Monday, December 14, 2009

The case of the missing polar bear

The other day I had some very important business in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre which involved waiting for hours by the fountain while my wife sought out a pair of boots.
Suspecting that this was not going to be a straightforward task, I had had the foresight to bring along several novels, a flask of coffee, a sleeping bag and night apparel and thus I settled down among the rampaging toddlers for a long wait.
I was about a third of the way through War and Peace – after the first bit of war but before the next chapter became entirely peaceful – when my attention was drawn to the musical entertainment that was lightening up the lives of the Christmas shoppers in the fountain area. This group, who were obviously quite proficient at rag-time jazz, consisted of three rather jovial polar bears, one playing a fiddle, one strumming a guitar in a cello-like pose and the third tinkling the ivories in the rear.
To be fair to them, they had a good sense of rhythm and although they did not seem to encourage interaction with their audience, nevertheless they managed to strike up quite a rapport with the under four contingent, with a fair amount of moshing in the Dry Cleaner section of the crowd.
However, as I studied them more closely, I noticed one very salient fact. There was no drummer among the musicians even though it was the very crisp and controlled drums that seemed to hold the music together.
How could this be, I asked myself. Surely, after all the controversy of Britney miming in Australia, the polar bear trio were not miming to a backing track? I watched them closely but, despite the unusual stance of the guitar player, it was clear that they definitely were playing the music loive, as Bill O’Herlihy would say.
The only explanation I could think of was that they had a drum machine concealed beneath the piano which, was fair enough in my book. I mean, good drummers are hard to find at the best of times but I should imagine that finding one against the backdrop of the Arctic tundra is pretty nigh impossible. Generally I am against synthesised music but in certain circumstances it is justifiable.
The matter would have come to an end then and there if I hadn’t stood up half an hour later to stretch my legs. As I walked over towards Debenhams, for the first time, I noticed one tom-tom (a tom?) standing forlornly, on its own, on the far side of the icy stage that the polar bears were occupying.
This is getting curiouser, I thought. Idly, I wondered if the percussion section of the group had discovered the secret of invisibility but soon dismissed the notion as being too far-fetched. And anyway, the tom was not reverberating in any shape or form.
I resumed my seat, sliding a dribbling two year old off my sleeping bag and pondered anew. I tried to cast my mind back to the year before to remember if the group had been a foursome when they gigged here in 2008 but my long-term memory is sadly restricted to Shelbourne football teams of yesteryear and Lionel Ritchie lyrics. However, one part of my brain insisted that there had been four polar bears at one time. My elbow countered that I had no definite proof of this and the matter was settled when the smooth bit of skin above my ankle advised that I should enquire in Customer Services.
“I don’t honestly know, I’m afraid,” the lady behind the desk told me, eying me suspiciously. “All I know is that the music is driving me mad.” Obviously not a jazz lover, I thought. To be honest, she looked more Anastacia than Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
The more I sat and watched the group, the more I was convinced that one member had been replaced by a drum machine. This view was endorsed by the way that the fiddle player actually stood on top of the piano – not a thing to be encouraged in such icy conditions and I’m surprised the Health and Safety people in the Centre allowed it – and kept turning his head towards Marks and Spencer’s, as if expecting the errant drummer to come bounding down the red mall.
I wondered what had caused the drummer to leave. Was he disenchanted by being asked to play the same song for weeks on end every Christmas and had demanded a bit of variety in the repertoire? Polar bears are particularly susceptible to repetitive strain injury as evidenced by the former inmate of Dublin Zoo who would parade for hours along the front of his stage muttering invective at the crowds on the far side of the fence.
Maybe he was resentful of the lack of seating from which to play his tom, particularly as no expense had been spared in that department for the pianist?
Or maybe it was simply a sex and drugs and rock and roll thing and his erratic behaviour had finally ended in him being thrown out and a replacement advertised for in Hot Press?
Whatever the reason, I pondered how the missing member was surviving in the harsh environs of Dublin 15. I suspected that the absence of fish might be causing him some hardship and wondered how he had fared when he presented himself for his job seekers’ allowance. Drumming gigs for polar bears are fairly thin on the ground at the moment due to the recession and it would doubtless be a lean Christmas for him without the steady income from the Blanchardstown residency.
There and then, I decided that the only thing for it would be to set up a charity for musical polar bears that are down on their luck. I would probably be too late for the Christmas card market this year but I could easily set up a bank account that people could donate to. To be honest, there is nothing worse than coming out of Superquinn car park on a miserable December morning and seeing an unshaven polar bear sitting against the wall holding out a cap pathetically for a few coppers and I hope people will dig deep this Christmas despite the recessionary times.
When my wife returned two days later, triumphantly clutching a pair of ankle boots, I told her of my plan. Strangely she didn’t seem to share my compassion for the fate of Arctic mammals. Nor did she appear to appreciate the music still pounding out from the indefatigable trio in the fountain.
Sometimes I wonder how we get on so well together.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Heaven and hell

Occasionally, as part of a sentence of community service for some heinous crime committed in a past life, the editor of this august newspaper asks me to go down to Grove Road in Blanchardstown and report on the latest Castleknock / Mulhuddart area committee meeting of the local Council.
Naturally I am always very wary of this assignment and have added the number of the local para-medics to my mobile phone, in case the excitement gets too much for me. Some people get their kicks bungee-jumping or white-water rafting – for me, seventeen motions asking for various trees to be trimmed around the Dublin 15 area is better than riding from Chicago to Santa Monica on a Harley any day of the week.
Thus it was I was in the Council chamber a few weeks ago, listening to a presentation on the Blanchardstown Village Urban Design Framework Plan by somebody whose name I didn’t quite catch.
As Framework Plans go, and, I must admit, they’re my favourite kind of plans, it was absolutely riveting stuff and I can only assume that I caught some particularly virulent strain of a sleeping bug as I had entered the County Offices for, despite my fascination for the subject, I found my head nodding and my eyes drooping and I was suddenly transported into the Main Street of Blanchardstown far into the future.
To be honest, I didn’t immediately recognise it as such. Gone were Ryan’s garage and the queues waiting for the Bank of Ireland to open and the architectural splendour of the Mace on the corner of Church Avenue. In their place was a long tree-lined road – re-named Joan Burton Boulevard - with opulent hotels and fountains and top-class restaurants. It was only when I saw the 39 zipping up the main thoroughfare heading towards the Snugborough Road that I recognised exactly where I was.
I think it must have been National Independence Day because there was a large crowd in the Forum outside City Hall and bunting hung all around. Across the street, I recognised my face on a large statue inscribed “Peter Goulding, Liberator of the Principality of Castlehuddart” and I was gratified to see the multitudes of people throwing themselves prostrate before it and kissing my bronze feet, (though I thought the sculptor could have been a bit kinder with my facial features.)
The crowd were singing the national anthem
“Arise, ye men of Castleknock, Blanch, Mulhuddart and Littlepace,
And throw off the yoke of ninety seven years”
while people hung out of every window of the thirty five floors of the Brian Lenihan Hotel to watch the proceedings. Over at the Joe Higgins Casino, groups of rich Americans with piles of chips in their hands stood in the foyer and marvelled at the quaint assembly.
A young man took the stage, introducing himself as Giuseppe Varadkar, and told the crowd how his great-great grandfather had stood side by side with Peter Goulding in the Greyhound bar as the shells rained down on them. This, he said, had perplexed the men inside as they had expected mortars and bullets, but for some reason – probably cutbacks - the Irish Army had chosen to use shells culled from Bettystown beach. The men in the bar had held out for six days, he said, and decision to surrender had only been taken when the Guinness ran out and they were obliged to use Smithwicks for sustenance instead.
Giuseppe then proceeded to give a graphic account of the aftermath of the Rising, in which the ringleaders were rounded up and forced to do community service holding back the crowds at a Lionel Ritchie concert in Lansdowne Road. It was this barbaric treatment of the rebels, he thundered to gasps of horror in the crowd, that swayed public sympathy and eventually forced the Irish Army to retreat back to the Halfway House.
In the air, cameramen for Community Voice News International leant out of helicopters to film the scene for prosperity, while breathless reporters from around the world clamoured for space along the railings outside the Forum to relate the joyous scenes to Castlehuddart émigrés around the world.
Further down Burton Boulevard, the magnificent dome of the Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh Stadium glistened in the autumnal sunlight as it prepared for that evening’s Champions League Final between Verona and AC Milan, whilst many of the latter’s supporters respectfully watched the proceedings from the roof-garden of the word-famous Le Terrazza Restaurant in George Redmond Grove. Above the skyline came the distinctive introduction to “I can’t believe I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” as U2 rehearsed in Draíocht for the first date of their worldwide comeback tour.
I ambled along the golden pavement in the dappled sunshine, watching the children excitedly queuing up to enter Clonsillaworld, an exhilarating new theme park where you try to find a parking space within walking distance of the train station or walk to the local school without being mown down by passing cars or simply sit admiring the view while waiting for the car ahead to turn right up the Shelerin Road.
I stopped at a local newsagent and glanced at the front page of a paper. “Minister for Finance to introduce income tax?” said the headline. “It’ll never happen,” said the kindly shopkeeper. “Sure with our full employment, the low cost of living and the voluntary contributions made by all the contented members of the country, there’s no need for income tax. Go on, take the paper – I have plenty more.”
I walked on, passing by the shrine of St. Dan of the Oratory, in front of which people were praying to a relic of his spectacles, and stopping in front of the Museum of Antiquities, where a schoolteacher was telling a bunch of incredulous children what a traffic jam was. Against the wall, a street entertainer was performing a brain teaser on a Nintendo DS as a large crowd looked on in wonder.
Across the street, the large milk shop stood next door to the equally large honey shop, whilst outside of each a large cup of plenty was overflowing. As I stood in the queue for some honey, I frowned, when I saw that my profile on the banknote had been taken from the right rather than the left. And they could have airbrushed out the wart on the end of my nose, I grumbled.
But the sun shone in all its majesty and cockatoos cawed merrily in the palm trees and the blue flag flew gaily over the artificial beach behind the Transport Hub.
“And we believe that the new upgrade works on the M50 which are due to be completed by the end of 2010 will have a significant impact on the number of vehicles passing through the village,” said a slightly familiar voice to my left. I stirred and looked up. It took me a good thirty seconds to realise that I was actually back in the Council Chamber in October 2009, listening to a presentation on the Blanchardstown Village Urban Design Framework Plan.
And here I must apologise to the Councillors. Doubtless, along with the sleeping bug I must have caught while entering the offices, there must have been a second screaming heebie-jeebie bug that hopped in as well. I hope my sudden and extremely noisy exit from the Chamber did not detract them too much from the job at hand.

The art of growing a beard

When I was a much younger man, I took a trip on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow to Beijing in early February, stopping off for a couple of days at a city called Irkutsk in Siberia.
My father, an extremely knowledgeable man who once put a zed on the end of ‘quart’ at the end of a game of Scrabble, advised me that I should grow a beard to ward off the worst excesses of the -30° Centigrade temperatures that I could expect, if I was foolish to go at that time of the year. Brought up on tales of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, he recognised that no clean-shaven person had ever made it to the South Pole and there was a reason for this.
At the time I worked in Dunnes Stores in Grafton Street and I remember that I had to ask permission from my manager at the time to grow a beard, there being an unofficial no-beard policy in the company at the time, except for one guy who worked out in Northside.
I started growing the damned thing about four weeks prior to my departure date and sadly, any hopes I might have had of adding beard-growing to my extremely small list of accomplishments soon faded in the light of the scutty little effort that faced me in the mirror on the morning of my departure.
That I had failed publicly in my attempt to grow facial hair punctured my machismo somewhat, though in retrospect, I doubt that even if I had succeeded in producing a beard of Ronnie Drew proportions, it would have helped to keep out the deep Siberian cold to any degree. I was able to suggest to my father subsequently that I found that a scarf wrapped around the lower half of the face did the job just as well.
Of course, being in retail for the first half of my working life, I was always very assiduous about shaving, performing the mundane ritual every morning before work. I was never tempted to grow either a moustache or a beard, having it in my head that those with the former were intrinsically evil and those with the latter seemed to have a sad look about them.
I got an electric shaver on my sixteenth birthday and I think I’ve only had two shavers since, an endorsement that I am hoping will be read by Philips and suitably recompensed. The other odd thing is that I have never shaved in front of a mirror, preferring to let my knuckles tell me when I am baby-bum smooth. I tell myself that this is because there is no mirror near the socket where I plug in my shaver, but in reality I have better things to do than to stare at my ugly mug first thing in the mornings.
About ten years ago though, I moved out of retail, first into manufacturing and then into warehousing. Naturally, with practically no contact with the general public, there was no onus on the staff to take pride in their appearance. Not being exactly a snappy dresser at the best of times – I view clothes as being purely functional rather than a statement of fashion – this suited me down to the ground and my former daily shaving habit fell by the wayside too.
The latter is not due to lack of pride in my appearance, though when you have a face like mine, the word ‘pride’ isn’t be the first noun that springs to mind. No, it’s just that shaving is so boring. It’s not something you can do while otherwise engaged in reading or gardening or something, as you have to contort your face up like the Elephant Man to get the job done. I start under the nose before doing the cheeks and then sweeping down to my chin. Then I do under my chin before catching the stubbly bits on the line of the chin itself. Even writing down the sequence is boring.
So I leave off shaving until one of two things happens – either my wife tells me to ‘lose the beard’ or the bristles on my chin become so long that when I look downwards, I stab myself in the neck. Of course, now, my facial hair, rather than coming out a dark and virile black now comes out a rather doddery silver, much to the delight of my nearest and dearest.
I have no idea how people grow beards and moustaches. It must irritate them all the time. And I’d also be afraid that bits of food or nasal waste would become lodged in the hairs unbeknownst to myself and I’d walk around like that for days with people too embarrassed to tell me.
I was in a pub down in Loughrea recently and there was a photo on the wall of the local GAA team in 1923. The two things that sprang out of the photograph was the amount of hats and moustaches that everybody had. Well, they only had one of each but you know what I mean. How distinguished and austere they all looked! How come my three days’ growth merely makes me look like a scruff?
Like hats, moustaches have very much gone out of fashion. Take the local political scene here. None of our three TDs – Brian Lenihan, Leo Varadkar nor Joan Burton – obviously feels that growing facial hair is much of a political advantage and their lead has been largely followed on Fingal County Council, although the new Mayor sports a very distinguished James Robertson Justice full set. Gerry Lynam obviously didn’t get in at the last election because of his moustache, however well-groomed it might be, the public clamouring to see a bit of skin ’twixt nose and lip. However, I am determined that when the glorious day finally arrives and Dublin 15 gains its independence, I will make the moustache the official facial hair of the new republic.
My daughter’s boyfriend, Greg, is actually quite a good beard-grower, being able to develop a thick full set between breakfast and elevenses, though I think he realises that it may be a hindrance if he ever nurtures political ambitions later in life. Still, as I keep on hinting, it’d be a great skill to have if he ever decided to bring my daughter to Siberia.

A bit of a Hallowe’en stink

It may sound strange but I was delighted when a wise and wonderful man from Huntstown asked me last month if I had noticed the smell in the area every evening.
For several weeks, my wife had taken to sniffing the air every time I came in the front door and I had been starting to get a complex. With a sense of smell that never really returned despite being off the cigarettes for six years, I had only got the whiff occasionally – a strange brown smell that I imagine is slurry, even though I haven’t the slightest idea what slurry smells like.
I had told my wife that I didn’t think I was the source of the odour but I could tell from her raised eyebrow and clothes peg on her nose that she wasn’t convinced, particularly as she insisted on shooing me upstairs to the shower the moment I set foot in the hall and fumigating my clothes as I washed.
However, the casual remark from the man from Huntstown exonerated me completely of any blame for the smell. Though I may pong a bit occasionally, it is extremely doubtful that my odour could be smelled over a mile away, even with the wind in the right direction. Every time I opened the hall door, the smell wafted in behind me, fingering me for a crime I had not committed.
Innocent of all charges, I was thus filled with a determination to bring the true perpetrator to justice. Sadly, when I went to put my investigative journalism hat on, my wife admitted that she had given it down to the Good as New shop, so I donned a baseball cap instead and set out like Stanley to discover the source of the smell.
Now, in the cartoon advert for Bisto, the children follow a highly visible smell of gravy back to their own kitchen. Sadly, the slurry smell was not quite so definitive and certainly not as visible to the naked eye and for several days I drove around the area, getting out of my car at strategic locations and sniffing the air like a bloodhound, doubtless drawing quizzical looks from passing motorists.
Oh, how I cursed my twenty five years nicotine habit! Of course it is doubtful whether the most sensitive nose in the world could differentiate between the various strengths of the odour from one location to the next, but I, with my desensitised nose, had no chance.
To be honest, although I was completely unknowledgeable of all things agricultural – to me, the phrase “country smells” encompasses a wide gamut of odours – I was not convinced that the offending pong was indeed slurry. Sure, hadn’t we seen on the news how the farmers were protesting that they were all being put out of business by the weather, the EU and Brian Cowen, so why would they waste their time producing slurry (whatever slurry is) when their children were being starved off the land?
I made discreet enquiries in the Paddocks, telling people I was “only asking for a friend” but I could tell people were afraid, particularly when they went running out the door with their hands over their ears. Nobody was prepared to blow the lid on this story, though a few of them tapped the side of their noses, indicating either that they knew something or that they had a cocaine habit.
My big break came when I came downstairs one morning to find a piece of paper had been slipped under the hall door. Of course, it might just as easily have been pushed through the letter box but it sounds more dramatic my way.
“Rubbish collection to help the starving farmers of county Clare,” I read. “Please place all your unwanted money in a black sack and leave outside your front door on Thursday morning.” I was about to throw it away (I’d already given all my spare money to the Bankers’ Benevolent Fund) when I noticed a handwritten scrawl on the rear of the notice.
“You want to find the sauce (sic) of the smell?” it read. “Go to the graveyard in Clonsilla at midnight!”
The words sent a chill down my spine and then another one just above my left elbow. What foul deed was afoot, I wondered? And what was this sick sauce mentioned in the note?
Of course, my wife, who was becoming quite adept at eyebrow-raising, looked surprised when I casually informed her at 23:45 that I was “just popping down to Clonsilla, love.”
Her parting shot of “Drive carefully, smelly,” ringing in my ears, I clutched a sprig of garlic and a crucifix in my hand and drove the two miles to Clonsilla. There was no moon. Well, there was, but I can’t be bothered going into the astronomical reasons why it wasn’t visible. A thick mist curled across the dank night like, well, thick mist curling across a dank night. Somewhere, a coyote howled its mournful cry to the sky but thankfully it was in Arizona and I couldn’t hear it.
I parked the car opposite the deserted train station and slowly walked towards the grey church, silhouetted against the sky. Idly I wondered if the stars were out, but the question merely brought visions of Art Garfunkel into my head, so I shuddered and walked on. And then I noticed the smell.
It was the thick, rotting stench of decay, reminiscent of a soup my wife had bought in Sainsbury’s up in Newry a few years ago. It pervaded the air like a blanket. Birds were falling out of the trees, clutching their throats. A family of hedgehogs had loaded all their belongings into a small cart and were heading for Lucan. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my nose and hoisted myself up onto the graveyard wall, narrowly missing a full can of Dutch Gold sitting there, and peered over.
The sight that met my eyes that was more horrific than any Lionel Richie video. Sitting in a tight circle around a giant cauldron, was a coven of property developers, local politicians and members of the council’s planning department from yesteryear. One of this unholy number, sporting a mask of Satan, was stirring the foul mixture in the cauldron, while one of the former politicians was reading aloud from an ancient recipe book.
“Add one bucketful of rezoning applications,” he intoned, in a voice that seemed to come from the bowels of Hell itself, but was probably from his throat. As he read the words, members of the circle stood up in turn and cast the ingredients into the pot. “Stir in a wad of brown envelopes, add in several indeterminate loopholes in the planning regulations, pour in a plethora of tax breaks, muddy the whole lot up and leave to simmer for several years.”
Clinging to the top of the wall, I fumbled for my phone. I knew it had the capability to take photos but it always took me an hour to find out how. The stench was atrocious and my eyes watered. I felt my mind starting to retreat and I remember falling back off the wall and knocking the can of Dutch Gold down on top of me.
And then I blacked out and remembered nothing else until the policemen woke me up, your Honour.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The joy of cursing potently

I had to do it to preserve my sanity.
You would think that the older one becomes the calmer and more magnanimous a driver one would be. And, in general, in my case, it is true. I have slowed down considerably since the days when it was vitally important to get to the Clonee turn off on the N3 before the white van trundling along at a mere 90km per hour.
Nowadays, such things are unimportant. The lights at the end of the slip road are bound to be red anyway and the risk of a speeding fine is not worth the three seconds I might gain from an overtaking manoeuvre.
I do however, have one pet hate and one that churns away in my head when I am cruising up and down that superhighway known as the New Ongar Road. This is the driver that uses the inside lane at traffic lights to avoid waiting in a queue like the rest of us for the lights to turn green.
It is usually a man and often well-dressed and middle-aged in an Audi or similar vehicle. Not for him being seventh in a queue of cars waiting to pass the Hartstown turn off. I mean, how could a man in his position be expected to simply idle in a queue of plebs like us?
No sirree. He’ll turn into the left-turning lane and when the lights finally turn green, he’ll zip out ahead of the posse, like Dick Dastardly in the Wacky Races cartoons of the 1970s. I imagine him curling the ends of his thin moustache and laughing cruelly to himself as he ecstatically glances in his rear view mirror at the suckers trailing despondently in his wake.
The problem is that Dick Dastardly always got his come-uppance, driving into a tree or running headlong into an avalanche. As I have mentioned in this column more than once, no such calamity ever befalls Mr. Audi driver.
It is strange though how the focus of my ire is not trained on the car in question but upon the driver ahead who lets him regain the correct lane. If the first car in my lane does not hit the accelerator like Lewis Hamilton on the starting grid at Monza, I, with no sense of fairness at all, let forth a string of impotent curses at his ineptitude.
Of course, what I would hope to happen in my little Utopian world, is that the cars in the straight lane would be quick off the mark and form a human shield, or possibly a car shield, to force Mr. Audi driver to remain in the bus lane, where he would fall foul of the traffic policeman, waiting with notebook in hand. You would think I would have learned by now that this will never happen.
So I, and I suspect many others who feel morally affronted by such behaviour, am left to rage impotently in our cars while the baddie in the piece gets away with it yet again.
It was while raging impotently at just such a particularly brazen piece of driving that I had one of those Archimedes in the bath tub moments, though I restrained myself from leaping from my Yaris and running naked up the cycle path.
I couldn’t wait to get home. I dashed in through the front door, whistled gaily at my wife and kissed the canary and then proceeded to rummage through the box of “bits of paper that might come in useful later.” I found it near the bottom.
List of evening classes at Hartstown Community School, I read. I turned to Monday. No joy. Tuesday. Wednesday. No, it wasn’t there.
I was just about to throw the leaflet in the bin when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was in between Wine Appreciation and Woodturning but it was only there if you pretended you were looking at something else and looked at it sideways. Witchcraft!
“Come along next Monday night at 7.30pm,” said the old crone-like voice on the other end of the phone, which caused me some surprise, as I’d only just picked up the receiver.
“What should I wear?” I stammered, wondering if the black pointed hat was strictly necessary.
“Clothes,” replied the puzzled voice and hung up.
Nervously I presented myself in the classroom the following Monday night. I had been somewhat apprehensive about walking through the seemingly solid wall behind the school notice board but I concentrated furiously on the photo of the U12 hockey team and the wall just seemed to swallow me up.
“Today, we’re going to do curses,” said the teacher, who did not have a long hooked nose and black cat but looked for all the world like Marion Finucane. I glanced around at my fellow classmates. They seemed like ordinary people that you might bump into in the street, if your foot-eye coordination wasn’t very good. I saw at least one local councillor, a girl who works in Eurospar and a woman whom I had beaten to the last tin of pineapples in Dunnes two weeks previously.
Sadly, I am debarred from giving details in the local newspaper of how to perform the curses that we learned. We were advised to use them sparingly as we were only permitted to use one a month in the outside world and it was inadvisable to waste it on, say, someone who had beaten you to the last tin of pineapples in the supermarket. Here, the woman beside me shifted uncomfortably and the large boil on my backside flared up again.
The scope of the curses available to the part-time witch is actually quite impressive. You could visit a large wart on the end of somebody’s nose; or allow them to only speak Serbo-Croat; or make a large bogey appear at the bottom of their nose when they are talking to someone they fancy; or give them a flatulence problem when they are in the middle of an important interview; or instill in them a love of St Patrick’s Athletic. The list is endless.
I am also forbidden from revealing who I use the curse upon, which is a small price to pay from the sheer joy of reeling off my long-rehearsed and now extremely potent curse at the Hartstown turn off on the New Ongar Road. It was a delicious moment and I can’t wait for my November curse to become around.
Suffice to say that if you are an Audi driver whose iPod earpiece has recently become firmly wedged in their ear and you are unable to turn off Lionel Richie’s “Hello” on constant repeat, then next time have a bit of patience and wait your turn like the rest of us.

Friday, October 2, 2009

In praise of Connolly Part II

So my son dropped me at the doors of Connolly Hospital and I got out, clutching my admission form, my 1970s dressing down and a pair of beige slippers.
“See you,” I said but he was already tearing out of the carpark as though practising for Rally Ireland. Idly I wondered if I would see the car in one piece again.
However there were more important things to worry about. Here I was for my first spot of surgery ever. They were going to perform a lumpectomy (possibly not the correct technical term) on my lower back, a simple day case but, at last and for a few short hours, I was a genuine member of the hospital fraternity and not merely an irritant to be shooed out when visiting time was over.
“Good morning!” I said in kinship to a young woman in a dressing gown, standing at the door with a cigarette in her hand. She stared at me as though I had two heads or indeed a golfball-sized lump in my back.
I glided through registration with ease, despite nearly coming unstuck on the seemingly innocuous question of my GP’s identity. Luckily it was on my referral form, so I got 100% and sailed through to Round 2.
Round 2 consisted of sitting on a chair in the ward without falling off until the nurse called my name. Deploying a masterly sense of balance, I passed with a merit and at last I was in the ward.
“Slip this on you and I’ll be back in a minute,” said a nurse, handing me a night gown.
If my borrowed dressing gown was hideous, this nightgown looked as though it had come straight from the textile factory at Hell. Off-white through a hundred washes, the design consisted of the word ‘Hospital’ arranged into triangles and scripted in reds, yellows, blues and greens. Presumably, this was to ensure nobody took one home, the way they purloin towels from hotels. I murmured to myself that I wouldn’t be seen dead in one and then realised with a start that hundreds of people probably had.
“I meant, that you take your clothes off first and then put the nightgown on,” said the nurse when she returned, drawing back the curtain with a swish. Well she hadn’t actually said that. Didn’t she know I was unused to this sort of thing?
When she came back a third time, she asked if she could have a look at my lump. I thought it would have been churlish to refuse so I stood up and turned around, conscious of the fact that the open-backed nightgown also revealed my backside.
“My God, that’s a large one,” she said, leaving me wondering if it was the lump to which she was referring.
When she was done, she pulled back the curtains and informed me that I’d passed Round 3 and I’d be going down to surgery shortly. Now, hospital was one of the languages I didn’t take in my Leaving Cert but I had a suspicion that ‘shortly’ was one of those irregular adverbs. I prepared myself for a long wait, sitting on the chair and nodding at everybody who padded by, in a spirit of surgical kinship.
I had done the hospital a disservice though because the nurse had been using the English definition of ‘shortly’ and fifteen minutes later I was led down the corridor and into a small room. Here I was handed over to the care of a man and a woman all gowned up who looked at my lump and asked me if I’d be better sitting on the bed or lying on it. Again, this was a question that nearly stumped me but eventually I came up with ‘Whatever’s the best for the doctor,’ an answer which entitled me to the grand prize of a lumpectomy.
The three of us chatted away until the surgeon arrived. The anaesthetist talked about having done a 36 hour shift the previous Friday and Saturday and it hadn’t really seemed as though he’d had the weekend off at all. I thought of my own work and felt very humble.
The surgeon arrived. If policemen seem to be getting younger to people of our generation, my surgeon still appeared to be in secondary school. But she was very friendly and would have put me completely at ease if I wasn’t already as relaxed as I could be.
“I think we’ll have you lying on your side,” she said and I smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand. How could I have not thought of that? She pulled up a chair and either she or the anaesthetist started sticking needles in around my lump. I wanted to watch but my head wouldn’t swivel around that far. I made a mental note to make sure the lump was somewhere on my front the next time.
Now this is what my offspring call ‘the gross bit,’ so anyone with a squeamish disposition just skip the next three paragraphs.
“Right, here we go,” she said and I craned my head back as far as I could. Next thing I knew, I heard a small “Oh!” and I saw what could only be described as a fountain of liquid spurting up to within an inch of the ceiling and then come splashing down. After about a minute’s silence, the surgeon said, “Well, now I think we know what it was,” and left the room.
“You absolutely drowned her,” laughed the anaesthetist, tearing off rolls of kitchen paper and carpeting the floor with them.
When the surgeon came back, in a clean gown, I apologised profusely, adding that it was not really something I did as a habit. She explained that it had definitely been a blocked sweat gland. “Normally, they just dribble out,” she said. “This one must have been under intense pressure.”
Anyway she set to work cleaning me out and then patching me up with a needle and thread, before applying a pad. She asked me if I wanted to see what was left of my lump and I said ‘why not?’ It actually reminded me of something that you clean out of a cooked chicken, thin skin and little balls of solidified white fat. “We’ll send it off for analysis but there’s really nothing to worry about,” she said. “They’ll send the results off to your GP shortly.”
They asked me if I wanted a wheelchair to take me back to the ward which seemed rather odd as they hadn’t operated on my legs at all. As I padded back, I wondered if I should enter the ward moaning loudly and put the frighteners on everyone still waiting but I decided to be charitable.
And that was about that. Plain and simple. I remarked to my wife later that it was such a pleasant experience that I wouldn’t mind going back and she hit me.
I was sent home in time for lunch, barely four hours after my triumphant arrival at the front door. I could see when my son picked me up that he was disappointed that he couldn’t use the car for longer.
After two days I could take off the pad and show off my scar. The consensus was it looked like a zip or a fishbone and that I should get a fish’s head tattooed onto the end of it.
As for the hospital tests coming back, the surgeon caught me out good and proper. Fourteen weeks later and I realise she was using the hospital definition of ‘shortly.’

Finding your chapel of love

In 1818 in the parish of Baltiboys in county Wicklow, Martin married Mary Ann Cullen. Over 150 years later, their great-something grandchild was born who later became my beloved wife.
The only curious thing about all this was the fact that, in the church records, Martin, as you may have noticed, didn’t have a surname. It wasn’t that he was too poor to afford one, for even tenant farmers have a right to a surname, nor did he lose it in a poker game.
In those days, the priest would ride out on his horse to the family home, often isolated or a long way from the parish church. To mix religions, it was a case of the mountain coming to Mohammad, because Mohammad couldn’t afford to bring the wedding party all the way to the parish church.
Consequently, when the ceremony was over and the priest had been plied with home-made hooch, he would stagger off on his hopefully sober horse and eventually, the following morning, fill in the marriage register. In poor Martin’s case above, the hooch must have been particularly potent, for it seems that he couldn’t remember the chap’s surname (which, incidentally, was Behan.)
Somewhere along the line, the law changed and church weddings were made compulsory, probably to save a generation from wandering the earth without a name like, again to mix religions, the Wandering Jew. And then, somewhere further down this rather strange line, civil ceremonies were permitted in registry offices for those who were churchless. It would appear also that the captain of a ship also had the power to marry any couple masochist enough to combine a wedding with a sea voyage.
Under recent Government legislation, there is no longer any requirement for couples to tie the knot in either a place of worship or a registry office. Lovebirds can now pledge their respective troths at any public venue, provided it has been approved by the local Council. Our local councillors are, of course, as everybody knows, the people in the best position to safeguard the morals of the country, hence the requirement that they ratify any proposed public venue. So far as I am aware, the only public venue that has been approved for civil marriage by Fingal County Councillors is the olde-worlde and atmospheric Fingal County Offices in Swords.
Of course in America, they have gone the whole hog. You can get married seemingly anywhere that you like and by anyone who has bought the relevant doctorate over the internet. You can get married by an Elvis lookalike while whirling around Space Mountain in Disneyworld; a Jacques Cousteau wannabe can marry you at the bottom of the ocean; doubtless the first Space Shuttle wedding will attract worldwide attention.
We may sneer at their trivialisation of the marriage ceremony but doubtless they would argue, if they could be bothered, that it is not the signing of the dirty deed that is important, but the way that you live the rest of your lives. Is it better for a couple to get married with all the pomp and ceremony of a church wedding and then endure a lifetime of cruelty and misery; or get married by Darth Vadar in Star Wars costumes and live happily ever after?
Personally, I got married once and that was quite enough for me, thank you. But if I ever got married again, I think I’d try and be a bit more creative about my choice of venue. There’s a lovely roundabout at the bottom of the Ongar Road which would do very nicely. Slightly raised, it would give passing motorists a good view of the priest, the blushing bride and me, all dressed as Lionel Richie.
I’m sure that the councillors would approve.

Surviving the Christmas night out


Okay, so you’ve only joined the workforce in the past year and this is your first Christmas night out with your new colleagues. Or maybe, you’ve recently transferred from a company that didn’t believe in the whole concept of Christmas and you’re about to experience the office party experience for the first time. A Christmas night out virgin, somewhat apprehensive about the whole experience, what are the pitfalls that you can fall in to on this most difficult of evenings?
Probably the most common fallacy about the Christmas night out is that it is something separate from the normal routine of office politics. Far from it. Do not be lulled into believing that over familiarity with the boss, or with his wife, will be banished completely from his mind when you show up for work again on the following Monday. Despite his protestations of camaraderie at the beginning of the night, slapping his head and calling him Baldilocks will not endear you to him any time in the near future. Nor will groping his wife on the dance floor.
Which leads us nicely onto the misconception that at Christmas nights out it is necessary to down copious amounts of alcohol in order to have a good time. I am sure some people see this as a way of dealing with colleagues that they can’t abide – and in truth I can see where they are coming from on this – but in reality, if you don’t overdo it, you have much more fun.
It may be harder mentally to dance when not completely jarred but at least a semblance of hand-eye coordination is helpful. Someone is bound to have a camera so unless you want your worst excesses recorded for posterity, there’s no point in overdoing it. It will also save you from going to sleep in an alleyway on the way home and waking up with pneumonia.
But the sobriety issue is particularly true on the following work day when you can sidle up to a sheepish colleague and whisper “How’s the trousers?” and all sorts of lurid thoughts will run through his mind as he tries to make sense of it. “Did Madeleine get home all right?” will also leave him stumped, especially if there is no-one called Madeleine in the workforce.
You should also be prepared for the manager who approaches you on the night out and begins a conversation with “I don’t want to talk shop but...” This is particularly dangerous as it would be unwise to offend but you run the risk of getting cornered for two hours while the geek from accounts gets off with the wan from sales that you had your eye on all evening. Probably the best tack is to endure him for five minutes and then protest a weak bladder.
It’s probably a good idea too to have a set time that you intend to leave at. Naturally, it can’t be too soon in the evening or everyone will think you’re only showing up for the food and not for the joy of socialising with your workmates. And it’s never a great feeling to be the last person left in the establishment with the table groaning with the weight of sixteen pints bought hurriedly when the shutters are coming down.
There is always a certain point in every Christmas night out, after which the proceedings start to deteriorate badly and you are sorry you didn’t leave two hours earlier while relatively capable. The trick is trying to hit that point as accurately as possible. It’s normally some time between midnight and one o’clock so it might be a good idea to get your partner to pick you up around then, giving you a perfect excuse for leaving the jollifications.
The most important thing to bear in mind, though, is that there is only one thing worse than waking up the morning after the Christmas night out and remembering all the embarrassing things you did the night before.
Not remembering them.

Losing your Fathers




I know many of you will be reading this expecting to hear all about my terrifying brush with minor surgery during the summer, as promised in Issue 142, but I simply can’t let this issue go without relating the anguish felt in the Huntstown area over the loss of not one, but both, of our parish priests.
When I say loss, I do not mean that they have simply gone astray in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre and we can’t quite locate them, like the priests in Fr. Ted who were lost and disorientated in the lingerie department of Dunnes.
Truth of the matter is that the Archbishop works in mysterious ways. Fr. Eugene has forsaken us poor sheep and has headed off to the bright lights of downtown Mulhuddart, while Fr. Ralph has been retired, despite the fact that he is still under eighty. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one parish priest is unfortunate; to lose two hints at carelessness.
It seems like a veritable age since Fr. Eugene first rode into the parish, tethered his horse to the prefab that served as the church and proceeded to put manners on us. No longer would we get away with mumbling our responses. No sirree. We would sing our Hallelujahs as though we were trying to impress Simon Cowell and anything less than full participation meant that we had to sing them again until the rafters shook.
It was something of a culture shock. Fr. Jones – who, let’s face it, did not have a voice to make Louis Walsh leap up and down with excitement – had somewhat minimised the singing bits of the mass. Fr. Eugene, however, definitely had the X factor and we now were expected to sing three hymns as well as gospel acclamations and responses at full volume!
Of course, we got used to him and him to us. Under his stewardship, the new church opened in Huntstown, as well as the Chapel of Ease in Littlepace. He introduced the wonderful sight of all the children elbowing each other out of the way to be the first up to the altar to participate in the Our Father and I was particularly struck by his revelation to me, on seeing my Shelbourne jersey about how, as a child, he used to play football in the streets with Shels supremo Ollie Byrne.
Fr. Ralph came later. With three masses to be said between Huntstown and Littlepace every Sunday morning, it would have been something of a test for Fr. Eugene to sprint the half mile between the two churches, so one morning this twinkle-eyed, silver-haired bearded priest appeared at mass, like Ronnie Drew with a collar.
I think Fr. Ralph missed his true vocation as a stand-up comedian. He could have them rolling in the naves with some of his self-deprecating observations and his ramblings and asides were of Ronnie Corbett-esque proportions. And to me, he uttered the greatest line I ever heard from a priest as we were leaving mass after Pope John Paul II died. “Look at the crowds,” he enthused. “We should get rid of a pope every week!”
It’s difficult to know what to do when a priest leaves the parish. My own inclination would be to have a bit of a hooley, though I suspect both of our departing priests’ dancing days are over, no matter how many times Fr. Eugene danced around Ollie Byrne fifty years ago. Besides, it’s not quite the same as when a work colleague leaves and everybody goes out and somebody gets up on the table and bares their backside or tries to get off with that girl in accounts.
I understand that the parish have invited them back for a special mass in October, though to me this is like asking a departing postman to come back and do a few hours sorting. An anonymous suggestion that we hold a karaoke night was apparently ruled out on the grounds that Fr. Eugene would blow everybody else out of the water, particularly Fr. Ralph who is notorious for starting hymns an octave too high.
Similarly, what on earth do you get as a present for a priest that is leaving the parish? Certainly not some of the lurid items that are dished out to departing work colleagues. Although I suppose if a priest is supposed to renounce all worldly goods, then buying him a present is a bit like buying a pint for a reformed alcoholic.
Birthdays, the card shop up in the centre, don’t appear to stock a range of “Sorry you’re moving on, Father” cards, or even, “Sorry you’re retiring, Father” cards. It was only when I looked that I realised that Hallmark don’t really cater for priests at all – I have since written to them and pointed out this gap in their market.
Anyway, the pair of them are gone now this past two weeks. Fr. Eugene is doubtless sipping his margueritas by the pool in balmy Mulhuddart and has probably forgotten about us already. I’ve heard many families in the area are now enrolling in singing classes in preparation for the mass. Fr. Ralph, I expect, is busy forming a Dubliners tribute band with a view to touring the country, providing he can start “Seven Drunken Nights” in the right key.
Meanwhile we have a new priest. Fr. Begley is eying us warily and we’re eying him with equal caution. It’s like when you get a new teacher in school. Doubtless we’re going to try and see how little singing we can get away with in the mass and wondering if he’s going to insist on us singing the third verse of the hymn on the missalette.
There are many who no longer see the parish as a geographical entity. We live in one particular area and the things that bind us together are the public transport problems or the local shopping centre or the pub. However, the church in Littlepace has always had a good attendance at Mass and it remains an important social as well as spiritual centre for many families in the area.
So when you lose both of your priests in one fell swoop, it can rightly be regarded as the end of an era. Gone, but not forgotten.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Slide rules ok?

I suppose you have to be “of a certain age” to remember slide rules, though of course that would all depend how certain your age is. It would probably be more accurate to say that people of an uncertain age would definitely not have come across them.
What was a slide rule? God only knows. It was something that we wrestled with in Maths. And not only wrestled with – we fenced with it, rapped people over the knuckles with it and it was great for propelling an eraser through the air at great velocity.
Basically, it was like a normal plastic ruler, split lengthways in three. The middle length could be pulled out, though not all the way, as this would have left you with three separate bits of ruler in your hand. There were markings and notations on all three lengths of the rule and the theory was that you could do long and complicated sums by extending the middle piece outwards until two notations coincided.
Clear? No, it wasn’t particularly clear back then neither. I remember our Maths teacher going prematurely white-haired with the stress of trying to get thirty unimpressed teenagers to use the contraption with any degree of accuracy. A whole autumn term he spent on it and we were still none the wiser.
You could do weird and wonderful sums on a slide rule, in theory. It was supposed to be great at doing multiplication and division and I’m sure that whoever invented the damned thing could use it efficiently enough but whenever we got homework on working out multiplication on a slide rule, I simply worked out the answer on a piece of paper and wrote it down.
The slide rule obviously lent its name to the slide rule pass in football, evidently because it was very accurate but I always got more accurate answers from writing down the sum on a piece of paper. However, the piece of paper pass never found its way into footballing terminology, much to my disgust.
Of course, I tried to get my Dad to explain how it worked but he simply snatched it off me gleefully and used it to retrieve a 50p piece that had rolled under the fridge.
Aside from multiplication and division, slide rules were also great for working out logarithms. Apparently. Of course, if I had ever been able to grasp the concept of what exactly a logarithm was, I might have stood some chance. For years I thought it was a type of small mammal that lived in forests. Even when it was semi-explained, trying to work out a mysterious and incomprehensible formula on a piece of equipment that was primarily used for flicking squares of jelly onto the classroom ceiling was something of a bridge too far.
As it transpired, although we spent weeks trying to get our heads around this bockety ruler and even more weeks using the slidey part as a guillotine on unsuspecting insects, we never had to use the damned thing in the exam. We had to choose five questions out of eight and so everybody plumped for probabilities and sub-sets and avoided the slide rule question like a dose of ricketts. I am sure the teachers employed by the examination board to mark the slide rule question never had such an easy summer.
Remarkably, and I use the word with the utmost sarcasm, I have never had recourse to use a slide rule since slouching out of the school gates for the last time thirty years ago. More than that, I have never set eyes on one and never actually heard of anybody using one. Do they still exist? Has their usefulness been superceded by the pocket calculator? Does anyone in the world still use a slide rule, except to make passes?
All of this brings me around in my usual long-winded way to the point I am trying to make – what is the point of education in an increasingly technological world? Just as we wasted weeks of our lives messing about with slide rules, what is the use of learning Hamlet’s Act III soliloquy off by heart, when we can Google it just as easily? Have I ever quoted it for anything other than comic purposes in the past thirty years?
Where does potassium live in the periodic table? I’m not sure. I believe he had a row with sulphur and moved around the corner but if I really wanted to find out, I could look it up on the computer.
My Dad always maintained that it wasn’t what you learned that was important; it was the fact that you could show future prospective employers that you had the ability to absorb a lot of information on a particular subject and then were able to regurgitate it in a pressure situation.
In that case, why not introduce school subjects that are interesting and relevant? How much more enthusiasm would a boy show for a homework question on the Charlton / Dunphy antagonism in Italia 90 than for the importance of the anchovy to the people of Peru? How much more creative would an essay on Eminem be than on Milton?
Aside from that, I’d say in this day and age, prospective employers would be far more interested in your time-keeping, absenteeism and reliability than in your ability to reel off the notable dates in Charles Stewart Parnell’s life when called upon to do so. In most jobs, you are simply shown what to do and you do it. In this respect, the school roll call would be a much more useful evaluation tool than a grade in a biology exam.
Basically, education has not kept pace with information technology. Children in Greece are being taught on e-books whereas our children still hump three tons of expensive books in and out of school every day. Our curriculum does not reflect the technological advances of recent years. The information is at our fingertips and unless we are training people to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, what is the point in trying to stuff it into children’s brains?
And it doesn’t take a genius with a slide rule to work out that without the need to spend years learning useless information by rote, the available brain space could be turned over to more artistic and creative endeavours, which in turn would produce the individual thinkers that we badly need at the moment.

In praise of Connolly (Part I)

When I go down to James’ Hospital once a month to give platelets, it is the common practice to fill out a questionnaire about my social and sexual history to see if I am eligible to donate. Have I ever had a blood transfusion? Have I ever had sex with a male or female from South America? Have I ever fondled monkeys or handled their bodily fluids? Have I ever had a blood transfusion from a South American monkey?
My answer to all of them is invariably No. I have never had any serious illnesses, never had surgery and never indulged in any lascivious practices. Nor have I ever sold my body for drugs nor spent my hard earned money on piercings or tattoos. The nurses are delighted with me, yet somewhere in the back of my head lingers the thought that I must have led a really boring and uneventful life.
This all changed recently when I had a spot of minor surgery. Forty eight years old and I had never been back to hospital since my mother brought me home at a week old (that’s me, incidentally, not my mother.)
Well, not on my own account, anyway. I’d been there plenty of times for relatives and friends who seem to have a perverse inclination to suffer terrible illnesses or break bones or have babies. To me, hospitals were like New York – okay to go and visit but I wouldn’t like to stay there for any length of time. Besides, when you scan the obituary columns and see how many people die in hospital, it’s probably best to avoid them altogether.
About twelve years ago, I developed a lump on my lower back about the size of a golf ball. It just emerged one night fully-formed, rather like the way JK Rowling describes how the idea of Harry Potter came to her. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a similar way of profiting from my apparition.
Now, I believe in getting my money’s worth from doctors, so I waited until I had a few ailments affecting me before going down to the surgery. The doctor stroked his chin, told me the lump wasn’t harmful and assured me that it wasn’t a golf ball.
So I did nothing about it. The lump didn’t hurt, never changed in size and never really bothered me in any way. However, after a time, I grew rather weary of small children running shrieking from the swimming pool when I was on holiday, yelling about the man with the alien in his back, so I resolved to have it removed.
However, I wasn’t going to give €60 to a doctor for that alone, so I hung on until I had some more things wrong with me. Just my rotten luck – I went for about five years of sickeningly perfect health and never once needed to set foot inside the surgery door.
Then last summer, I thankfully got a nasty chest infection which needed a prescription of antibiotics, so down to the Meridian Clinic in Ongar I skipped. While there, I mentioned the lump on my back, the doctor stroked her chin, had a look and lo and behold, within three months I had an appointment down in Connolly Hospital.
In Connolly, they stroked their chins, had a poke around, assured me again that it still wasn’t a golf ball and told me that if I hadn’t heard from them after six months, I was to phone them up and remind them of my existence.
So about a month ago, after eight months of not hearing from them, I phoned them up and was rather surprised to be told to come in “on Monday week.” It was to be a simple day case and I had to bring in a dressing gown and a pair of slippers.
There are some people who are dressing gown people and some who aren’t. This is the way that many sociologists divide the world and I have always been one of those people who favour the revolutionary idea of “getting dressed” when rising in the mornings. Thankfully my brother in law, who is also a non-DG person, received one of the said items from his mother many years ago, a hideous, multi-coloured specimen that had lived in its packaging at the back of his wardrobe ever since, and so he gratefully delivered the item to me, saving me the frustrating option of having to go and buy a blessed dressing gown in Dunnes or Penneys.
I told them in work that I wouldn’t be in for a week and they asked me did I want to take the time off as a holiday? When I got home that evening, I looked up the definition of the word ‘holiday’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it didn’t quite seem to correspond with the notion of going into hospital. The following morning, I told my boss that I had checked with Budget Travel and that James Connolly wasn’t in their brochure for this year, so I’d be taking the time off sick.
He asked me if my lump was any bigger than the apple-pip sized lump he showed me just beneath the skin of his forearm. I lifted up my shirt to show him. The last I saw of him, he was running into the boardroom shrieking about the man with the alien in his back.
The hospital told me that I didn’t need to fast at all prior to my operation. Personally, I don’t mind fasting, so long as I can eat something while doing it, but as the scenario didn’t arise, I just ate my normal breakfast of sausages and cream, a delicacy picked up from a recent visit to the States.
I bade my wife a tearful goodbye and solemnly gave her my blessing to remarry if the worst came to the worst. She seemed unimpressed by this gesture and reminded me not to say anything in the hospital that might embarrass her.
Even though my son did not believe that there really was such time as seven o’clock in the morning, he nevertheless offered to bring me down to the hospital, doubtless inspired by the thought of driving my car around after he’d dropped me off. And thus, clutching my slippers and 1970s dressing gown, I was driven off to face the unknown...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The battle of the books

Being a fully rounded individual, particularly in the stomach and backside area, I find myself interested in a myriad of vastly different subjects, ranging from lighthouses to poetry and from League of Ireland football to astronomy. When I finally retire, there is no danger of me sitting around the house bored all day, while my wife tuts impatiently and tells me to lift my feet.
There is however one area of my multi-faceted life that I have shamefully neglected in recent years - reading. I am a staunch believer in the importance of reading widely, yet I am an extraordinarily slow reader. I started a book last Christmas – it was a blue one – and I am still only a quarter of the way through it. God knows what it’s about.
My problem is that I only find the time to read when I’m in bed. And, being a man of extraordinary virtue and a clear conscience – as I tell my insomniac wife - the moment I begin to read I fall asleep.
Of course I have a bookcase full of books that I am looking forward to reading when I get the time but, short of spending several weeks with my leg in plaster like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, that day, like full employment and Brian Lenihan abolishing income tax, seems a long way off.
I do however love a bargain and, although sad for the staff at Borders, who were always very accommodating when the Dublin 15 Writers Group met there, the announcement of their massive closing down sale infused me with a sense of excitement at the thoughts of gaining some valuable additions to my bookcase.
Somehow I managed to persuade my daughter to come along on the expedition, even though it is decidedly uncool to be seen out with me. My wife doesn’t really understand the concept of bookshops, being a true library aficionado. I would be too, but any savings I made would be automatically negated by the fines imposed when I returned the book three years later.
Unable to get anywhere near the store itself due to the heavy volumes of traffic, we parked in the green car park and made our way excitedly over, passing a constant stream of refugees laden down with their literary possessions as we did so. Nearing the store itself, we noticed a breathless Charlie Bird in combat fatigues, telling a television camera about the carnage inside.
The entrance to the shop was blocked by a mill of people fighting to get in, while a corresponding amount of people clutching ripped paperbacks and bruised cheekbones fought to escape. It was time for a strategy. “I’ll go for books, you go for CDs and DVDs,” I said. We shook hands formally and wished each other Good Luck before plunging into the fray.
Squeezing and jostling, I managed to make my way to the first table, which was completely empty, save for two middle-aged ladies sprawled over it in mortal hand to hand combat. One of them had a copy of Cecilia Aherne’s latest held above her head, while the other was trying to prise it from her grasp.
I ploughed on, eventually coming to a seemingly impenetrable wall of backs at the fiction shelves. With brilliant tactical nous, I shouted over to an imaginary friend, “Get the signed copy of the latest Harry Potter book over there!” All heads turned and I managed to slip through the outer ring of combat and into the melee of wild-eyed parents battling over the few remaining school books.
Putting it simply, it was a battle zone. Blood, hair and teeth besmirching ripped copies of Fiúntas 2 and Hörschatz littered the floor like shrapnel, while bodies were flying about like cowboys in a bar-room brawl. Children cowered in terror while grown women slugged it out over bloodstained copies of Philadelphia Here I Come. Never were the poets in Poetry Now so sought after in that maelstrom of kicking and gouging. I was sorely tempted when I spotted a relatively unscathed copy of Leaving Cert Biology on the floor but a large woman dived on top of it as I dithered and I decided discretion was the better part of valour and crawled off on all fours in the vague direction of the poetry section.
Suffering only superficial bruising I made it to my goal. On the way, I managed to secure an English-Spanish dictionary that had been knocked out of someone’s hand. A quick glance at the synopsis on the back didn’t give me any great confidence in the substance of the story but I thought it might be a good read if I ended up in hospital, so I stuffed it down my shirt and ploughed on.
In the poetry section, it was quiet. Too quiet, I thought. People were standing around reading sonnets and eying each other nervously. An air of tension hung over the shelves like gun smoke and several people nervously fingered their Nokias and Erikssons. The phoney war, I thought, picking up a copy of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle from the shelves and pretending to understand the metaphors.
Then it happened. A tweed-clad man let slip the last edition of Pat Ingoldsby’s latest book from under his elbow. It was snatched up by a young girl but as she turned to run, the man rugby tackled her from behind. He was promptly smacked over the head with a hard cover copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the girl’s mother, causing him to drop his entire collection on the floor.
The resulting rolling maul wouldn’t have been out of place at the Parc des Princes. Several people were cited for gouging and I, waiting in the sidelines like a scrumhalf to pick up the pieces, saw one particularly unmentionable act involving Thomas Mann that I will bring to the grave. Wielding the Complete Works of John Betjeman, I beat my way out of the shop, only flinging it back into the carnage (with my Spanish dictionary) when I staggered out of the door, my clothing in tatters.
I crawled up to Lidl, where I found my daughter sitting on the kerb, applying a hastily purchased German sausage to her eye. We hugged and vowed we’d never have an angry word again.
“Did you get anything?” she said at last. I shook my head sadly.
“You?”
In reply she slowly pulled a CD case out of the waistband of her torn skirt. I stared at it unblinking for a while as the sheer enormity of her purchase sank home.
“Dad, I’m sorry, it was all I could get” she said, putting an arm around my shoulders as the tears trickled down my face, Lionel Ritchie’s Greatest Hits falling from my fingers into the gutter.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ronaldo to transfer to Clonee United?


Last summer, a senior citizen was physically ejected from Millennium Park in Blanchardstown when an official from the Fingal County Council parks department deemed it possible that she might “look at a child” whilst in there. The fact that the park was home to a lone magpie at the time did not deter the official on the grounds that, if children were to come into the park, they would run the risk of being looked at by this elderly lady.
Since that time, I have paid careful heed to the Council’s redefining of the old adage about children being seen and not heard. Not wishing to be branded a criminal, if I am ever driving down a street and a child dashes out after a ball, I immediately avert my eyes until I have passed the spot and I would urge all other good citizens to do the same.
Thus it was that as I passed by the green area in the middle of Hazelbury Park recently, I shielded my eyes lest my gaze should accidentally fall upon some of the children that I could hear having a nice, quiet game of football there. And in shielding my eyes, I therefore failed to spot the wayward clearance that caught me expertly on the ear.
I could hear that the players were upset by the incident. Just as some people cannot help but laugh out loud when given a particularly tragic piece of news, I could hear from the whoops of laughter on the green just how much the accident had affected them.
“Sorry mister,” said what sounded like a young boy and as I righted my glasses on my nose, I inadvertently caught a glance at his retreating back as he dribbled the ball back up to the pitch. What I saw caused my heart to palpitate wildly and I did a quick double take. Well, you don’t expect Cristiano Ronaldo to turn up in Hazelbury Park, do you?
But it definitely was him. True, he had blonde, spiky hair, was approximately four feet tall and yelled in a Dublin accent that it was “our throw.” These three facts, allied to his somewhat stocky physique, caused me to question momentarily whether it really was the greatest player in the world who had just tripped over a rather sturdy dandelion to more hoots of laughter, but his Manchester United shirt, with the number 7 on his back and, crucially, his name “Ronaldo” emblazoned above it, put an end to all doubt.
And the way he sat on his backside with his arms outstretched appealing for a penalty simply reinforced the matter.
Of course, now that it was actually Ronaldo and not a twelve year old boy, I was allowed by law to look at him. What I saw merely lent credence to my long-held opinion that television actually distorts reality. The camera may never lie but it obviously has the ability to turn a spiky haired blonde individual into an athletic Latino type. To be honest, he didn’t look a bit like he does on the telly but then, people seldom do.
As I watched him, I thought he looked somewhat out of shape. He controlled the ball about as far as some people can kick it and when he stubbed his toe taking a free kick, I thought that the sooner Real Madrid get him back for pre-season training, the better.
But if the erstwhile Manchester United star had signed for Madrid, then what on earth was he doing in Hazelbury Park? I came to the conclusion that he must have been visiting relatives. There are a lot of new Irish in the area and it is a well-known fact that many people have emigrated from Madeira to Dublin 15, doubtless attracted by the sun and the opulent lifestyle that we are famed for.
But, as I watched in awe as he bore down on goal, that theory went out the window as he was sent crashing to the turf by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, obviously keen to get in the first blow for the Catalans. Fernando Torres then came along and pushed Messi away, making him cry, before Robbie Keane in his Ireland shirt grabbed Torres by the neck and proceeded to wrestle him to the ground.
The ensuing melee was eventually sorted out by the traditional method of scissors/paper/rock and the world’s footballing elite – with, bizarrely, Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin in goal - then got back to their training session.
This was truly groundbreaking news, I thought. Idly, I wondered if they were making another advertisement for Nike but there were no signs of any film cameras around. There was only one possible explanation – they were all trying out for Clonee United.
There had been no rumours of this on Sky Sports News, nor in any of the print media. This really was a journalistic coup of the highest order and I could earn myself a nice little holiday if I played my cards right. I mean, what wouldn’t the Community Voice give for a picture of Ronaldo, Messi and Torres playing three and in on a Friday afternoon in Hazelbury Park?
Well, “any money” is probably the answer to that question, as the editor of that paper is a sort of football atheist, preferring to have his dreams shattered annually by a team of fifteen in light blue and navy. But there was always The Sun and The Star and The Sunday Wuddle. This was my passport to a life of ease.
Alas, I have never been in the habit of bringing my camera along when going down to the shops for milk. It has never occurred to me to do so and my lack of foresight was to cost me dearly. However, I did have my mobile phone, which my wife insists should accompany me everywhere in case I have a nasty accident and need to tell her to which hospital they are rushing me.
However, with some more lack of foresight – this was becoming a trend – I had never bothered to sit down and figure out how the camera function on the phone actually works. Desperately I started pressing buttons for functions called Applications, Log and Organiser but there was nothing in any of them that looked like a camera. And then, as I perused Settings, I heard a lady in one of the houses surrounding the green calling in Wayne for his dinner.
To my surprise, it wasn’t the handsomely-challenged Mr Rooney who ran off but Ronaldo himself. Very clever, I thought. Obviously trying to throw any snoopers like myself off the scent and keep this potentially earth-shattering news under wraps for as long as possible.
Desperately I turned back to my phone, flicking through Profiles and Themes and Shortcuts while, one by one, the greatest footballers in the world all ran off for their dinner. As Messi slammed the hall door, so I let a howl of rage and flung my phone onto the tarmac.
My wife told me later that I didn’t have a camera on my phone. It made little difference. I had had my moment and blew it.

What kind of doormat are you?

I once worked with a man called Matt. People kept walking all over him.
There are people who claim that they can tell what kind of person you are by the food that you eat, by the clothes that you wear, by the pet that you have. There are even those – wait for this – who claim that your personality can be determined by the configuration of the planets in the sky at the time of your birth!
Far more scientific is the study of doormatology, the relationship between the humble hall doormat and the person who placed it there. Practitioners of this art are known as doormatologists, not to be confused with dermatologists, who generally have little or no interest in doormats, except in cases where they might cause skin irritations.
Using case studies and pie charts, doormatologists claim that they can tell what kind of person inhabits a house simply by studying the doormat that sits humbly outside of the hall door. Naturally, this is of interest to us in Dublin 15, well-known, due to the building boom, as the doormat capital of the western world and in the interest of the community, I have been doing a bit of research into this comparatively new science.
Generally, doormats come in two basic shapes. There is the rectangular and there is the semi-circular, although I have come across a rather fetching oval shape in Hazelbury Park and word of mouth tells me that there is an Ireland-shape mat attracting some media interest in Lohunda.
But these are very much the exception. The world, to all intents and purposes, is split into two people – those with rectangular doormats and those with semi-circular ones. The rectangulars outnumber the semi-circulars by about four to one, achieving a comfortable majority that is unlikely to be usurped in the next generation.
The common doormat (doormatus doormatus) generally should have stiff tan-coloured hairs over a rubber backing. Some people occasionally use off-cuts from a carpet but this holds no sway with the true doormat lover, who point out that the off-cut has neither the penetration of bristles to clean a grooved sole nor the rubber backing to stop it moving when it is stood upon.
The most common doormat is of course the plain rectangle, replete with the aforementioned stiff tan-coloured hairs. Functional and strong, the person who owns this is a no-nonsense, down-to-earth practical sort of person, the type who expects nothing more of a doormat than to clean the soles of shoes before the wearer enters the house.
A variation on the above is the doormat where the rubber backing extends around the basic matting, like the black strips around your television picture when one of the kids changes it to 4:3. This sort is no good for going tobogganing as it is built to be immobile. The person who purchased this sort of mat obviously has more of an eye to the dangers of slipping and possibly underwent a traumatic fall sometime in their childhood.
Some doormats have a rubber pattern with the matting inlaid between the black strips. Most commonly of herringbone design, these mats demonstrate a determination by the owner to combine functionality with artistic endeavour, seeing the doormat not only as a shoe-cleaning tool but also as an adornment to the family home. This design is most usually found in the semi-circular or half-moon shaped mat, where the rubber strips form the shape of a fan. Picasso is thought to have favoured this particular design during his little-known Buff Period.
Some mats forsake the rubber backing, opting to have the matting inlaid with strands of wire. This industrial-looking mat has a tendency to curl at the edges, though it is quicker to dry out after a downpour. The house resident is probably a company man, seeking reassurance in the display of corporate strength.
You would think that a doormat adorned with the word “Welcome” would indicate a warm-hearted gregarious person who is happy to invite all-comers through the door. Not so, said Leon Winkelhalter, Professor of Doormatology at Syracuse University, whose 2004 paper Doormats and Sarcasm, caused quite a stir in scientific circles. Winkelhalter maintained that the Welcome mat was in fact highly sarcastic and indicated a desire to keep the world away from the front door. He later famously retracted this view at the Madrid Symposium, after he was hit repeatedly about the head with a rolled-up newspaper by Dr. Wessler of Leipzig.
What is more accepted is the reverse view that mats adorned with “Go away” or “Get Lost” show that their owner is very much a fun-loving person, choosing the doormat to reflect their outgoing personality. Similarly “Beware of the Dog” probably demonstrates a) that the owner has goods worth robbing and b) that the household pet is no bigger than a budgie. However, the possibility that the house contains a vicious Rottweiler should not be discounted by would-be burglars.
Some doormats have little pictures of footprints on them. This seems to indicate that the house owner feels the need to indicate in a flat-pack-assembly-instructions sort of a way what the doormat is intended to be used for. Teenagers in particular seem to have little notion on how to wipe their feet with any degree of thoroughness, so the house bearing this mat probably contains a harassed middle-aged mother of two boys.
It is said that Lionel Richie has “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” woven on his mat. The fact that he wishes to remind the world of this particular crime against music would appear to denote a particularly self-delusional personality. Rumour also has it that Lisa Minnelli had “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome” on hers. Zsa Zsa Gabor was rumoured to have a doormat made of alpaca hairs and inlaid with genuine rubies, a trend unlikely to be copied by anybody in the Dublin 15 area.
However, the simple purchase of a doormat is not enough. There are a few simple rules to be followed in the placement of the item. For example, when laying a semi-circular doormat, it is imperative that you align the straight edge with the bottom of the door if you want to avoid social ostracisation. Also, nothing sets the neighbours’ tongues wagging than buying a rectangular doormat and placing the shorter side up against the door. One prospective chairperson of Laurel Lodge Residents Committee could not find anyone to second his nomination because of this social faux pas several years ago.
So, the next time you approach a neighbour’s front door, take a quick glance at their doormat before you enter. Oh, and wipe your feet.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On the road with Lorcan

I am traditionally very slow to embrace new technology, displaying the wariness that is characteristic of my generation.
I was the last in the family to get a mobile phone, only succumbing when one of my wife’s hand-me-downs was forced on me, as apparently, and despite my protestations, I need to be contactable at all times of the day and night.
When the DVD player doesn’t do what it is supposed to, I sidle out of the room and gallantly leave my wife to pore over the instruction manual to find out where the problem lies. I am still not sure what an MP3 player is, never mind MP1 and 2. And having only just mastered the art of playing a CD, the whole concept of an iPod is something of a bridge too far.
So far, I have managed to get away with it, arguing that the reason we had children in the first place was so that they could deal with new technology for us when it came along.
However, we have a foreign holiday coming up during which I’ll be doing a lot of driving, so it was decided, (not in my presence, I might add) that we should borrow my sister-in-law’s Satellite Navigation System to ensure we know exactly where we are at all times.
Naturally I protested. When, I argued, had I ever got lost when driving abroad?
Well, came the answer, there was the time I got lost between Disneyworld and International Drive; the time we missed the turn driving into Cologne and had to take three autobahns before we got back on track; the time we took the scenic route back to Girona airport from Perpignan; the time we couldn’t find our way out of a tiny village in the Algarve...
When the contraption arrived, I naturally had to test it out. As I suffer from a particular brand of Attention Deficit Disorder that won’t allow me to read instruction manuals, I got my son to show me the basics, like how to take it out of the box, how to attach it to the windscreen and how to turn it on. So far so good.
I then decided to test it out by typing in an address in the next estate to ours and seeing if it would direct me there. And yes, it worked.
Unfortunately, though, the address I chose, involved an incredible amount of left turns. “At the end of the road, turn left,” intoned Lorcan breezily. (My wife had decided that he sounded like a Lorcan). “Turn left, and, at the end of the road, turn left. Turn left and at the roundabout take the first exit left. Take the first exit left. In 300 yards, turn left. Turn left and at the end of the road, turn left...”
It was only a two minute journey but by the end of it, I was screaming at Lorcan to shut up. And then, very foolishly, I set the instructions to take us back home,
“Turn right,” said Lorcan. “Turn right and at the end of the road, turn right...”
We had to go down to Strokestown in lovely county Roscommon on the Bank Holiday weekend, which would be more of a test for Lorcan, we decided, even though I know the route like the back of my hand.
Surprisingly, Lorcan agreed with my decision that the best way to access the M4 was to head down the back roads to Leixlip, thus avoiding the Friday afternoon traffic on the M50. And once we hit the motorway, he shut up for 68 miles, which was delightful, though he failed to spot the toll bridge near Enfield and made my wife scramble in her handbag for some loose change to throw in the basket.
It was on the outskirts of Longford though that Lorcan and I had our first serious disagreement. The shortest way to Strokestown is to go through Longford town centre, turn left at The Longford Arms and keep going on the N5. I, on the other hand, have an aversion to sitting in traffic, inching through Longford and so I prefer to carry on to Rooskey and then cut cross country.
“Turn left at the roundabout,” intoned Lorcan. I ignored him and continued on straight along the by-pass. The screen wheeled around in disbelief. The readings disappeared as Lorcan obviously tried to figure out what to do next. Eventually, he figured it out.
“In 500 yards, turn left at the roundabout.”
“Forget it. That’ll lead me back into Longford,” I replied. Again, I continued on straight.
“At the next roundabout, turn left,” Lorcan repeated, after a few moments speechless disbelief at my insubordination.
“You’d better do what he says,” said my wife. “You’ll only make him upset.”
I grunted and continued on straight at the third and final roundabout.
“When it is safe to do so, turn around!” pleaded Lorcan urgently. “Turn around now. When it is safe, turn around.”
He kept it up half the way to Rooskey and then decided that he wanted me to turn right, which would have led me north towards Leitrim and Cavan. I suspected that, in a fit of pique, he was just saying the most ridiculous thing that came into his head, because he knew I wouldn’t pay any attention.
To be fair to him, though, at Rooskey, he finally copped on to what I was trying to do, though as we travelled down the road, he tried to tell me that I was in fact traversing a large field, which I could see quite plainly was a big fib. My wife put it down to the fact that we were only ironing out our relationship and he was just seeing how far he could push me.
I think I will use Lorcan sparingly when we go abroad. Possibly I’ll only turn him on when we are hopelessly lost and need a hero to get us back on the right road. Doubtless he’ll be grumpy about being used in such a way but what can you do?
Of course, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the man, sitting up there in a satellite, looking down at my car with a telescope and giving me directions. I still haven’t figured out how he manages to do it on a cloudy and overcast day. God bless his eyesight, that’s all I can say.

Confessions of a political guru

To the great unwashed, I am just an ordinary voter. The prospective councillors, TDs and MEPs knock at my door and convey to me their determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with me on whatever view I have on the current situation. And I promise them my wholehearted support and tell them they can count on me on polling day for my number one vote and they go away happy and I get back to the washing up.
Few of them realise that the mild-mannered man clutching a tea-towel was once the leading political guru in Dublin 15, the king-maker supreme.
Nevertheless, it is true. I was the Clark Kent of politics in Dublin 15, the puppeteer par excellence. Let me explain.
I was always interested in politics, even as a foetus. Most expectant mothers are thrilled when their babies kick. I used to pretend to shin up lampposts and put up election posters, much to my mother’s discomfort. And when her womb eventually lost patience and expelled me from the party, the midwife held me up and announced, “It’s a cabinet minister.”
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that my passion for politics was only matched by my complete ineptitude at the art. As the saying goes, every time I opened my mouth, I put my foot in it, an admirable talent for an acrobat in the circus but a fatal flaw for one with dreams of high office. I was completely talentless, the political equivalent of David van Day.
However, I was undeterred in my love of politics and resolved, from an early age, to become a political guru. To this end, I haunted constituency clinics, I made the acquaintance of senators, spin doctors, advisors and chairpeople of local residents associations. Not only did I live politics and sleep politics, I frequently danced, dined and indulged in intimate liaisons with politics, though not necessarily all at the same time. I took night courses in Political Guruism in Hartstown Community School and participated in the era-defining Political-Gurus-against-the-Bomb marches of the late seventies, which paved the way for the safer world we live in today.
Emerging as a fully-fledged guru in the early eighties, I was distressed to find that the bottom had fallen out of the guru market. Throughout the country, gurus were scouring the evening papers looking for jobs that simply weren’t there and lining up at unemployment centres, swapping tips on the horses. Many retrained as accountants and bankers. I have to admit that in the darkest hours, I sometimes felt like following suit, but I had a vision after eating some funny mushrooms in which St. Thérèse of Lisieux advised me to stick with the guruism.
Coincidentally it was a woman of similar attributes that gave me my first big break, though I like to think I helped her just as much as she helped me. At the time, Joan Burton was starting to become somewhat disillusioned with politics and one day over a cup of hot chocolate at the kitchen table, she confided that she was thinking of giving it all up and travelling to America to become one of Lionel Ritchie’s backing singers.
“Joan,” I said, offering her another hobnob. “You have a wonderful singing voice but do you really want to perform “Dancing on the Ceiling” every night for the rest of your life? Would it not be far more fulfilling to be the Dusty Springfield of Daíl Eireann?” I can still recall now the tears of gratitude in her eyes as she reached across for the biscuit tub. She took my advice and the rest, as they say, is history. We often laughed about it afterwards, though not in each other’s company.
Throughout the late eighties and the early nineties, my reputation grew. In those days, of course, gurus weren’t allowed to advertise, but word of mouth was such that a steady stream of political wannabes beat a path to my front door, which was great, as I’d always wanted a path.
I remember one rather senior politician phoning me up in an agitated fashion one night, wondering if he should run for president or not. I’ll call him Brian to protect his anonymity, though that was actually his real name.
“Brian,” I said. “You’ll be a shoe-in and you’ll make a damned fine president. Just don’t give any interviews to Fine Gael post-graduate students and make sure that your recollections are always mature.” He was greatly heartened by this and offered me the job of his election agent but unfortunately Boris Yeltsin had invited me over to his dacha in Yalta to discuss seizing power from Gorbachev and I had to refuse.
In the latter years of the century, I remember opening the door one evening to a young lad in a hoodie and torn jeans. “Heowerya bud,” he drawled. “Are you the geezer what does the political thing, like, y’know? Can ya teach me some stuff, like, cos it seems a deadly buzz?”
I brought him inside and sat him down and gave him a crash course in politics. How I remember his little eyes widening in awe as I explained balancing budgets and the IMF and corporation tax. He looked completely nonplussed, the way Brian Cowen would do years later when I whispered Brian Lenihan’s name in his ear. Before he left, I gave him one final word of advice.
“Leo,” I said. “Do yourself a favour. Buy yourself a nice suit. Oh and maybe take a few elocution lessons.” Naturally, his is the first Christmas card that comes through my door every year.
Some of my best successes have been completely inadvertent, like the time a year or two ago when I mis-addressed two packets that I was sending out. Thus my nephew was somewhat taken aback on his fifth birthday to receive a thirty page step by step guide on how to become President of the United States, while a young senator from Illinois was correspondingly bemused to receive a DVD of Bob the Builder.
I am semi-retired now, content to watch my former seedlings flowering and bearing fruit. Occasionally I get questions from candidates in the local elections, asking my advice on which is their better side for the election posters or should they fly a hot-air balloon above their house to advertise their candidature, but most of the young whippersnappers fail to recognise the political heavyweight that answers the door to them, tea-towel in hand. And that is exactly how it should be.