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.