Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Solving the schools problem

Last year, I outlined my solutions to this area’s chronic traffic congestion problem, though it has to be said the Government has been very slow in investigating my idea of a giant slide with the steps in Blanchardstown and the bottom in the Temple Bar area. Still, I can only offer up my vision for the good of humanity – I have neither the money to see it through nor the desire to get up off my backside and do something about it.
Since then I have been putting my frankly amazing intellect to the problem of the provision of schools for the Dublin 15 area and this time l’m certain that l have come up with a solution that will have winsome little Mary Hanafin rubbing her hands with glee.
The problem, as it stands, appears to be that nobody envisaged that the huge population growth in the area would mean that we would have to provide more schools. Probably they just imagined that all the new residents would arrive fully grown and educated and without any children in tow. You can’t blame the Government for that – it was a perfectly reasonable assumption to make and it is certainly not their fault that many of our home buyers started procreating once the keys were handed over.
Anyhow, the schools we do have, are now bursting at the seams with children squashed up against the windows and very often it takes the teacher ten minutes simply to squeeze into the classroom. So the very lovely Mary is under pressure to build more schools and this is where the problem arises.
First of all, she can’t mix concrete to save her life. You tell her five shovels of sand to one of cement and she still manages to get it wrong. Or else she digs down too deep and ends up with half a bucket of soil in the mixer.
Another reason she often cites is a lack of money, and I’ve definitely noticed that she keeps a firm hold on her handbag whenever the subject comes up. Apparently, and I find this hard to believe, we are being ripped off by those lovely people, the property developers.
The law, which in some people’s eyes is some kind of donkey, states that for every x amount of houses, the developer must set aside x amount of land for a school. (I have no idea how much x is and frankly couldn’t be bothered to go and find out) However, and this is a big however, and this – HOWEVER – is an even bigger however, the developer then sets the price for the land he has reserved for a school site. And then, if, after x amount of years, the Government fails to take up the option of buying the site for the very reasonable sum of €50 billion, the developer can then go ahead and build apartments on it. Or something like that.
Society’s problem is that it has traditionally seen a school as a building with a collection of classrooms, a staff room, toilets with very small facilities and a playground. This seems a very narrow definition of a school. I think it was that great philosopher Peggy Mitchell of Eastenders fame who once said, “Leave it aht, Phil! A school is a state of mind. ‘Tis the harbinger of the soul and the exerciser of wit.”
That other internationally renowned educationalist Alice Cooper was probably thinking along the same lines back in 1972 when he uttered his famous dictum, “School’s out for summer.” Out, certainly. Out in the open air. Out of the classroom.
Out in the hedgerows.
Hedgerow schools were once an integral part of the educational life in this country and I think the time is ripe for them to make a comeback. Nobody who attended a hedgerow school ever hotwired a Ford Focus, or bullied people by text message, or indeed failed CSPE and I think society would do well to look to the past as a way forward.
Just think of all the advantages! Low maintenance costs in running the school. All it needs is for the caretaker to give it the once over with a pair of shears in summer and it’s as good as new. No water rates, lighting and heating costs, no school photographs in the corridor of the 1984 hockey team that reached the Leinster Final.
Both children and teachers would be liberated from the pressure-cooker, claustrophobic environment of the classroom and out in the healthy fresh air, closer to nature. You need to build an extra classroom? Just move further down the hedge.
The problem of graffiti on school walls would come to an end as it is very difficult to spray paint any meaningful sentence on even the thickest hawthorn. Environmental issues would have more immediate impact on the students and those taking meteorology would have a distinct advantage over their more traditional contemporaries.
Of course there would be still be the usual queue of young miscreants lined up outside the Principal’s thicket but the heinous crimes of running in the corridor, impersonating wood pigeons and throwing cubes of jelly up onto the classroom ceiling would all be rendered obsolete. Macker wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at the back of the class due to the thorns piercing his backside and footballs would be more likely to break themselves rather than any school windows.
Most importantly, the Government wouldn’t be held to ransom by those nice developing people, who refuse to give a site big enough to put up even one pre-fab unless they get planning permission to erect a hundred apartments at the same time. Mary Hanafin would be able to hand three quarters of her capital budget back to the Minister of Finance and we’d all be happy, safe in the knowledge that our money would be well spent.
As with all great plans, and I believe this great plan deserves to be known as a Great Plan, if not The Great Plan, there is one tiny flaw which needs to be overcome. With all the developments that have been erupting everywhere, there are in fact very few suitable hedgerows left in the area in which to build a school.
Leave it with me, I’m working on it.

Just desserts

I have to admit that I have a sweet tooth. To be honest, the rest of them are pretty sweet too and when eating out, I find it hard to resist the dessert menu.
It does not matter if I have wolfed down a huge starters and a massive main course, as well as polishing off the remnants of the plates of the rest of the party. It does not matter if I have already loosened my belt two notches and am starting to doubt whether I shall ever rise from the chair without the aid of a winch. The fact of the matter, as doctors and surgeons around the world will attest, is that desserts go down a different compartment and thus can always be squeezed in.
My grandmother, with whom I lived for a period of my childhood, was a great dessert woman, although she referred to them as ‘pudding,’ or ‘afters.’ Dessert, or sweet, was what the nobility had after dinner and implied something light and insubstantial, like a fruit salad. For us, ‘afters’ were big, thick chunks of jam roly poly pudding or spotted dick, or rhubarb crumble, or treacle sponge, each bowlful probably containing our recommended annual allowance of carbohydrate and starch and drowned in a vat of thick yellowy custard, brimming with sugar.
Seldom do any of the puddings of my childhood appear on the menus of the restaurants I occasionally frequent. When they do, a wave of nostalgia sweeps over me and I am tempted to try and recapture a part of my youth. I am usually disappointed. The bread and butter pudding somehow doesn’t taste quite as creamy as I remember it and the bakewell tart is made with thick, comparatively tasteless pastry.
But then of course, I am being unfair. The puddings of my formative years were prepared by an old lady with fifty years experience who had nothing better to do than sift a bowl of flour for twenty minutes and careful grind lemon onto a saucer. Modern restaurant kitchens can hardly be expected to spend three hours nursing a jam roly poly to fruition!
But the dessert menu today (strange how the word ‘dessert’ now has no class connotations!) very often appears to be an afterthought to the main menu, with very little variation between restaurants. I first came across Sticky Toffee Pudding ten years ago in Windermere and now every restaurant worth its custard seems to contain it (or Sticky Chocolate Pudding or Sticky Toffee and Chocolate Pudding.) Profiteroles, cheesecake and ice cream make up the other staple ingredients with one or two other specialities completing your choice.
Whereas I can understand the reluctance of restaurants to tackle spotted dick (recently re-named as Spotted Richard by one large British retail chain, in response to people being “too embarrassed” to ask for it) due to time constraints, I have no idea how some of the tastiest desserts in Christendom, Muslimdom and Jewdom are criminally ignored at the end of a perfect meal.
Semolina. Have you ever seen it on a menu? That luscious and rich creamy texture with just a hint of grit is conspicuous by its absence. Oh what fun we had adding a spoonful of strawberry jam and stirring the whole thing into a pink paste.
Rice pudding, too, and tapioca have never come into the reckoning when proprietors have chewed pencils concocting dessert menus, though zabaglione often rears its foreign-sounding and therefore exotic head. My mother-in-law makes a wicked banana bread, whose like is unequalled in the annals of Irish baking, but you never get the opportunity to complement your carvery lunch with it. When was the last time the waiter suggested evaporated milk to pour over your bowl of Sunny South peaches?
And then there is my own personal favourite, the Emperor amongst Desserts, the King of Cool, the John, Paul, George and Ringo of the sweets world – Butterscotch flavoured Angel Delight.
Just the merest spoon tip of this light and fluffy dessert melts on the tongue before suffusing the taste buds in an ocean of pure delight. Even the act of digging in to that smooth coffee-coloured surface to reveal the deeper texture beneath is pure unadulterated joy, a visual preamble to the taste extravaganza that is to follow.
Not only is it never seen in restaurants but Dunnes have also stopped stocking it, concentrating their merchandising power on strawberry, raspberry and banana, all fine desserts in their own right, but lacking that ultimate frisson of excitement supplied by the butterscotch.
But find it on a dessert menu in the Greater Dublin area? You may as well be looking for a witness with a good memory at the Mahon Tribunal. Okay, I can accept the connotations of adding “Butterscotch Angel Delight” to the menu, when everybody knows how much it costs in the shops, but you could maybe add a slice of kiwi to it and sprinkle the plate with icing sugar and bits of Flake and call it “Butterscotch sensation – a serving of aerated and finely whisked butterscotch mousse topped with fresh fruit and chocolate slivers” which sounds a lot more upmarket.
In defence of Irish dessert menus, as anyone who has travelled at all will vouch, they are a darned sight better than in many countries, which simply serve pre-packaged ice-cream in a plastic Disney figure mould. The Americans, despite their many accomplishments in combatting terrorism and promoting world peace, are blissfully unaware how good desserts can really be. A few European countries treat desserts with the deference they deserve – notably Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy – but by and large in many foreign restaurants you are obviously expected to be too stuffed after your main meal to continue eating.
I once ordered the only item on the dessert menu in a restaurant in the Siberian town of Irkutsk. With the menu being in Cyrillic I had no idea what it was until it arrived. To my untrained eye and nose, it looked and smelled like a bowl of milk that had gone lumpy and sour after being left out in the heat for a week, with streaks of blue and green coursing through it.
It remains to this day the one dessert that has refused to go down the separate compartment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Still fighting the bin war

This is an article I did for the Musings column but decided not to submit as, on re-reading, it came across as a complete rant, which of course it is!

A few years ago, at the height of the bin tax controversy, our family was featured in an Irish Independent feature called “The families fighting the real bin war.” In it, we, or rather my wife, detailed how, through careful household waste management, we had got recycling down to a fine art and only needed to put our black bin out every six weeks or so. My wife was photographed, seductively posing next to a green bin and that was that.
The secret of our bin tag bill reduction is my wife’s system of management, in which every item of recyclable material, from plastic bottles to bacon rind, has a home, leaving very little to go to landfill. It is a great system and I am thinking of writing a book on it and talking about in on “Richard and Judy.”
Of course it must be stated that recycling takes a little effort, which, in today’s disposable, dishwasher, car-washer society is very much out of fashion. Bottles have to be rinsed and dried; plastic bottles squashed, tetra packs cut open, unfolded, rinsed and dried. All the inside bins have to be emptied regularly into the green bin and/or the shed; trips have to be made to Coolmine; the compost needs to be removed from the composter at regular intervals.
So we are doing our bit for the environment. We take a little time, take a little effort and are happy in the knowledge that under the insightful leadership of Fingal County Council, the polluter pays.
This is great for me financially. We recycle so assiduously that we only pay for a black bin tag eight or nine times a year. We could probably go less but it starts to smell. We break down all our cardboard in the green bin and the Oxegen truck comes around every four weeks and our bin is only three quarters full. All our kitchen waste goes in the composter and if, in the summer, we have any pruning to do in the garden, Coolmine accepts up to two bags of garden waste free of charge.
All in all, we’re saving money by our recycling efforts and minimising our environmental footprints at the same time. So, I am happy, right?
In a word, no.
From this year, Fingal has decided that the waste disposal system is operating at a loss and so every household in the county will have to stump up €110 to pay for this, on top of the normal charge for bin tags.
I am unsure where it has been decreed that waste disposal should be self-sufficient. Is the library self-sufficient? Will we have to pay a standing charge to use this facility, on top of a charge per book? How about all the wages of the council officials? Surely, administration costs are ‘operating at a loss?’ (Actually, I’d better shut up in case some bright spark in the Council reads this and thinks it’s a brilliant idea.)
However, Fingal tells us, for our €110, every household in the county will get a brown bin collection and they will also double the regularity of the green bin collection.
Yippee. Trouble is, I don’t need a brown bin collection as I either compost all my green waste or bring it to Coolmine. And if my green bin is only three-quarters full when it is collected every four weeks, what on earth do I need an extra collection for?
This is similar to the Government turning around and saying “We’re going to raise income tax to 25% but in return, we’re going to double the amount of street lights in the country. Instead of having them every thirty yards apart, they’re now going to be every fifteen yards apart.” Unfortunately, there is no opt-out option. I can’t say. “No, its okay, leave them at thirty yards, it’s perfectly adequate.”
As a reader commented in a recent Community Voice Letters page, the whole concept of the polluter pays has now been thrown out of the window. Now we all pay, whether we embrace recycling or not. I am now obliged to fork out €110 to subsidise people who don’t bother recycling and in return the Council are spending extra money on two services that I neither need nor want.
In fact, the inference is that, reading between the lines, because our family has only been putting out its black bin every six weeks or so, it’s somehow our fault that the Council hasn’t been able to meet its waste charges! Naturally, if we’d just thrown everything into the black bin and put it out every week, the revenue from the Goulding household, and similar green households, would have been much higher!
My wife points out that the green bin service, the brown bin service and the recycling centre in Coolmine is still free of charge and that a €110 annual charge is a small price to pay for these services, particularly when you hear how much the private contractors are charging in Ballyjamesripoff. And I agree. In fact, up until recently, I have always included Fingal County Council’s environment in my bedside prayers for their enlightened polluter pays policy.
But why should we pay for recycling? If anything, the Council should be paying us for saving reusable material from landfill. We are doing them a service and they are charging us for it.
At this point, I must interject that a recent private operator’s leaflet came through our door and their standing charge of €280 per year worked out at far more than my estimated Fingal cost of €110 plus 9 x €8 = €182 per year. So the option of changing to private enterprise for the avid recycler is not really there.
But I am annoyed with Fingal and why wouldn’t I be if I am facing a 300% hike in my refuse charges? It is the old Eircom trick of paying for standing charges, whether you use the service or not. I sincerely hope this policy will not lead to illegal dumping or other such dodgy activities as throwing your rubbish in someone else’s skip or burning it. Personally, I would not resort to simply using the public waste bins in the street for my one tiny bag of daily rubbish – though it’s very tempting – and I will probably end up paying the €110 charge, though very resentfully and with a bad heart.
I feel as though I want to start another bin war.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The lamentable letterboxes of Latchford

Up in the further reaches of Dublin 15, between the townlands of Rosedale and Ravenswood and nestling in the foothills of the old and now deserted Hansfield Road, lies the quiet and ancient township of Latchford.
It is said that residents can trace their history back to 2004 when a merchant called EP Lynam first had the vision to turn a barren and featureless field into a strong and vibrant community and embarked on a plan of building that would be undreamt of today. Quite why he decided to name the estate after a bearded Everton centre-forward of the 1970s is unfortunately lost in the mists of time but certainly modern day Latchfordians are proud of their heritage.
Latchford has been called “The Zurich of the North,” particularly by those who have visited both places and have commented on the similarity and indeed the resemblance is striking. Both have roads and houses and footpaths and green areas and enjoy an almost winsome mix of apartments and semi-detached and terraced housing, so the moniker is well-founded, though perhaps Zurich’s financial district is slightly larger.
Every fortnight I have the pleasure of visiting this delightful estate in order to relay the tidings, glad and otherwise, contained in this very newspaper. In days of yore, naturally, this would be done by a stout man with a very large voice and a bell, shouting out “Hear ye! Hear ye!” in the middle of the village green, but sadly my bell lost its clapper a while back and I got special dispensation from the editor to simply post a copy of the paper through every letterbox. That’s modern technology for you.
As newspaper rounds go, Latchford is pretty okay. The doors are close together and thankfully there are no garden walls to treble the distance around the estate. With a fair breeze and a good head of steam, I can give every resident his or her fix of community news in around one hour.
However, despite all its fine attributes, its honest, hard-working citizens, its picturesque and homely street layout, its sturdy yet attractive housing and the stunning view towards the hedgerows of Ongar, Latchford appears to be deficient in one specific area – its letterboxes.
Most of us, I am sure, take letterboxes for granted. They are there as a decorative means of blocking the draught that would otherwise surge through the rectangular hole in the front door. A letterbox is a letterbox, as Iago cunningly tells Desdemona in “Othello.”
The lamentable letterboxes of Latchford, however, are different.
They are as much use as sunglasses in a coalmine.
Oh sure, they look the same as any other letterbox, rectangular and brassy and possessing that enigmatic glint when caught in the sun’s fleeting rays, but the proportion of houses that have defective letterboxes is quite staggering. This of course has gone unreported for many years but the inclusion of the Letterbox section in the next census will doubtless shed light on this whole murky affair.
I must admit I am only viewing these sorry pieces of door furniture from an on-street perspective. I have no idea as to the condition of these letterboxes hall-side as posting newspapers is generally a task performed al fresco.
A lot of houses simply have no letterbox on the outside, merely a rectangular strip of rubber. Whether the letterbox blew away in a storm or was purloined by the hares that bound suspiciously around the field at the rear of the estate or simply melted in heavy rain, I have no idea. In some cases, the delinquent contraption lies forlornly on the window ledge, pleading to be reattached to the front door. (Incidentally, a note to any apprentice newspaper deliverers – do not try to post through these letterboxes, as there is no corresponding hole in the window ledge)
Some letterboxes have been ingeniously reattached with what Buzz Lightyear called “unidirectional bonding strip” (or “sellotape”) or masking tape. Others have been carefully balanced back into position so that, though they look perfectly sturdy, glancing sideways at them causes them to fall off. As I was delivering to one house for the last edition, the whole letterbox came away in my hand and I was suddenly affronted by one of those Game of Scruples type moments when the thought flashed through my mind that perhaps I should just place it on the windowsill and walk away quickly. Thankfully the prophet Elijah appeared to me in a dream and I heeded his advice and gingerly replaced the offending article as I had found it.
Strangely, not every house has been affected by this curious phenomenon. There are still many houses that boast sturdy letterboxes, grinning intactly (?) from their proud vantage points, oblivious to the mayhem that surrounds them. However, many of these have a rough edge on their bottom lip, which rubs against your hand when inserting a newspaper.
After the first time I had completed the round, my hand resembled one of those roughly chopped hunks of meat which zookeepers throw to the lions and I have since been obliged to purchase one chain-mail armour-plated glove to complete the round as per current health and safety guidelines.
I have been doing some research into what Doctor Watson would doubtless call “The Curious Case of the Latchford Letterboxes” and have come up with three possible explanations for this sad state of affairs.
Firstly, EP Lynam, hardworking and honest merchant that he was, was sold a dud consignment of letterboxes. Apparently there have been a lot of fraudsters operating in the letterbox trade in recent times and it is possible that several have moved to our shores for tax reasons. It is hard to believe that EP could have been hoodwinked by charlatans but they might have caught him at a weak moment.
Secondly, and equally unlikely, is that the lad who affixed the letter boxes was in a hurry to get home and listen to his new Lionel Ritchie CD and cut a few corners (not literally.) Maybe he used insufficient glue or glue of an inferior quality or glue for indoor use only – a classic case of spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar, though a ha’penny doesn’t buy you much tar in today’s market.
Thirdly and much more likely is the uncorroborated tale I heard fourth hand from a friend of someone who once drove somebody past Latchford. Apparently a fair damsel approached Mr Lynam and asked him if she could purchase one of his houses. After lengthy and protracted negotiations, he refused her on the grounds that she “hadn’t any money.” Flying into a rage, she turned into an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and a pointed black hat and screeched, “A curse on you, Lynam. From henceforth, all your letterboxes shall in time wither and fall off! Yea, even those of your children and your children’s children! And I shall hide all but two of the letters of your first name in a place where nobody shall ever find them, except maybe an amorous prince a hundred years from now!”
Of course, this is only rumour, but it does appear that Latchford’s lamentable letterboxes have been bewitched in a way not seen since the great Castleknock garden gnome hex of the late 1700s, when 40 of these six inch figures ran away to Benidorm and set themselves up as property developers.
In the meantime, I will keep you posted.