving, despite the sudden onset of the recession. I found myself pondering the now nearly-naked young trees that lined the Littlepace Distributor Road and the vast array of brown and yellow leaves that adorned the pathway.
Leaves. Millions of them. If I were Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” I would have counted them but I’m not, so I didn’t. Just lying there on the road, the path and the black strip that we assume is the cycle path. Never mind what becomes of the broken-hearted – what becomes of all the leaves that nature annually discards at this time of year? Where do they all go to? They don’t gradually decompose and enrich the tarmac, that’s for sure.
I assume of course that in the great circle of life in years gone by, this latter scenario would indeed be the case, when the leaves would rot into the soil, forming compost and so on. But nowadays, it just seems such a waste for these leaves to fall on stony ground, like in the parable. Nature doesn’t seem to be adapting very quickly to the new blanket of tarmac that has smothered our landscape.
When you come to think of it, though, discarded leaves have very few uses apart from the aforementioned composting, which is disappointing, because a leaf is a thing of beauty in itself. When you hold it up to the light and view the veins and the colours and the shapes, it is a work of art that cannot be reproduced by the hand of man – it is natural art, like the Giants Causeway or bobbly sheep’s droppings in Connemara.
The only good thing you can do with leaves is to shuffle through them, when they have drifted up against a wall, or maybe kick them in great quantities around the street. The problem with this is that there is not much money in it. My Uncle Balthazar did this for a living for five years before his wife left him.
As a young man in a bedsit in Ranelagh, I gave 99% of my wages to my landlord and Arthur Guinness and had very little left for luxuries like food. One day I did indeed try to make a homemade soup out of leaves that I picked up in the street. Let us say it was not a complete success and I was obliged to stay within sprinting distance of the toilet for a week afterwards.
Similarly, though striking examples of natural beauty, the leaves do not make good wallpaper. I tried it once on the wall of the kitchen when my wife was away at her sister’s and though it initially looked very striking, as the leaves dried and became wrinkled, the effect deteriorated. In the end, it just looked like a load of leaves stuck on a wall. And be warned, its murder trying to match up the pattern.
I have tried to think up a way of gainfully using all these leaves but the only thing that I can think of is that we should abandon the Euro and adopt the Leaf as our unit of currency. I realise that my grasp of how world currencies work rivals that of Idi Amin (“The country’s broke? Then we’ll print more money”) but there would be enormous benefits if we were to follow the Green Pound through to its natural conclusion.
Firstly, it would encourage people to plant more trees, which would help to counterbalance the effect of all those greenhouses that are heating up the sun. If you are literally being paid to go green, then that can only be beneficial to the health of the world. More trees equals more carbon dioxide equals more ozone layer or something like that, so we could save the world and get rich doing it. Of course, we would need to enlighten the populace on the difference between deciduous and evergreen and which of them would provide a regular source of income.
Secondly it would get rid of banks and their constant ripping us off. There would be no need to keep our leaves in financial institutions as there would be more than enough to go around for everyone. Just go out into the street if you’re getting a bit short. It would also be a fallacy for parents to admonish their profligate offspring with the words, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”
Of course, we would have to tighten up our customs and excise operation to stop people smuggling large quantities of leaves into the country and devaluing our currency. We could employ sniffer giraffes at docks and airports, though naturally you’d have to slip them the occasional five leaf note to keep them happy.
Back gardens in our leafy suburbs would become veritable jungles of shrubs and small trees as we all wait for the autumnal windfall. Farmers would employ Securicor to collect their harvest, though doubtless they would still demand subsidies from the government for doing so. Medical costs would plummet as whole families would get fit by going on long forest walks with big sacks.
But of course, all this will probably only happen in a post-apocalyptic society when the few survivors emerge from bomb shelters and gaze around at the devastation outside. It will be like the dove returning to the ark with a leaf in its mouth or maybe the coast of Greenland being discovered by Leaf Eriksson.
Come on, Brian! You know it makes sense.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The joy of strimming

One of the unforeseen consequences of global warming that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere in the Kyoto agreement is the fact that people’s lawns now grow in the winter. Whereas before, you could safely pack the lawnmower away at the end of September and know that you wouldn’t have to clap eyes on the damned thing again before April, these days the sprouting jungle both back and front is a constant nagging reminder during the winter months that you really should get the finger out.
Being a traditionalist when it suits me, I put even the vaguest thoughts of lawn cutting out of my head and make up spurious excuses why a trip to the shed to retrieve the lawn mower should be shunned. The ground will be too wet, I maintain. The grass needs to grow and breathe for a while without being ruthlessly scythed down every couple of weeks. I feel a twinge in my back.
It was therefore with great satisfaction last week that I cut the grass for the final time in 2008. Due to the inclement weather and a bout of sheer laziness, it had not been done for a month previously and, despite the fact that it hadn’t rained for five days – surely some sort of national record – the ground still resembled Strangford Lough at high tide.
But I persevered, squelching through the mashed grass and finally finding a use for the brown bin which had been put out empty for the recycling people the last few times.
Finally I took the strimmer – which had come free when we purchased the lawnmower eight years ago – and proceeded to laboriously unravel the flex which had somehow become tightly woven around the body of the strimmer like a thin python asphyxiating a sausage dog.
The strimmer.
Surely this model of modern technology has to be the most useless invention ever devised by man? Is there anybody in history who has managed to cut five yards of edging without the bit of cord snapping off?
Sure enough, as I began, I knew that a particularly sturdy looking dandelion three yards away was going to cause problems. There was no escape. We had to go into battle. I whispered a few words of encouragement into where I imagined the strimmer’s ear should be, shouted “Death or glory!” at the top of my voice, startling a jackdaw on my cotonaster, and ploughed into the fray.
It was all over before it began. The green cord was no match for the soft juicy flesh of dandelion stalk and, after the all too familiar “zip” and the change in tone of the strimmer, the two inch green strip went sailing into the hebe further down the herbaceous border, as we fancifully call the few miserable plants straddling the lawn. (My garden is littered with two inch green strips of strimmer cord. One day, I am going to go around collecting them all and construct an astro turf football pitch out back)
I uttered the word that is worse than “feck” and turned the strimmer upside down, tutting impatiently while the rotating bit of plastic slowed to such an extent that it wouldn’t take the skin off my fingers. As I removed the cap, the tightly wound coil of cord sprung out at me like a joke toy and I sighed and commenced re-winding.
It was then that I glanced up. Declan, my neighbour from two doors down, was similarly engaged. As was the man with the white van further up the street. And the man with the dog further down. It seemed that a good fifty per cent of the street was at that moment engaged in trying to thread the required two inches of green strimmer thread through the tiny hole in the base and a blue haze hung malcontentedly over the estate as expletives punctuated the afternoon balm.
Suddenly I realised what a brilliant marketing ploy it had been to hand out a free strimmer with every lawnmower. Yes, it would have cost the company millions but they would have made a tidy profit in the intervening period with all the spools of strimming thread sold to disgruntled lawn cutters who saw the cost as a necessary extra.
Now we like to think of ourselves as a modern society at the cutting edge of the technological revolution sweeping the globe. I work for Intel and their level of expertise is so great that I have no idea what they produce. We can split atoms, whether for profit or simply for amusement, and we have devised machines that can actually tell you that you have just taken a wrong turning and I told you to turn left at that petrol station, you dumbkopf.
Would it be possible, I meekly enquire of our budding inventors and teams of research scientists nervously wondering if they are the next for the dole queue – would it be possible for someone to come up with a strimmer cord that didn’t actually break in hand to hand combat with a thistle or a daisy or a dock leaf? One that flashed brightly like a scimitar in the hands of a crowing Mongol, scything down all that stood up to it?
Maybe – and I am no scientist, so I am open to correction – the material used in the strimmer cord is not up to the job? Perhaps if tungsten steel were used instead, or at least something that didn’t give up the ghost when confronted by something thin and botanical?
Naturally there would need to be limits. We wouldn’t want one that knocked down your garden fence when you tried to decimate the sprouting grass springing joyously up against it or sliced through the breeze block that your shed is standing on but surely there must be some happy medium?
Personally, and I realise that I am abandoning all my principles of snapping up free gifts, I would be happy to pay a modest amount of my hard earned cash for a strimmer if I didn’t have to perform a cycle of running repairs on every circuit of the lawn.
Anyway, all you budding inventors out there, you have until next April.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Junk mail

The other morning a slip of paper came through our letter box, not, I hasten to add, of its own accord, but thrust there by person or persons unknown.
I bounded down the stairs three at a time in a state of high excitement only to discover that my wife had leapt up from her armchair and dashed out of the sitting room before me. As she read the contents quickly I hopped about from one foot to the other, as though bursting to go to the toilet.
“It’s only a flyer for blinds,” she said, handing me the paper and returning to Fair City.
My face fell. I suppose you are either a curtain person or a blinds person and I am the former. My experiences of blinds is limited to holidays in Kerry or Sligo, where I quickly found that I don’t have the necessary hand/eye coordination to operate them successfully. When I’m trying to raise them, they lower further and further or else I end up with one side up and one side down in a very art nouveau but impractical way.
Consequently I trooped out to the kitchen and placed the flyer in the empty cornflakes box that stands by the back door. The box saves us having to go out to the green bin every time we have a piece of green recycling. When the box is full, we bring it out and empty it. (This ingenious invention has actually been patented by my wife and is under copyright. Bill Dyson is said to be raging that he didn’t think of it first.)
Not all junk mail goes straight in the recycling though. If the flyer is of the non-shiny sort and is blank on one side, it is added to the bundle of scrap paper in the drawer held in place by an elastic band. This is handy if I need a piece of paper to work out why the taxman has taken so much money off me or if I need to write a note to my wife to tell her that I’ve gone out to buy the new Lionel Richie album.
The point that I am making, very long-windedly, is that it doesn’t require a lot of physical effort to transfer one small piece of paper from the front door to the green bin. There is no need to hire a hand trolley or a fork lift, unless you are very feeble, although admittedly there is a need to walk six yards from front door to back. However, this unnecessary trip can be obviated by leaving the flyer at the foot of the stairs until such time as someone is going into the kitchen.
I have no problems with junk mail. The green bin truck comes around every second week now and we never find that our green bin is overflowing. I am sure that the nice men in the recycling centre get quite a buzz out of reading all the leaflets they receive every day.
We do not often eat out but if a new establishment opens in the neighbourhood, a flyer would remind us to “give it a bash.” I do not need any handy jobs done around the house, as I simply close my eyes and work around the problem. I am not thinking of buying or selling a house in the area, nor am I thinking of buying a new Peugeot, though I am sure they are very nice cars.
I do not need my shirts ironed and, as my youngest is twenty, I do not need a childminder, though at times I’m not so sure. I will glance through Lidl’s catalogue to see if they have anything “on special,” and do the same for Aldi, even though I can’t be bothered to travel to Maynooth to pick up a pair of retractable garden shears. Nor am I likely to join Leo Varadkar’s blue-shirted army in the near future. Sorry Leo.
Probably the only piece of junk mail I object to is the one that asks me if I want my lawn cutting. Without knocking on my neighbours’ doors, I am unsure if I have been specifically targetted for this leaflet because of the length of my grass out front or if everybody on the street has received it. I suspect the former, as I never receive this type of flyer when my grass has been freshly cut.
But although 99% of junk mail holds little or no interest to me, I will defend to the death the right to deliver it to my door. (Well, not quite “to the death” – more “till I get bored” really. I have no deep desire to be martyred for this cause and become the patron saint of junk mail.)
Junk mail is produced, in the main, by local businesses trying to promote a service to the local community. They have used a bit of initiative and gone to the trouble of producing a flyer that, they hope, will attract more customers and I applaud them for that. I am sure there are less stony ears than mine out there in the community and I hope their efforts are successful. More customers equals more jobs, as I’ve been trying to explain to Brian Lenihan.
It saddens me therefore that a few people are feeling the urge to put little “No junk mail” signs on their letter boxes. Despite what people maintain, we are hardly burdened down by the weight of junk mail pouring through our letter boxes. We don’t need to call out the fire brigade when we return from holidays to help us force open the front door. At most, what do we receive – three, four pieces of junk mail per day? It is hardly back-breaking work to cope with all of it.
It also raises the question as to what constitutes junk mail. Does notification of evening classes fall under this heading? Public information leaflets? The Community Voice? Census information forms? Warnings of an imminent nuclear attack? Does junk mail have to be trying to sell you something?
One letter box in the vicinity is adorned with an essay threatening prosecution under the Litter Act to anybody who dares to drop a leaflet, a menu or a newspaper through it. This person seems very angry. The only explanation I can come up with for this litigious fury is that perhaps there is a baby in the house who is constantly being wakened by the sound of the letter box clattering.
Of course, I feel he is missing out because of this. I have often had the urge to rifle through my green bin and post out all the previous fortnight’s flyers to him in one large A4 envelope. This way he can show support to his local community without the baby being constantly woken.
But I jest. I accept that some people might find the task of transferring junk mail from front door to green bin onerous in the extreme. I am consequently considering offering my services in this regard, calling out to people’s homes to perform this task for them for a nominal sum.
In order to promote this piece of entrepreneurship, I will be sending out a flyer to all houses in the near future.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reclaiming the game

Pic by Pizzapie

This morning I listened to a conversation in work between two very loquacious groups of colleagues. It was in essence the same conversation that has taken place every morning since time began and went something along the lines of “Liverpool are muck, United are great, Liverpool are great, United are muck, hurray, boo, hurray, boo.”
Among the Wildean repartee, there was, as usual, the tendency to refer to the football club of their choice in the first person plural. “We’ll stuff you when we meet you next.” “We need to sign a striker.” “We are the greatest.” Call me a cynic, but I doubted very much whether the persons uttering these claims have obtained the necessary permission from their respective clubs to speak on their behalf. However I decided not to intercede.
Of course, the ‘we’ is indicative of feeling a part of this entity called a football club. They are the supporters, the faithful, from the day they are born until the day they die. Blue and true, or red and true or pink and true or whatever. True football supporters one and all.
The only problem with this little scenario is that football is a sport played in three dimensions. Nay, I jest not. In the real world, football consists of real people, the smell of deep heat, humorous crowd chants and a need to take evasive action when the left black decides to boot the ball out of play in your direction.
The other sport, about which the workplace arguments revolve, is a sort of virtual football called The Premiership. It is a soap opera for (mainly) men, featuring a cast of thousands from around the globe, all earning the kind of money that Matthew Perry and Courtney Cox could only dream of.
In a sort of “Who’s your favourite Desperate Housewife” kind of way, the very young are peer pressured into deciding which Premiership team they will buy into for the rest of their lives. Then they are encouraged to purchase the shirt and buy the Sky package and follow their team in the print media and the two-dimensional screen whenever it might appear.
This is actually not very different from what real football used to be like. There would be peer pressure also from a young age to go and follow the local team and buy the shirt and follow the team in the print media and the three dimensional arena whenever it might appear.
Of course, with the meteoric rise of the Premiership, there has been a corresponding decline in interest in real football. This has happened globally and now kids from Vietnam to Venezuela play in the streets in their Manchester United shirts, while down the road Ho Chi Min City and Caracas Casuals play to half-empty stadia.
Whenever I mention the subject of League of Ireland football, I am informed that it is rubbish, or words to that effect. To back this up, they tell me that they went to a match once and it was dire. When I point out that they have just been lamenting how awful their team was on the box last night, I am regarded with pity. I am often asked which Premiership team I follow, which is akin to asking me for my favourite member of the Royal Family.
By claiming that they don’t follow League of Ireland football because its rubbish, Premiership fans – and we are really talking Big Four here – are really admitting that they only follow a team because they win trophies. Why else are Celtic so popular and Hibs, who are much older and just as Irish, ignored? Why don’t they follow Middlesborough or Aston Villa in such numbers? Dublin fans will never win anything, yet they don’t all go off and support Kerry.
Shels will never win the European Cup and even the League of Ireland looks out of bounds for the foreseeable future. Yet I am convinced that winning our first League title for thirty years in 1993 and beating Hajduk Split at Tolka in 2004 gave me far more pleasure than United fans here had on winning their 800th trophy last year.
It is estimated that by 2012, half the world will be of Chinese extraction and 47% of the global population will claim to support one of the Big Four in the Premiership. In England there is a campaign called Reclaim the Game, which aims to promote real football with mud and crowds but they are small and pitted against Murdoch’s billions.
This season Sporting Fingal joined the League of Ireland. They play in Morton Stadium, Santry and unfortunately are doing rather well in their first season. I say unfortunately as I am a Shelbourne supporter and they stymied our push for promotion recently.
Most Shels fans dismiss the club as a sporting franchise, a Fingal County Council plaything and, based in Morton Stadium in Santry, they are hardly ‘local’ to Dublin 15, despite Fingal’s attempts to make us all feel that we belong to their little empire.
They do however play real football, sometimes badly, sometimes well, but it does actually exist in the real world. You can actually go down to a match, pay your €12 in and actually shout at players and officials in a situation where they can hear you. Sometimes they will even answer you!
Now I am not advocating that everybody climbs down off their barstool and goes and watches Torpedo Fingal. I’d prefer if they came and saw Shels. Or Clonee United or Verona or Castleknock Celtic or some team that is putting a huge amount of time and effort into representing the local community, whether they are good, bad or indifferent. But at least go and watch a real match! You can still follow your soap opera for the rest of the week!
In my confirmation class, I once had the temerity to ask if you could be a good Christian and not go to Church. In reply, I was told the parable of the boy who wanted to be a boy scout (this was back in the mists, when Baden-Powell infamously promoted Scouting for Boys!) He purchased the uniform, practised his reef knot and bowline until they were perfected, lit campfires from two pieces of flint and sang all the campfire songs. Yet he never attended a meeting. Could he claim to be a real Boy Scout?
In the same way, a true United follower can tell you how many goals Giggsy has scored and how many they beat Valencia by the last time they played them and how much shopping Rio Ferdinand bought on the day he was supposed to take a drugs test.
But if he never goes to a match, is he a real football supporter?
Support your local team.
Reclaim the game.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sunrise, sunset

So there we were in southern Crete, in an idyllic little town on the coast and somebody suggested we book an evening meal in the village above on the mountain “and watch the sun set.”
Okay, a bit yuppie but it seemed like a good idea. We ascended the steep winding path at around 7.30pm and got a steep, winding table for eight on the terrace with fabulous views of the bay below. And it was warm and the food was delicious, even the olives, and the company was great, but the sunset? The sun was like an aspiring actor that has waited all his life for his big part but then proceeds to fluff his lines. It showed no desire to turn luminous red or paint the skies with fantastic oranges and purples but simply sank with a bit of a groan behind the headland to the west. When it had gone, a little strip of cream bordered the headline for a while and then all went black.
I remember sitting on my balcony in Tenerife with a bottle of beer and watching the sun (it was the same one – I recognised it) set over the sea. I was prepared for the spectacular and again was roundly disappointed. Far from crashing into the dancing sparkles of the ocean in a cacophony of colour, the sun never actually made it to the horizon. It became enveloped in a kind of a haze three inches above the sea, shrugged its shoulders dispiritedly and simply petered out.
Now Crete and Tenerife have great advantages over Dublin 15 in many areas, particularly the weather. You may not have noticed but the last couple of summers in this part of the world have been a little on the moist side. However in other parts of the continent, the weather has been veritably Scorchio, to borrow a phrase. One would have thought that entry into the EU would have resulted in some more equal distribution of weather but it appears that this is still a long way off.
But where Dublin 15 wins out every time is in the quality of its sunrises and sunsets. For the benefit of any teenagers reading this, sunrise occurs in the early morning when the sun ascends above the horizon. In our case, the horizon is somewhere over Damastown and some of the most spectacular sunrises I have seen have emanated from behind the large beech tree in Littlepace Woods.
A few weeks ago, the sun was about to burst forth upon a world that, while not unsuspecting, was largely asleep. There was a large grey cloud that looked a bit like the island of Madagascar (without the lemurs) hovering above the Spar and the hidden sun illuminated it in oranges and greys, so that it looked like a stream of molten lava or those hot coals that very silly people run across in the South Seas. This was set off by an absolutely pure pale blue that the whizz kids at Dulux can only dream about, which stretched from the N3 to almost overhead, where it gradually became darker until merging with the night sky above Beechfield. On the far side of the N3, pinks and creams were splashed on this magnificent canvas in what was a veritable riot of colour.
Sunsets can also be quite spectacular, with flamingo pinks and dusky oranges sometimes covering up to a third of the sky. Red clouds, isolated and seemingly on fire, are commonplace and must have terrified prehistoric Dublin 15-ers, before they figured out what they were.
It is very likely that the history of the art world would have been very different if Paul Gauguin had decided against Tahiti and come to live in Blanchardstown instead. What a world of colour he would have tried to recreate, sitting at an easel outside Mace at six o’clock in the morning and gazing in awe at the panorama above Corduff!
In Channel 4’s recent programme “The World’s 100 Greatest Sunrises,” hosted by Brussel Rand, Dublin 15 had seven sunrises all told and three in the final ten. Critics may argue that the eventual winner (the very first sunrise after God created dark and light on the Fourth Day) was somewhat of a bizarre choice as there exists no photographic evidence to back up its claims of brilliance, save for some rather grainy black and white snaps, which prove nothing.
Similarly the morning after the Krakatoa explosion in 1883 may well have produced a fantastic sunrise but solar commentators all agree that this was due to particles of molten ash in the atmosphere and cannot be attributed to a merely naturally produced luminary phenomenon.
For those of you who have difficulty struggling out of bed at such early hours, the Sunrise Channel (number 834 on your digital box) broadcasts repeats of the best ones throughout the day for those of you who missed it first time around. This is normally accompanied by some atmospheric music such as the panpipes or Slade’s “My Friend Stan,” to further enhance the effect.
Of course, you don’t get good sunrises or sunsets every day. Certain criteria have to be met in order to produce a multi-coloured extravaganza such as I have been talking about. The time of day is important. Very few sunsets take place in the middle of the afternoon or at nine o’clock in the morning, so timing is essential.
Also, a good scattering of cumulo-nimbus clouds seems to augment the show, which of course is where the likes of Crete and Tenerife fall down so badly. These sun-kissed islands don’t appear to have the ability to produce good, sunlight catching clouds and frankly, they are the poorer for it. Of course, the mere presence of clouds indicates the possibility of rubbish weather but every cloud has a silver lining, so they say.
Just as Hollywood attracted film-makers with its brilliant blue skies at the turn of the last century, so I feel that Dublin 15 could easily become the sci-fi capital of the world. The alien skies above this portion of the capital would save millions on film sets and push back the boundaries of what is possible in the world of cinematography.
I have written to an Bord Fáilte, suggesting to them that they come to Dublin 15 and record some of our sunrises and sunsets. Then they can play them in audiovisual rooms in Blarney Castle or the Burren Interpretative Centre, with a diddley-i-doh soundtrack and encourage rich Americans to come and sample the delights of Carpenterstown and Mulhuddart. We could establish sunset interpretative centres, where we could explain the complicated astronomical dynamics involved in sunrises and sunsets, with little models and an interactive video game and perhaps an adventure playground.
So far, I have not had a reply but I feel it can only be a matter of time.

The old school tie

I remember being very concerned about that tie.
I was four years old and it was blue and yellow and grey and I knew that somehow I would have to master the art of putting it on. It had hung on the bedroom door handle for a week, along with the rest of my uniform, and I had eyed it nervously every time I passed in and out.
I made a few half-hearted attempts but the “knot,” such as it was, came apart if I looked at it. What on earth was I going to do when the Big Day arrived?
Thankfully Dad came to the rescue and the night before my first day in school, we went through the procedure until I had it perfected. Left hand, little end. Right hand, big end. Big end six inches longer than the little end. Hold out little end in left hand. Pass big end in between tie and arm, let go, catch it and go around again. Second time, come up by neck and down through the gap in the tie just created. Raise knot to neck and adjust to correct size.
Soon I was able to do it subconsciously and without looking in the mirror. If it had been an Olympic event, I’d have qualified easily and would doubtless have been in contention for a medal place.
Like every other schoolboy, I soon learned the trick of pushing the thin end of the tie through the buttons of my shirt, ingeniously overcoming the need to redo the knot if the thin end was too long. I recall excitedly imparting this information to anyone in earshot, with all the eagerness of Sir Isaac Newton explaining the laws of gravity.
Of course, the state of the tie leaving the house was a far cry from the state of it on my return, much to my mother’s frustration. Red-faced and sweaty, I would bound in through the door with the tie loose around my neck and tilted over to the side, or else it would be rolled up in a ball in my pocket along with all the fluff, sticky sweets and other treasures I had managed to accumulate during the day.
The school tie was great for tying around your head and pretending to be an injun. In fact, I would say that any passing Cherokees or Mohicans would have to look again to make sure we weren’t compatriots, such was the uncanny resemblance of the blue, yellow and grey school tie to traditional Native American headwear.
It was also great for tug o’ war, though mums doubtless tended to disagree. You could also tie your mates to their chairs and, in the summer, when jumpers weren’t worn, they would also do for goalposts, though disputes often broke out over their exact delineation.
Over the years, the way that the school tie was worn reflected the fashion trends. At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, it was considered “hip” and “groovy” to make the knot as large as possible, often the size of a small football and obliterating the very wide lapels on the shirt. It was a great source of amusement to us in those days to grab the thin end of someone’s tie and yank it very tightly, until it was down to the size of a marble and impossible to undo without the aid of a chisel.
This practice ceased with the advent of punk rock when it became distinctly uncool to wear the knot of your tie large and floppy. It was much more anarchic to yank it down to the size of a cherry stone and the more frayed it looked, the better. These were the days when the honour of the school was repeatedly invoked in order to stop the growing trend of cutting other people’s ties with a pair of scissors. Doubtless the founding fathers would be rotating madly in their respective sarcophagi at the carry-on.
By the end of my secondary school career, I was thoroughly fed up with the old school tie, both in a literal and also a symbolic sense. I found it rather difficult to convey respect to a bit of cloth that you wore around your neck for merely decorative reasons just as I was developing a rather deep antipathy to the notion of a school as a kind of father figure that should be venerated due to having been in existence for many years. I had toyed with the idea of going to the doctor, Alex Higgins style, and claiming that the tie chafed my neck but in the end I spent my money on going to see the Clash instead.
The worm, naturally, turns. As a father myself, I was rather looking forward to helping my son master the intricacies of cravatology (okay, I made it up) on his first day at school but it was not to be. My wife returned home with one of those ties with the elastic around it that you simply slip over your neck. What kind of fun is that? Yet another labour-saving device that means schoolchildren now have an extra ten seconds to play with at the start of every school day. And if you try wearing it on your head, any self-respecting Sioux or Navaho would spit on the ground contemptuously.
I could not however share my wife’s righteous indignation when my son returned home with the tie rolled up in a ball or full of mud stains. This was partly due to the fact that it was not me who washed and ironed it but also I was secretly rather pleased at my son’s antipathy to the state of his tie.
My secondary school tie went out in a blaze of glory on my final day at school. It was a cheap and unimaginative shot but it felt good, as though the flames were cleansing my soul.
I did however come across my old primary school tie in the attic recently. My mother must have packed it away with my three-legged race second place certificate and my certificate for swimming twenty five yards without drowning. Despite the battering it had suffered, it still seemed in remarkably good shape and I realised that it was probably the article of clothing that I had worn most often in my life.
Wow, I thought sentimentally, and threw it in the bin.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The legacy of Scaldwood

I was waiting in the barbers in Ongar recently and among the reading material was an ancient manuscript purporting to document the true history of the establishment of townlands in the Dublin 15 area. Blowing off the dust, I opened it carefully and noted that it was dated MDCLXXVII, which to the uninitiated means it even pre-dated numerals and was thus Very Old.
Long, long ago, it seems, a vast, deep, impenetrable forest covered the land between the River Liffey and the North Pole, or at least as far as the Tolka River. This forest was called Scaldwood and it was marked on maps with terrifying legends such as “Here be beasties and creepy-crawly things.” Within the forest lived wolves and bears and hedgehogs and all manner of bloodthirsty creatures, though it is unclear how anybody knew this, seeing as nobody had ventured within its green-leafed canopy.
Scaldwood was a name that struck terror into people’s hearts and often other parts of their anatomy as well. An early version of the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” for example – used as a lullaby for young impressionable children on the north side of Dublin - detailed how going down to the woods today would doubtless mean getting your head bitten off by a rabid wolf.
And then in the seventeenth century, there appeared on the scene a band of young men who did not know the meaning of the word ‘fear.’ Of course there were a lot of other words they didn’t know the meaning of, for Samuel Pepys hadn’t brought out his famous dictionary at that time.
There was Leopold Blanchard, strong, fair and the bearer of the most magnificent moustache in western Christendom; Randy Luttrell, the movie star; Denis Diswell who, legend had it, could perform cartwheels with both hands tied behind his back; the four amigos, Billy Blake, Hughie Hunt, Harry Hart and Willy White, who had long dreamt of building four towns linked by a semi-circular distributor road; Igor Carpenter, the aptly-named carpenter; Alan Ash, the railway buff; Peter Pellett, Fintan Phibble, Wally Holly, Kieran Kelly, Tony Tyrell and the peculiarly named Warren Warren.
This troupe of gay young blades used to meet in the Undamaged Wall (now the Hole in the Wall) pub on Blackhorse Avenue, where they would drink and carouse and play dominos. Occasionally they would play Spin the Bottle and on one occasion, Alan Ash wagered Leopold Blanchard he “dared not venture a half a league into Scaldwood.”
Reliable witnesses say that all faces turned from the telly at these words and silence fell. Then all faces fell and silence turned from the telly. After what seemed like a minute but was more likely sixty seconds, Blanchard spoke.
“Ha!” he quoth. “I will venture into Scaldwood my lily-livered dandy. Not only will I venture therein but I will travel to the very middle and there construct a town with a wondrous shopping centre.”
“And I shall hack down a portion of forest and construct a whole new estate with management companies!” roared Tony Tyrell.
“And I shall clear a large space and make a fine golf course,” said Wally Holly, brandishing his fork magnificently.
“And I shall rezone a large portion of the forest for housing and maybe a secondary school,” added Kieran Kelly.
“And we shall build our towns and link them with a semi-circular distributor road!” cried the four amigos, clutching each other awkwardly to their bosoms.
When word got around about this foolhardy venture, the city fathers consulted with the city mothers and declared that “whatsoever portions of Scaldwood were cleared and towns constructed, these could be named after the perpetrators,” a handsome declaration made in the expectation that none of the fifteen would ever be seen again.
At 9.17 on a Wednesday morning (the exact date has been lost in the mists of time), after a hearty breakfast of Coco Pops, Leopold Blanchard gave his magnificent moustache a final twirl and led his fourteen companions into the notorious Scaldwood. A large crowd cheered them on, shouting encouraging words about being ripped from head to toe by tigers. Wives and children sobbed bitterly, even those who weren’t related to the men.
And that was the last that anyone saw or heard of the gallant band for five years. Lonely light-putter-outers on the fringes of the forest sometimes thought they heard strange sawing noises coming from the interior as they trudged their weary way home at midnight. And Captain Llewellyn in the Ordnance Survey Office in the Phoenix Park repeatedly wrote home to his wife that “I have strange dreams that I hear concrete mixers at work in the forest, even though they will not be invented for another 250 years.”
And then one day, a massive spruce fir came crashing down at the perimeter of Scaldwood and fifteen bearded but unbowed men marched out, hatchets on their shoulders and a look of triumph in their eyes. Leopold Blanchard, his moustache more magnificent than ever, unscrolled a sheet of parchment and, in a large, powerful voice, proclaimed to a passing small boy that Scaldwood had been well and truly spanked and that henceforth no-one need ever fear its terrible name.
When word got around about the men’s return, there was a clamour to visit the townships that the men had created. Randy Luttrell gleefully showed visitors around his castle and charged them well for dining in his restaurant. Denis Diswell performed handless cartwheels for amazed onlookers around the new estates named after him and Alan Ash proudly showed people around his railway station.
But the most awe and reverence was saved for Leopold Blanchard and the bustling High Street complete with church, pubs and bank that he had constructed. A site had also been reserved for a shopping centre, he told the press conference, with work expected to begin in the next 300 years or so.
And this was how the Greater Blanchardstown area first evolved, hewn from impenetrable forest by fifteen strong men and true who spat in the face of the danger and stuck their tongues out at peril. Today all that remains of Scaldwood is two square yards of woodland in the back garden of 73, Lohunda Avenue. A survey conducted in 2002 reported that “there appears to be no wolves, bears or other wildlife of any significant size currently surviving within.”
As I was ushered to the chair and draped in voluminous cloths that failed utterly to keep any stray hairs from getting down the back of my neck, my mind was filled with the great and heroic deeds of those brave men who risked all to give me a safe place to have a haircut.
And I suddenly felt very humble.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Rain magnets

Cartoon: Fergus Lynch

I’m beginning to think that either my wife or I is jinxed. The way that things are going, one or other of us, or maybe both, are going to be physically ejected midflight the next time we take Ryanair in the same way that Jonah was dumped overboard in the Bible as a harbinger of bad weather.
I suppose it started last year with the abysmal summer that we experienced here. Although, to be fair, it had its good points for I had a readymade excuse for not cutting the grass for months on end. But all in all, I’d have preferred to put in the hours for a patch of blue sky.
The only two good weeks in the whole year that were any way decent was the first fortnight in April, when two million burnt lobsters turned up for work, rubbing their hands and saying they had a feeling in their water that it was going to be a great summer.
And where were we during that halcyon fortnight? Why, we were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Orlando, where we had to make regular mad dashes for cover to escape sudden downpours and where the CNN news was full of “the coldest Easter since records began.”
But of course, that was just unfortunate.
In recent times, I have become a Ryanair junkie. Yes, the seats are ridiculously narrow and yes, the airports are sometimes nowhere near the places they purport to serve and yes, the fact that you have to pay a credit card handling charge per person each way is a rip-off, but the fact remains that they can get you to the furthest reaches of Europe for cheaper than the cost of a taxi from Dublin 15 to the airport.
Some people like to spend their money on home improvements. Others choose to buy new cars or eat out in restaurants. We treat ourselves with short trips at home and abroad.
As someone who can’t resist a bargain, I have consequently visited a lot of places on the Continent that would have hitherto been beyond my budget and I have dragged my wife around with me. We have enjoyed the delights of -25°C in Vilnius in January, blundered our way through springtime fog in Trieste and negotiated the interminable road works in Wroclaw. As someone who considers himself a good environmentalist, I do worry about this carbon footprint Achilles heel of mine and tell myself that the next trip is the last one but something tells me that cheap airfares won’t be around forever and I ought to make hay while the iron is hot..
Last October, to compensate ourselves for missing out on the two weeks of summer in early April, I booked us in for three nights in Pula in Croatia, a town now strangely removed from the airline’s list of destinations. The guide book assured me of very pleasant weather in October – not the oppressive heat of summer but like a nice spring day here.
It was a beautiful spot, rich blue waters and green headlands, but, oh my God, it was freezing. And when it was not freezing, the rain came down in bucketfuls. Driving back from a day trip to Slovenia we got caught in a shower that threatened to put dents in the roof of the car. It was reminiscent of another Ryanair trip to Perpignan, via Girona, when we both got soaked to the skin running ten yards to the shelter of McDonalds.
This rain thing was starting to infiltrate in my consciousness. I booked two nights in December in Frankfurt to see the Christmas market and sure enough it rained on one of the days, though to be fair we weren’t expecting hot and sunny in Germany at that time of year.
This year, I was determined to break our string of bad luck. Rodez, a small city near Castres in the midi-Pyrenees promised us April sunshine but yet again failed to deliver. We marvelled at the way the water just kept on coming down hour after hour with no let up in its intensity.
Surely three nights in Biarritz in mid-June would break our duck? Close to the border with Spain and with a reputation for long sandy beaches and sun worshipping, where could we go wrong? Sadly, the duck, far from being broken, positively revelled in the conditions. When the first drops started to fall at 1pm on our first day, I just shrugged helplessly. Subsequent persistent downpours on the second and third days were only exacerbated by the blue cloudless sky on the morning of departure. And, just to rub rainwater into the wounds, the plane home decided to let us off about 400m from the terminal building back at Dublin and we got drenched in the length of time it took us to gain refuge.
The other day I got a call from Met Eireann, wanting to know if we had plans to go away anywhere in the near future. Satellite pictures can only tell so much, he said, and he had heard our ramblings around Europe were a much more accurate barometer of weather trends. The Timbuktu tourist board left a message on the phone wondering if we might consider holidaying in the sub-Sahara this year as the rains there had failed again. The Ombudsman is currently ruling on privacy laws and whether airlines are obliged to disclose to other passengers if the Gouldings (or, more colloqially “that shower from Dublin”) have booked themselves on a particular flight.
Sympathy among our kith and kin for our plight is somewhat lacklustre, particularly among the kith, who have always been a bit harsh. If we choose to swan around Europe like the Royal Family, they say, we should accept whatever Fate launches in our direction.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that we are providing a valuable social service to the weather weary residents of Dublin 15. As our Ryanair plane heads southwards, the sun will peep out nervously from behind a cloud to make certain we are gone before leaping out with a big grin all over his face and spreading warmth and bonhomie all over Blanchardstown. T-shirted neighbours will smile at each other and remark that “the Gouldings must be away again.”
I think we should be recompensed for this. At the very least, Fingal County Council should sponsor our trips abroad, seeing as how, just as in a Pink Panther cartoon, we’re fated to exist with our own personal black rain cloud above our heads.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A green fingered lament

A very learned man once told me that if you stand on top of the Quinn Direct building in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre and look out over the sprawling metropolis of Dublin 15, you will be struck by the amount of greenery. Our planners may be accused of a lot of things from traffic gridlock to the spread of fundamentalism in world religions but, if anybody still wore a hat, he or she would have to take it off to them when it comes to environmental awareness and picturesque settings.
Developers, though much criticised for the constant building of new estates, have not skimped on the provision of grass verges, roadside trees and landscaped gardens. Many of us new arrivals are faced with a decent sized lawned garden, and in the same way that an artist squares up to a blank canvas, we have launched ourselves into making the most of our outside spaces. The provision of plants has doubtlessly been a big industry in this area.
Like many others, we were enthused with the gardening bug when we first moved up here eight years ago from Arbour Hill. A huge back garden – at least, compared to the postage stamp we had previously– was a challenge and an opportunity for us to design a piece of heaven that would have Diarmuid Gavin drooling in envy.
We shared the work according to our talents. Basically, my wife chose the plants and I dug. I found out I was pretty good at digging, particularly after I bought a spade. If my wife needed the lawn trimmed back a bit for a hebe? No better man.
Of course, at the start, this gardening lark necessitated a lot of time spent at the Phoenix Park Garden Centre on the Castleknock Road. Not wanting to return home to bombsite, it was deemed necessary to take the kids along and so the four of us would hop into the car on a Bank Holiday afternoon and head off. The fact that three of us moaned like mad at the prospect of spending hours there when we could be sitting on our backsides watching Indiana Jones did not deter my wife unduly and when we arrived, she would be out of the car like a shot, the three of us trailing dispiritedly in her wake.
The only good thing I could say about the garden centre was that it afforded me the opportunity of smoking in comfort. At the time, I was a smoker and my wife counted exactly how many cigarettes I had gone through in the last hour / four hours / twelve hours. She was also not behind the back door when it came to telling me if I was overstepping the mark with my nicotine allowance. And like most smokers married to non-smokers, I always maintained that I smoked less than I actually did.
So while she was off examining fuchsias, I’d be wandering around the gooseberry bushes having a crafty fag. The problem was that I found the garden centre excruciatingly boring and when bored, I smoked. So I’d smoke a lot more, always keeping a wary eye out for my wife suddenly appearing around a dwarf conifer.
Itchy and Scratchy of course spent their time annoying the goldfish and playing hide and seek in and out of the bedding plants. My wife seemed to think she was obliged to examine every plant in the centre in case it had mildew or liver fluke or whatever plants get. And I’d wander, round and round and round, my eyes glazing over as I passed the alpines for the twenty fourth time.
Whenever I encountered my wife – and I felt obliged to bump into her every so often to show her that I wasn’t smoking – she would invariably ask me what I thought of this or that plant. My stock answer would be, “Yes, its very nice, but where are you thinking of putting it?” I found this worked much better than actually offering an opinion.
(The equivalent these days is when she asks me to comment on wine. I always reply that it is “very fruity,” though I think she may have cottoned onto that one now.)
I have to say I did admire my wife’s attention to detail in the garden centre. Coming, like myself, from a distinctly un-green-fingered background, she was determined to inform herself about the whole subject of horticulture, while I couldn’t be bothered. Give me a plant and tell me where you want to put it and I’ll dig a hole for it. All the difficult stuff like soil types and aspects and pruning, I left up to her so it was hardly surprising that she took hours making up her mind whether to take the spirea and put it in beside the viburnum or should she take the pyrracantha and move the heathers out from the back wall?
Even when she had made a choice, there was still the problem of selecting which of the ten thousand geraniums (gerania?) on offer should have the honour of adorning our garden. This one was too scrawny, that one had already bloomed too fully, that one was the wrong shape or had a hole in the leaf where caterpillar vandals had thrown a brick through it. By the time the choices had been made my throat was raw from nicotine inhalation and the kids were being told off for chasing each other up and down the aisles with a goldfish.
Our garden could now be accurately described in an estate agent’s brochure as ‘mature.’ After a lot of trial and error, we have the climbers along the back wall, roses in the sunny corner, a veritable jungle of shrubs along the sunny wall and a couple of large japonicas along the shady wall. Suffice to say that we haven’t bought an outdoor plant in ages, as the lawn has been reduced in size enough.
It is not a route I normally take, so driving down the old Castleknock Road recently, I was surprised to find that the Phoenix Park Garden Centre – oh paradise of my middle-age! – is no more. Further enquiries elucidated the fact that “its been gone for years, you big eejit.”
This kind of makes me wonder where all the newer residents of Dublin 15 are buying their plants. It seems peculiar with such a huge potential consumer base that there is no dedicated indigenous garden centre to cater for the hordes of green-fingered enthusiasts out here. I would have said that the fuchsia looks bleak but my wife says that cheap laughs are something we should be garden against.
The Phoenix Park Garden Centre – RIP.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Oh what a divine war


Greetings, fellow inhabitants of Planet Bisto!
As you know, I have broadcast reports from the most deprived and depraved regions of the Known Universe but today I bring you a tale that will bring a shiver to both spines of all readers. It is a tale of inbistoriaty from an insignificant planet circling an insignificant sun in an insignificant galaxy in Sector V of the universe.
The unimaginative occupants of this planet call their sun “The Sun” and their planet “The Earth.” The part of the island they inhabit is called Littlepace and the island is called “Ireland.”
The humans – as they call themselves – that reside in Littlepace are the planet’s most intelligent race and follow the same basic life-cycle as most creatures in Sector V – they are born, they grow to maturity, they mate, they moan about their children and then they die. All this happens in but three Bistorian hours, so as you can imagine these humans spend their lives rushing about from place to place in an awful hurry.
However, in addition to their very short lifespan, Littlepacers also live in fear of their great god, Fingal.
Fingal is a massive snarling god that comes down to the Littlepacers once a week. A jealous god, unlike our own beloved Tayto, Fingal is cruel and demands sacrifice from the natives. They are forced to feed a small black plastic pet called “Wheelie Bin” and, at the beginning of the week, they wheel him out to the street and leave him there.
Imagine what this poor Wheelie Bin must go through as he hears the ferocious deity entering the estate! Imagine the dread as the god rounds the corner and his minions – all dressed alike in chilling blue uniforms – grasp the Wheelie Bin firmly by the ears and lead it to the sacrificial site! Nearer, nearer, the growling monster approaches and then suddenly it happens!
The poor Wheelie Bins are chosen in pairs to pay homage to Fingal. They stand side by side trembling and then suddenly they are hoisted into the air and are summarily disembowelled. With a great gulp, Fingal flips off their heads and gorges himself on the intestines. It is almost too horrible for me to describe in words. They are then released, discarded, thrown aside, often many hundreds of yards away from their owners, alone in a strange part of the estate, violated and disorientated.
Occasionally the natives are so keen to keep on the good side of the incarnate deity that they stuff the protesting Wheelie Bin with too much food. The bloated bin then stands groaning on the street until some black feathered angels swoop down from the chimney pots and relieve its distress by scattering much of the excess around the neighbouring lawns and pathways. The residents are afraid of the wrath of these angels and the residue sometimes lies in the gardens for weeks afterwards.
Sometimes it happens that the natives forget to leave their sacrifices outside the door on the appointed day. It is not uncommon on these occasions to see scantily clad men come running down their driveways dragging a petrified Wheelie Bin by the ears begging the god’s minions for forgiveness and pleading with them to intercede on their behalf. Such is the terror in the natives’ eyes that the minions at least show some propensity for mercy and accept the sacrifice.
Like many gods though, Fingal keeps demanding more and more. Once a month, in addition to the offering of the black plastic Wheelie Bin, he sent down his sister-God, Oxygen, demanding that a rarer green Wheelie Bin be sacrificed. He has now stated that two green Wheelie Bins a month must be offered up to placate her. There is even talk that he will soon demand that the incredibly rare brown Wheelie Bin must also soon be filled and left on the street for him to gorge upon.
Naturally the residents are petrified at the thought of such excessive demands and have petitioned the Church to intercede. The archbishop – more commonly known as the Director of the Environment of Fingal County Council – has wrung his hands and reported back that the sacrifices must be made or else a plague of rats, locusts and other creepy-crawly things will be visited upon the heads of the householders. In addition to this, the god Fingal has levied a financial punishment upon the heads of the householders because, he is reported as saying, not enough of the natives have been putting out their black Wheelie Bins in homage.
But of course there are downtrodden races all over the universe. What is so special about these Littlepacers?
The answer, oh Bistorians with but a single loving father figure, is that a new god has arrived in town and is trying to woo the natives away from Fingal with promises of eternal redemption. His name is Panda and already some of the natives have turned their back on Fingal and offered up their sacrifices instead to Panda. If more natives go over to Panda, Fingal will become angrier as his share of the sacrificial market declines and his appetite for Wheelie Bins of all colours will increase. Other gods, like the omnipresent Greenstar, are said to be viewing the situation carefully with an eye to picking up enough disciples to make divine intervention worthwhile.
The archbishop and bishops in the Church of FCC have all denounced the interloper as a false god and are urging the natives to shun the new road, no matter how brightly the sunlight falls on it. “Fingal is the Word, the Truth and the Light” appears to be the Church’s watchword. Thou shalt have no other gods except him.
It is all shaping up to be the greatest religious pitched battle since the gods Fluffy and Nigel squared up to each other in Sector III at the end of the last uranium age. And you can be sure there will be casualties with the helpless residents of Littlepace wedged firmly between a rock and a solid mineral-based molecular structure, to use a well-known bistorianism.
The people of Littlepace urgently need your help. Please send money – notes of large denomination only - to my intergalactic / off-planet / non-residential account where the funds will rest prior to their eventual distribution to those most in need.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dead tigers

Cartoon by Fergus Lynch
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As some of you may be aware, there are not too many tigers rambling around the general Littlepace area and consequently my knowledge of the lifestyle of this great and beautiful animal is somewhat limited. I presume that when he is about to die from natural causes, he slinks off into the undergrowth, watches his life pass before him in a series of mental flashes and then pops his clogs, lying there for a long time until the hyenas figure out that he can’t still be asleep and start giving him the odd nervous nudge.
I occasionally wonder – and with increased frequency of late – what will happen when our own special brand of economic tiger crawls away into the Maumturk Mountains for the last time. I suppose we’ll all be waiting at Oughterard for a while in case he returns, but eventually we’ll have to bite the bullet and accept that Tiddles (well, nobody else has bothered to give him a name) is no more. He is an ex-tiger. He has ceased to be.
Now my tenuous grasp of economics is matched only by my tenuous grasp of reality but I predict that as soon as Tiddles has departed for that great wilderness in the sky, there will be a mass exodus from the country. Already there are rumours of a Polish Tiger – or whatever animal the Poles have chosen to represent their economic upturn – sniffing around the steelyards of Gdansk and doubtless, Lithuanian Panthers and Nigerian Cheetahs will also appear in due course.
Even if Tiddles doesn’t actually die but just goes around grabbing people by the sleeve and telling them what a great tiger he used to be in the old days, people will soon realise that a fit and healthy Moldovan Leopard cub is more attractive than a Tiger with a gammy leg and a hearing aid. There will be a mass movement of Jah people and a lot of other people as well.
And it will not only be the new communities who will leave. As happened in the fifties and again in the eighties, our young people will head for the shores of Americay and some might even venture inland, wondering why the letter “Y” has been mysteriously added to the name of the country. Or they’ll go to Brussels or Munich or Melbourne or Abu Dhabi, wherever there are jobs worthy of their qualifications.
And what will that mean for those of us left here at home in Ireland and particularly those of us in Dublin 15? Life will probably carry on as normal for settled communities in Malahide or Dalkey but for areas that have expanded hugely to cope with the massive demand for houses – Lucan, Swords, Blanchardstown, Hansfield, Ongar and so on – the effects will be seismic.
If you live in one of the newer estates – say, one built in the last fifteen years – imagine what your particular stretch of road would look like if all the members of the new communities and say 20% of the indigenous 18-30 year olds moved away. How many empty houses would there be? The actual answer, calculated statistically with all available data, is – a lot.
With all these empty houses all over the place, it is pretty obvious that house prices in the area will, like the walls of Jericho, come tumbling down. This won’t affect those of us who live here and have no intention of moving, although those people with mortgages will be paying for a pig in a poke. And they don’t even know what a poke is!
But it will affect those who have speculated to accumulate – landlords who could now find themselves with no tenants whose rent pays for the mortgages on their expensive houses. Neither can they sell because there is nobody to buy. House prices will tumble again as they try and cut their losses.
And of course with dole centres full of lines of people pining for Tiddles, there will be no need for people to commute into town because all the jobs will have gone to enlightened countries like Burma and Tibet. The brand new Navan rail line – formally opened by President Ahern – will fall into disrepair and garden centres will buy the sleepers at a knockdown price and sell them to people in Howth for rose garden borders.
With poverty rampant, many household pets – fearful of ending up on the Sunday dinner table – will pack up their belongings and head for the now boarded-up houses in Dublin 15, claiming squatter’s rights and playing Kanye West at great volume at all hours of the night. They will grow their hair long and tie-dye their collars and doubtless engage in depraved acts such as free love and civic studies.
As disaffected animals take over the neighbourhood, humans, powerless to act due to current species-equality legislation in the Constitution, will move out. After all, who wants to live next to a house full of tibetan terriers singing protest songs till four o’clock in the morning?
As whole families wander the highways and byeways of Ireland with their belongings piled high on carts, the BBC will do a major documentary on our plight and food aid will come pouring in, though many children will perish because there will be no tomato sauce to accompany it.
(Actually this is turning into quite a promising synopsis for a science-fiction novel. If anybody wants to finish it for me, I’ll only take 50% of the royalties.)
And then, if all this homelessness and eviction and ghetto-creation were not enough, finally the true horror of the situation would kick in as a whole new generation of ballad singers would spring up and drown the country in an ocean of gut-wrenching songs about “strong Irishmen and true” being forced out of their houses by uncaring building society managers and ships bound for the mythical land of Americay. Low lie the fields of the Hansfield SDZ indeed.
Now before you all start to get palpitations and reach for the valium, this is just the product of my rather fertile imagination which, as my wife often tells me, could be put to much better use. I am neither economist nor sociologist. In fact, I am nothing that has an “ist” on the end of it, except perhaps a motorist.
So do not take my idle speculations seriously. I am sure that the good citizens of Dublin 15 can sleep soundly in their beds knowing that our new and astute Minister for Finance will keep Tiddles well and truly pampered for another few years yet.

The Roquefort terrorist

A while ago in this column, I urged the down-trodden citizens of Dublin 15 to take up cudgels and throw off the yoke of 800 years of oppression by seceding from Ireland and declaring an autonomous republic, tentatively titled The Principality of Castlehuddart.
The response was very encouraging with a 100% increase in membership in the past two years, though I suspect my wife is only humouring me. I daresay the take up would have been greater but for the exorbitant price of cudgels in Dunnes, which is yet another example of financial repression.
What we needed, I told my wife, was a coup.
“Cooooo!!!” she said sleepily. And thus I knew I would have to work on this by myself.
After months of feverish planning, the first blow for freedom and liberation was ready to be struck. We would announce the arrival of the Dublin 15 Liberation Army in style, grab world headlines and call on socialists around the world to rally to our cause.
So, armed with only a credit card, I entered the Ryanair website one night and purchased two return tickets to Rodez in France. This is a new addition to the Ryanair schedule and we chose it as we felt that airport security there might not be up to speed yet. It lies in the Aveyron département of southern France and is well known for being quite near other well-known regions of France.
We travelled there in mid-April, posing as tourists, ostensibly on a three day weekend break. Security, we noted on arrival, was perfunctory, with a sleepy-eyed custom official barely glancing at my proffered passport.
We checked in to our hotel in an otherwise deserted village in the Cévennes countryside and, in order to maintain our pretence, we acted like tourists. We visited the spectacular Tarn Gorge and the mediaeval hilltop village of Conques, gasped in awe at the highest viaduct in the world at Millau and then unselfconsciously made our way to the little hillside village of Roquefort sur Soulzon.
Following an EU directive – I am as yet undecided if our autonomous principality will secede from the EU or not, it probably depends on the size of the subsidies – only cheeses matured in the caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon may bear the name Roquefort. Known in France as the King of Cheeses and in Ireland as That Smelly Mouldy Stuff, Roquefort is produced by injecting penicillin found in a particular species of mushroom into the ewe’s milk cheese and allowing it to spread. I am still wondering who first thought that it might be a good idea to try that out.
Whistling with an air of complete unconcern, we made our way to the visitors’ entrance of Societé, by far the largest Roquefort producer. We paid our €3 and took the guided tour, which did not particularly add to our knowledge of the cheese making process, as neither of us had got much further than “le chat marche au bibliothéque” in our rudimentary French.
We did discover that there were three main types of Societé produced, depending upon the cellar in which they were stored. There was Original (That Smelly Mouldy Stuff) Templier (That Very Smelly Mouldy Stuff) and Baragnaudes (That Smooth Smelly Mouldy Stuff.) At the end of the tour, still whistling unselfconsciously and thus attracting a lot of curious stares, we purchased a gift box containing a 200g wedge of each of the three Roqueforts.
On the final morning, I stuffed the cheese in amongst my used socks and jocks in my hand baggage, figuring that any nosey customs official would choose discretion over valour. We donned sunglasses to make ourselves look inconspicuous – even though it had rained solidly for the three days – and drove to the airport at Rodez.
We only had cabin luggage so proceeded directly to security. My wife went first and I could see from the beads of sweat on her forehead that she was either very nervous or very warm. She got through okay and then I stepped through the metal detector. It didn’t beep and I breathed a sigh of relief which in my experience is the best thing to do with sighs of relief.
“Arriverderci!” I beamed affably at the security girl, who regarded me warily. “Is this your bag, monsieur?” she replied, indicating my holdall. “Si, si,” I answered and felt a lump in my throat, the remains of the croissant I had hurriedly devoured that morning.
“Will you open it, monsieur?” she said. I felt the cold tendrils of fear clawing at my stomach as I slowly unzipped the bag.
“And remove ze contents please.”
The game was up. Although I dallied, hoping she might get bored, she watched my every movement and the moment the three pieces of Roquefort came to light, she pounced on them with glee.
“Zees are forbidden,” she said and handed them to the guy at the x-ray machine. I couldn’t help marvelling at the technology that had allowed a machine to pinpoint cheese through myriad layers of underwear.
To my surprise, she didn’t lead me to a little room where I would be confronted by anti-terrorist police, forced to strip naked and then driven in an armoured convey to the offices of the Sûreté in Paris. Instead she just waved me through.
I clenched my right fist and yelled “Freedom for Dublin 15” at the top of my voice. Well, actually, I muttered it under my breath and stretched my arms as though yawning. Not only was my fiendish plot scuppered but I had cunningly been denied access to worldwide publicity by their failure to arrest me.
“Serves you right,” my wife said.
The plan had been simple. Under the pretence of going to the toilet, I would burst in through the cockpit doors and put the pilot out of action with the Baragnaudes. I would then hold the Original Roquefort to the co-pilot’s throat and demand to be flown to Dublin, even though that what was where the plane was bound anyway. In the meantime, my wife would hold any have-a-go heroes at bay at the cockpit door with the Templier.
We would demand the release of all Dublin 15 Liberation Army prisoners around the world and an Urbus to bring us back into the rebel heartland. The resulting publicity would advance our cause and bring the day of our glorious independence a step closer.
Later that night, at home on the Web, my wife discovered that all liquid-based foodstuffs are prohibited in hand baggage. No wonder my Roquefort had been summarily confiscated.
I am not by nature a bad-minded man but I earnestly hope that the penicillin in the Roquefort was from a faulty batch and that whichever security official got to take it home suffered violent stomach pains as a result.
Vive le fromage!