Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Pancake Tuesday Wreath?

On January 6th, which very helpfully fell on a Sunday this year, I was co-opted by a certain party into taking down the Christmas decorations. Apparently this is the day that they have to come down or else you get penalty points on your house insurance or something, so I quickly started untangling wires and unplugging the fibre-optic Santa that my daughter finds so unnerving.
To me of course, it seemed very soon to be taking them down, particularly as we don’t normally put ours up until the weekend before Christmas, on the basis that we’d be fed up of them by the time Christmas comes around. Every year somebody bursts into the kitchen at the end of November to announce that they’ve just seen a house with a Christmas tree in the window and we all tut deprecatingly and say “That’s ridiculous” and “It’s getting earlier and earlier every year.” Although I didn’t actually see it myself, I read on the Beechfield Residents’ website that somebody on that estate had their tree up and lighting on the 1st November, which has to be some sort of a record.
But I duly went about unhooking, untangling and unplugging while my wife wrapped and put them in the boxes that were to go back into the attic until next year, making sure that the unused cards, wrapping paper and crackers were packed in a box to be left next to the attic door, so it should be easy to see if we need to buy any of same next November .
(This is supposed to be a foolproof method but we’ve actually accumulated enough wrapping paper to last us into the next century, so next year I have decided I will set up a stall at the farmer’s market in Ongar and sell it off. I’ve already been practising my “Fifty cent de wrapp’n’ paper. Would ya like a roll, luv?” spiel.)
Finally, when the house seemed as bare as a Minister of Finance’s bank account back in the eighties, I removed the wreath from the front door and was proceeding through the kitchen to hang it on the apex of the shed roof, as is our tradition, when I was stopped by our interior designing expert.
“Where are you going with that?” she asked.
“To the shed, like always,” I answered.
“Oh. I was going to leave it on the front door. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Of course I know my wife well enough to know that this was not a wistful remark but rather a direct command to go and put it back where I had found it. And, being the dutiful husband that I am, I did so with alacrity.
The wreath remained there all through January. As the needles did not turn brown, there was no reason to consign it to the back garden and here I must complement Dunnes Stores on the wreath’s longevity, which they should use in their advertising next Christmas and if they want to pay me a few shillings for this endorsement, so be it.
If it is still perfectly good, as my wife stated, what is the point of taking it down and leaving it out in the back garden? What was the point, indeed?
Of course, we had to field the occasional puzzled remark from callers. We used up the Russian orthodox Christmas excuse and also the Chinese New Year excuse and I scoured the internet to find other possible feast days that might explain away its presence. A Pancake Tuesday wreath or an Easter wreath, anyone?
It was naturally very handy for giving people directions to our house. “We’re the one near the end of the road with a wreath on the door” became a foolproof way of locating our abode.
I spent a large period of what little leisure time my wife allowed me scouring the local estates to try and see if anybody else still had the wreath in situ. By mid-January, I was starting to widen my search and eventually found such a house in Kilcock, which was a great weight off my mind, and I could stop fretting that we were perhaps unique in the western world.
However it became evident that we had to face up to the reality of the situation and admit that we were the only house in Dublin 15 with a Christmas wreath still on the front door by the time February rolled into town. It was a statement, I told myself. We were telling a disposable world that we would not discard an object simply because society dictated that we should; that we were trying to maintain the natural biodiversity of our house and garden; that we were sending out a signal that a wreath, like a dog, is not just for Christmas.
On my meanderings around the area though, I did notice quite a few icicle lights and one “Merry Christmas” sign still adorning the walls of houses. These unilluminated remnants of the festive season indicated perhaps that they would save the residents time next Christmas. Instead of risking life and limb hanging them up on a freezing cold December afternoon, they need only flick a switch and on they’d come.
However when I suggested to my wife that perhaps we ought to leave the Christmas tree up throughout the year and simply turn it on again in Advent, she gave me one of her famous withering stares that can reduce a man to jelly.
My daughter tried to turn it into a joke. She got a teaspoon from the kitchen drawer (after asking directions from us) and threaded it carefully through the tightly woven foliage.
“Who’s that?” she declared.
Seeing our blank faces, she gave the answer immediately.
“Wreath With a Spoon.”
I have since written her out of my will.
Of course I suspect that many of the neighbours thought that we were just too lazy and could’nt find the time nor the energy to remove the damned thing. The social embarrassment was acute and I took to leaving the house only under cover of darkness and then with a jacket over my head. Eventually, when my wife was up in HMV one day looking for the new Lionel Ritchie album that was rumoured to be the best thing he had done since “Hello,” I decided to take matters into my own hands. Rooting out an old paintbox set, I coloured in a portion of the wreath in a convincing light brown.
“I see the wreath’s starting to go,” I murmured over dinner, as she failed to spot the offending withered patch such was her disappointment following her fruitless shopping trip.
The hapless object is now adorning the shed in the back garden, at last genuinely brown and a sad reminder of a Christmas passed all too quickly.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Alternatives to Childminding

(Over the years I have been writing these articles, my wife has censored them stringently, mainly because they reveal too much of the idiosyncrasies of our daily life, which she doesn't want revealed to the world. Sometimes whole paragraphs are erased and once or twice, complete articles.
There has only been one occasion though when Fergus himself has rejected an article, on the grounds that it was "a bit disturbing." This is it)
The cost of childminding these days is fast causing a whole generation to become celibate. Queues form daily at the Rotunda with young mothers claiming that “there’s been a dreadful mistake” and can they have a set of rustic placemats and an electric blanket instead? Orphanages are putting up “House Full” signs. Crèches are becoming so successful and enjoy such a high income per capita that many are threatening to secede from the Republic and set up their own thriving autonomous theocracies. Grizzled old prospectors no longer dream of striking oil but now yearn to strike children, to coin a phrase, so to speak, in a metaphorical way.
The whole childminding issue was very much to the fore in the last bye-elections in Kildare and Meath and there is no reason to believe the temper tantrum has abated any in the past two years. Parents in Castleknock are so incandescent with rage about the whole issue that they have been known to tut and shake their heads despairingly whenever the subject is raised.
But what can be done about these toddlers that are breaking their parents’ hearts and bank balances?
The more enlightened companies in Ireland today actively encourage their employees to bring their children to work, though it is hard to complete an urgent report on last month’s unexpected downturn if your three year old is sitting on the keyboard picking her nose. Of course there are still some professions – mountaineers and astronauts come to mind – where bringing baby along is actively discouraged, for some reason.
A taskforce was recently set up by the Minister to pursue the possibility of finding gainful employment for these two to five year olds. If they could prove useful to the economy rather than being serious non-contributors, if they could somehow pay for themselves, then perhaps the social and financial drain on parents would not be quite so acute.
A proposal to send them down t’mine seemed to be on a winner until it was discovered that the last coalmine in Ireland had closed more than a decade previously. Suggestions that “we could send them down anyway” fell on deaf ears, as it was generally seen to be unprofitable to have toddlers wandering around deserted mines eating charcoal.
One of the members of the taskforce, a Mr. O. Schindler, suggested that maybe you could rub them in petroleum jelly and push them up the inside of armament casings to clean them. Again, a quick flip through the Golden Pages revealed a complete absence of munitions factories in Ireland and the plan was reluctantly discarded. A similar suggestion that maybe you could strap them to a pole and use them to clean first floor windows was dismissed when it was pointed out that a simple squeegee incurred far less running costs.
Nappy adverts appear to be almost the sole gainful employment of our country’s pre-schoolers and sadly there are far more applicants than jobs on offer. Unsuccessful auditioners, rejected by Pampers’ equivalent to Simon Cowell, have been known to hit the bottle in an alarming way, sometimes pouring the entire contents over the floor in a fit of temper. Many simply become demoralised and roam around the back streets disconsolately until Barney comes on.
One solution that the Government is seriously promoting is the notion of child farming. Farmers on the outskirts of the capital are frantically seeking profitable usage from their land after the latest round of subsidy cuts has seen them forced to keep their current BMW for more than six months. Some are opting for eco-tourism – hiring out the leaky barn to couples with zithers – though most have developed a sudden yen for growing apartments. Still, child farming is becoming quite a popular alternative.
Farmers drive down to the local market – normally Tesco or Dunnes – and round up all the stray youngsters sitting on the floor in a strop. These are then herded into a trailer by a sheepdog invariably called “Boy” and then the farmer drives them back and sets them loose on his land.
“You have to round them up in the evenings and bring ‘em into the barn,” says Vladimir Duffy of Whitechurch Farm, Kilbride, who wishes to remain anonymous. “The noise does get to you at times but once they get a handful of Hunky Doreys they’re generally quite docile until morning.”
The E.U. subsidy on child farming is still comparatively large compared to turnips or sugar beet and many farmers can have a quota of up to 300 toddlers an acre. On the better run estates, farmers employ local lads to go around pulling faces and blowing raspberry noises on their forearms to amuse the kiddies, thereby significantly increasing the tonnage.
Generally the farmers keep the livestock until they are ready to go to school and then send them back to shell-shocked parents, providing they haven’t moved in the meantime. As well as pocketing a sizable amount from Brussels, the farmer also receives the cost of comics and rusks from the parents.
But though the financial rewards are high, anybody venturing into a child farm enterprise should realise that it is not a big bowl of cherries, as Farmer Duffy, his face in silhouette, explains.
“Its hard work rearing childer,” he states, spitting on the palms of his hands and rubbing them on his trousers to emphasise the point. “They’re very dirty animals and mucking out is not a pleasant job at all at all, so it isn’t. I’ve heard some people actually let them into their houses but you couldn’t keep the house intact if you did that.
“Most of the time they’re quite content to wander around foraging for worms and the like, but sometimes you’ve got to sit down and read ‘em Goldilocks and the three bears or some other fanciful nonsense, just to stop ‘em hyperventilating. But no pain, no gain – isn’t that what they say?”
He is critical of human rights organisations who claim that the children are treated like cattle and forced to exist in barbaric conditions. “My childer are the happiest childer y’ever saw,” he claims. “We shear them three times a year and dip ‘em every week or so. They have all manner o’ biscuit tins and cardboard boxes to play with and sure they’re well used to the branding by now.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The drive of death

Occasionally, just occasionally, and a lot more rarely as you get older, you experience something that thrills you and excites you to the very marrow of your being. Something that you know is a whirlwind knuckle-clenching ride to oblivion as you laugh in the face of danger and dribble in the face of certain death. For some people, it is parachute jumping, or white water rafting, or maybe the new series of Desperate Housewives.
I have just had one of those experiences. As I type this, my body is still shaking with the sheer excitement of it all. I am on a high and my body has not yet adjusted to the dull, maudlin reality to which it has returned. I need to tell the world about it.
Yes, I have just come down the New Ongar Road at 60kph.
For those of you who live in the south of Dublin 15 and have never had occasion to venture out into the sticks, the New Ongar Road is a brand spanking super highway that links the Power City Roundabout (not the official name!) on Blanchardstown Road South with, well, New Ongar. It has liberated a whole generation of Littlepacers and Ongarites from the horrors of the N3 and the Blanchardstown Centre slip-road and given them an alternative route to the holy shopping Mecca only two miles away.
In short it is a godsend and I always include the Roads Department of Fingal County Council in my nightly prayers by way of thanks for their divine and munificent intervention.
It is a wonderful road. It consists of a lane for ordinary traffic, a bus lane, a murderous and psychotic looking pink strip (commonly known as a “complete cycle path” – sorry, but the old jokes are always the best) and a pavement for pedestrians. And there’s another set of four travelling in the opposite direction too. It is an eight lane, straight as a dye, ultra highway that would have your average American drooling in envy.
There are no houses on the New Ongar Road. The good citizens of Mount Symon, Allendale, , Lohunda et al, whose estates border this infrastructural jewel in Dublin 15’s crown, may sleep soundly in their beds, protected by a long high wall that runs the length of the road in both directions. Just the kind of wall that the deafened citizens of Pheasant’s Run and Swallowbrook on the N3 would give their right ear for. As it is, nobody is inconvenienced by the high pitch scream of traffic tearing up and down the New Ongar Road at 50 kph.
I say 50 kph (that’s 31 mph for those of you still operating in pounds, shillings and pence) because up until this year, that was the speed that the Road Traffic Authority had deemed it unwise to surpass. And rightly so. A long, straight stretch of road with a bus lane to separate the cars from pedestrians and cyclists and no houses on it? Sure, you’d want to be as mad as a Lionel Ritchie fan to want to risk exceeding 50 kph.
However, and I know it is hard to believe, some drivers felt that tearing along at 50 kph was too slow. They had this reckless habit of overtaking on the inside – nipping into the bus lane to try and get past the car in front. No matter that a bus is very seldom seen on the New Ongar Road since its official opening – a bus lane is still a bus lane, whether any buses use it or not. Of course such despicable activity soon drew the attention of the local Gardaí whose radar gun soon put a temporary stop to this practice.
But the RTA, or some man in an office somewhere, acceded to the pressure to raise the speed limit and since the beginning of the year, the red bordered circle with the black six-oh in it was planted at either end of this Formula One track. Again for the benefit of English and American readers, I convert this as 37.2 mph, a speed, I’m sure you will agree, that is physically very difficult for the human body to endure.
Purely in the interests of research for this column, I have just driven down the New Ongar Road at a speed that approached this limit. (For the purposes of clarification, I always regard the journey from Ongar to Blanchardstown as ‘up’ and the reverse as ‘down.’ I realise it may well be an optical illusion but I fancy the latter run would make a damn fine ski slope, should our oil run out and global freezing make a comeback)
The G-forces as you approach 60 kph have to be felt to be believed. The loose skin on your cheeks is pulled back and it feels as though your hair is being pulled out by the roots. It was only with great difficulty that I managed to prevent my head from snapping back, knowing that to take my eyes from the road ahead would mean calamity. Now I know what those brave astronauts go through whenever the Space Shuttle is launched.
Despite this, and I cannot verify this for certain as I was struggling to maintain my grip on the wheel, I have the vague impression that I was still being passed on the inside by cars going even faster. Now, my knowledge of quantum physics is decidedly sketchy but I am sure that Einstein had a theory somewhere about what happens when speeds of 60 kph are exceeded. Time begins to warp and you actually reach the end of your journey ten minutes before you began, I think he said, which is great if you are late for an appointment at the hairdressers, but would have poor Gay Byrne turning over in his grave, if he were dead.
In his wisdom, the man in the office somewhere has placed three sets of traffic lights along the New Ongar Road, perfectly synchronised that, although you may get through one and possibly two of them, the third will always pull you up. The worst one is at the junction with Shelerin Road, obviously designed by the same man that designed the infamous Snugborough Road interchange. Each road gets a go in turn – and there’s about five of them, then the pedestrians. Just miss a green light and you have time to read another chapter of “PS I Love You” (why this work of art was not even shortlisted for the Booker Prize is one of the great travesties of modern literature) before the lights turn green again
Of course, as the traffic coming up the New Ongar Road builds up, waiting for the green light, some drivers at the back nip into the bus lane at the lights, afraid that they will not make the next green. Or maybe it is important to them to get three cars ahead, I don’t know. Whatever reason, not only is this practice extremely dangerous, as it runs a risk of colliding with the bus that has hardly ever been seen on the road, but it also infuriates the drivers in the proper lane.
The Rules of the Road state that the proper course of action in this situation for the law-abiding driver in the correct lane is to make sure the first car in line makes a smart getaway and is followed in close proximity by all the other cars in the line, thus preventing Mr. Impatient from getting back in line and keeping him in the bus-lane where he is summarily nabbed by a waiting traffic policeman thirty yards up the road.
In practice though, the first car normally makes an extremely slow getaway or the car ahead of yours obligingly leaves a large gap to allow him to come back in. And of course the traffic policeman has more important things to do than dealing with traffic.
I am calling on the Minister for Transport to step in here before somebody gets seriously annoyed.

A warning to all house buyers

The recent case of the Pigg brothers that made headlines across Ireland recently should serve as a salutary warning to all those first-time buyers who launch themselves into the property market without researching fully the implications of their actions. While putting money into real estate and property is generally regarded as a sound long-term investment, the tale of two of the Pigg brothers shows exactly what can happen if a few simple steps are not followed.
The three brothers grew up in the countryside ( a green place the other side of Clonee) and on reaching maturity were promptly handed a puckle of money and kicked out of the family home by their mother, who claimed they kept their rooms like a pigsty. Each of them caught the Expressway into Dublin, alighting in awe as the Q building came into sight on the N3.
On opening their puckles, each brother found they had enough money to invest in the property market and promptly set about securing lodgings in that mythical suburb known as Dublin 15.
The first Pigg brother entered a very dodgy estate agents and decided that a cheap house would be the best bet. That way, he would still have enough money left over to go and have a good time. Accordingly, he purchased an “idyllic rural retreat made from traditional materials – may need some renovating” up near Hollystown. With the money left over, he was able to go to Heaven every night with a Swedish flight attendant on either arm and life was great.
The precise events of the night in question are still sub judice but according to local sources, there was a sudden gust of wind and the whole house simply collapsed. Rumour has it that the traditional material used in the construction was in fact straw and not even good solid Irish straw at that but a substandard variety imported from Taiwan. It is believed that Mr. Pigg then absconded to the Costa del Sol after the house insurance company issued fraudulent proceedings against him, though the presence of a solitary pork chop in amongst the rubble has fuelled macabre speculation amongst local residents.
The second Pigg brother decided to go down the eco-friendly route. Convinced by another shyster estate-agent that chopping down 145 trees to construct a house was the only way to safeguard the planet, he opted for a wooden chalet built alongside the railway track on the far side of Clonsilla Railway Station. He bought the site and then drove up to Ikea in Belfast where he purchased a flat-pack house and garage.
He found that, after all this, he still had time to go to the Vortex in Dunshaughlin every Saturday night and sometimes managed to score with one of the young wans that had travelled up in the minibus from Dunboyne.
However, a similar tragedy befell this brother. One night towards the end of November, locals said they heard a strange huffing and puffing, which might well have been the last train out to Maynooth, but could equally have been something more sinister. When daylight dawned, as it is wont to do in Clonsilla at that time of year, the house lay in ruins and the eager locals took it away for firewood before somebody thought to call the police. With much of the forensic evidence crackling away in neighbouring fireplaces, whispers soon began to circulate about the sturdiness of flat-pack housing until Ikea threatened court action.
Again the second brother appeared to have vanished completely, though sightings of him in a Kibbutz outside Tel Aviv remain unconfirmed.
The third brother bought a lovely two bedroomed semi-detached house in Latchford from a reputable estate agent. Of course, he was fleeced by the bank whose interest rate charges bore no relation to the current economic situation and he was only able to get up to the Hartstown House for a solitary pint every month with his neighbour, Nigel, but he was pleased with his investment and felt very secure in his compact abode.
Latchford of course is built on the site of the Great Scaldwood, a huge forest that once spread from Cabra to the River Tolka and home to hoards of marauding bears, spiders and wolves. Having done his research and not entirely believing the history books that claimed that these wild beasts had all been eliminated, he purchased security chains and an alarm and a cowl for the top of his chimney.
One night, he wrote, in a letter to the Times, he fancied he heard a strange scraping on his roof and a mysterious panting noise. Having just watched a David Attenborough programme about how wolves had learned to remove cowls from the tops of chimneys, he boiled up a big pot of water in the microwave and placed it in the fireplace.
Sure enough, within a few seconds, a big hairy beast landed in the pot with a yelp and disappeared back up as quickly as he had come down. A photo fit description of the intruder closely resembled a wolf, though police still called at the home of Fingers “The Beard” McGee and questioned him closely about his whereabouts on the night in question.
The third Pigg brother naturally wrote a book about his experiences called “Huff and Puff” which topped the bestseller list for non-fiction over Christmas, following his appearance on the Late Late Show. Although the book reads well as an adventure story, Citizen Advice Centres have recommended it as essential reading for all first time house buyers as a guide to the pitfalls inherent in a foray into the property market.