Friday, May 8, 2009

Shuffling the cards

(This appeared in Issue 134 but for some reason I forgot to upload it)

Long before Ireland was plunged into this deep, dark fiscal abyss that begins with the letter ‘R,’ I was always very suspicious of cards.
Not, I hasten to add, those adorned with shovels and diamonds and two colours of royalty. Nor indeed those dished out by zealous referees whenever slight contact is made in the formerly physical sport of football. Rather the little folded pieces of stiffened paper that we give each other on the occasion of birthday, anniversary, retirement etc.
I must admit, I thoroughly enjoy going into Birthdays or Easons and gasping in mock amazement at the price of the cards on view, providing of course I am able to decipher the price from the unfathomable coding system they have on display. (Is it too difficult to get card manufacturers to come together at a big summit and agree on a universal coding system for the industry? What would happen if all clothing manufacturers adopted their own sizing system?)
“€4.25 for a bit of card?” I shout, clutching my heart, while my wife edges towards the exit looking for a quick getaway before I get around to informing the world that I could have bought a whole street in Cabra for €4.25 in the old days.
To make things worse, a good half of the card is usually blank. A half-hearted picture on the front and a bit of a verse on the third page and that is about it. And it’s only half-finished – you still have to add your own message to it!
Those that are really posh have a bit of paper stapled to the inside of the card, transforming it from a mere four pager to an eight page luxurious mini-booklet and adding another couple of euro to the price.
Personally, I long ago gave up buying cards for my wife. Cards for husbands can be funny, serious, wistful, romantic. Cards for wives tend to fall into two categories.
Firstly there is the cute little teddy bear holding a little balloon and smiling at a sheepish female teddy bear. This doesn’t really reflect our marital life together. I am not a teddy bear, a cat, a raccoon or a cuddly woodland creature and, the last time I looked, neither is my wife. And neither of us gets a particular buzz out of holding balloons.
The second sort of card is the one with a photo of a big bunch of roses, superimposed with the words “For my darling wife.” Why my wife – or anybody’s wife, for that matter – is supposed to feel grateful for a picture of a bunch of roses is beyond me. And if I ever called her “my darling wife,” she would probably think I was looking for something. This type of card normally has some sort of soppy verse on the inside which I never bother to read and probably wouldn’t make my neck-hairs stand on end even if I did.
Why are there never any funny cards for wives? Are women not supposed to have a sense of humour?
Not that the birthday cards for husbands are ever particularly funny. They normally focus on the recipient’s loss of hair, libido or eyesight, all subjects that the middle-aged man finds uproariously funny. Or else they advise the youthfully-challenged spouse to go out and down copious amounts of beer, without the stock proviso to drink sensibly.
Recently, my wife went out trying to find a card for her mother on Mother’s Day. Despite scouring the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre from top to bottom and despite the thousands of Mothers Day cards on view, there was not a single one addressed to Mother. Mum, yes. Mummy, yes. But none for Mother.
Cards for teenage boys tend to have pictures of cricket bats and model sailing boats on them, rather than hoodies and iPods. Cards for fathers have an antique car driving down a country lane, rather than an Avensis stuck in traffic on the N3. Get well soon cards have more teddy bears with bandages on their arms or over their eyes. And all for the price of a Ryanair flight to Grenoble.
My wife and I have come to some sort of arrangement over giving each other cards for Valentines Day, birthdays and anniversaries. I make a card myself out of recycled cardboard and she gives me the card she gave me the year before, which she has put away for the past twelve months. As she says, the sentiment is still the same one year on and as I have a memory like a sieve, what’s the point in her forking out for a new one?
I do feel a pang of guilt occasionally for poor Mr. Hallmark. Such has been my enthusiasm for self-made cards that I understand that his business has come perilously close to folding (excuse the pun.)
My cards have become veritable works of art down through the years, at least according to myself. My wife merely tuts and throws her eyes to heaven, trying hard to mask her excitement whenever I present her with a new creation.
Normally I stick a funny picture on the front, say a Meer cat, with a speech bubble saying “Watch out! There’s another birthday coming over the horizon!”
On the inside I’ll write a few verses of my own, possibly not quite as romantic as normally appears on such offerings and then perhaps another funny picture if something captures my imagination in the RTE Guide (a phrase that I very rarely use).
Then on the back, I’ll put “Copyright Cheapo Productions” and advise that no Meer cats were harmed during the making of the card.
They say it’s the thought that counts. My overriding thought is always that I can find much better things to spend €4.25 on, rather than a piece of card folded in half. And, of course, anybody can go out and simply buy a card that has been mass-produced in Vietnam. I, on the other hand, slave away tirelessly for a half an hour or more to bring my true love a card that is unique and highly personal. The card is the proof that I am prepared to go that extra mile for her, that she means so much to me that I prepared to work with Pritt Stick and felt-tip pen to give her a birthday / anniversary / Valentines Day card (delete as appropriate) to savour.
And it costs nothing.

Deck of Cards (Updated)

During the recent Afghanistan conflict, a Blanchardstown soldier was arrested for playing cards when he should have been annoying some people who had different religious and political views to his own. At his court-martial, the charge was read out, witnesses were called and finally the soldier was asked if he had anything to say in his defence. Looking the Presiding Officer straight between the ankles, the soldier replied: -
“When I see the ace, I think of the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, the number one of its kind in the country and still the only Irish building that 75% of Peruvians could name in a recent survey.
“When the two comes up, I am reminded of the two mighty bridges spanning the Royal Canal at Clonsilla and also the number of cars that are able to cross the old Clonsilla Bridge at rush hour before the barrier is pulled across for the next train.
“The three puts me in mind of the wonderful highway connecting Blanchardstown and the city centre. In my youth it was a long and winding country thoroughfare that seemed to take an age to travel. Now it is a beautiful straight urban thoroughfare that seems to take an age to travel.
“I look at the four and I see the four mighty car parks that surround the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre - the Rapacious Red, the Bustling Blue, the Yawning Yellow and the Gargantuan Green. Like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse these mighty car parks stand guard at the corners of the golden retail citadel, and giggle uncontrollably when people roam around looking for a parking space at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.
“I see the five and I remember the marvellous Auburn Avenue Roundabout and the time of the evening when it’s best to avoid it like the plague. How I recall all the pleasant times sitting at a green light with an empty box junction beckoning and a motorbike Garda urging me to make his day.
“The six reminds me of November 2002 and the number of hours it took me to drive home from Glasnevin when the River Tolka burst its banks. If only I’d thought to go to the toilet before I set off. Still, the empty crisp packet in the driver’s door came in handy for something.
“When I turn over the seven it puts me in mind of the wonderful traffic aid in Diswellstown, which accurately tells you your current speed, minus seven kilometres per hour.
“When I turn up the eight, I am put in mind of Ravello’s in Clonsilla and what I did to the huge plate of fusilli chicken and mushrooms there on my wife’s birthday.
“The nine, on the other hand, brings me back to the ancient cinema complex of UCI in the Blanchardstown Centre and the number of screens therein. How many happy hours did I spend there in my youth glued to the silver screen? Well, none, actually – I always felt it was cheaper to wait till the films came on the telly.
“As I turn over the ten, I think of the average number of minutes it takes to reach the head of the queue of any of the financial institutions in Dublin 15. Their discouragement of personal banking is not reaping any dividends, for the queues keep getting longer. Still, nobody seems to care anyway.
“The Jack puts me in mind of the pantomime at Draiocht several years ago, when a lazy good-for-nothing climbed some foliage and stole property from a man living alone. In the ensuing chase, the victim was killed yet the perpetrator was branded a hero. Zero tolerance, my foot.
“The Queen reminds me of Joan Burton, the Darling of the Daíl, and whose picture on my locker out here has sustained me through all the hard times. And it also symbolises my best friend out here, Private “Sheila” O’Reilly, but we won’t go into that at this particular point in time.
“When I look at the King, I see an estate agent who, with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Osborne, achieved record sales in the Dublin 15 area while the Celtic tiger was still roaring. And it also brings to mind the fine purveyors of quality burgers located near the aforementioned UCI.
“The joker brings to mind the route planner in Dublin Bus that decided that the number 39 should visit every housing estate in Dublin 15 before finally setting off for the city centre.
“I spread out the cards and I see four suits, recalling instantly Leo Varadkar and his sartorial elegance.
“The clubs naturally remind me of Verona, Clonee United, Castleknock Celtic, Erin go Bragh and all the other teams of all sports that help to foster a community spirit, often with little help from the Council. May the hedges that surround the pitches be forever watered; the hearts recall the organ of the body that Connolly Hospital has helped to keep ticking for so many patients down through the years, despite the draconian cutbacks annually implemented by the HSE; when I turn over a diamond, I think of Neil Diamond, and how his song Love on the Rocks was written after an uncomfortable experience on the big boulders that lined Millennium Park; and the spades of course put me in mind of all the housing development that has gone on in the area without the proper infrastructure.
“When you count the number of cards in a suit, you come up with the number thirteen, which is the number of trolleys in Tesco that can actually travel in a straight line for ten yards without crashing in to the display of parsnips. There are 52 cards in a deck, which is the average number of minutes that you have to wait to talk to a real person when you can’t see the match on Sky. And if you add all the spots in a deck, it totals 365, which coincidentally is the number of greys hairs that our Minister for Finance has developed since he took over the post just prior to the recession.
“And, so you see, sir, this deck of cards serves me as an almanac, a bible, a diary, a calendar and a pretty Easter bonnet.”
When he had finished speaking, the courtroom was in tears. At length, the Presiding Officer dabbed his throat, cleared his eyes and spoke: -
“That’s a load of codology,” he said. “Take him out and shoot him.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Great bridges of our time # 245

The New Clonsilla Bridge, spanning the great expanse of water known as the Royal Canal, can lay claim to be one of the great bridges of our time, though this does not necessarily mean that anyone will take its claim seriously.
It spans the complete breadth of this great waterway, starting on the elegant north bank and reaching, in the best tradition of bridges, the south bank, while the foaming torrent of the inland waterway rages beneath.
Although not as long as the Öresund bridge linking Malmo and Copenhagen, nor as wide as the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the New Clonsilla Bridge, as it has come to be affectionately known by local residents, has a charm and a natural beauty that draws sightseers from all over the world, particularly at rush hour.
The need for a new bridge across the Canal was first mooted in the Middle Ages when several peasants died of starvation while trying to cross “ye olde humpe backe bridge” at Clonsilla. Such was the weight of vehicular traffic crossing to darkest Luttrellstown and beyond that the line of carts stretched “as far as the eye can see and even further, yea unto as far as the eye cannot see,” according to one reliable eye-witness.
With typical efficiency the New Bridge took seven hundred years to plan and discuss in a series of high-level interdepartmental meetings, with transport and environment bickering constantly and finance merely smiling and shaking its head. During this time, many plans were formulated and some even got as far as the drawing-board stage, notably the grandiose design of architect Wolverine de Guinness in the seventeenth century, whose chocolate bridge with liquorice balustrades won popular support from the local peasantry.
The great Isambard Kingdom Brunel came to Clonsilla in 1854 and proposed that a suspension bridge be constructed across the canal with Egyptian obelisks, surmounted with golden statues of furry woodland animals, supporting the chains. However, when the Council disclosed that they had only allocated £5 to the construction of the edifice, Brunel became moody and refused to leave the kitchen.
At Easter 1916, the Clonboyne Brigade of the Irish Citizens Army was apparently thwarted in its attempt to link up with Pearse and Connolly in the GPO by its inability to cross the old bridge on a Bank Holiday and despondently turned around and went home for tea instead. WB Yeats apparently wrote a play about the events but lost it one night in a cake shop.
The statistics for the construction of the bridge are frightening. 140 Norwegian spruce firs were scythed down in their prime to make the lats. 2,000 tons of sand was imported from Bundoran to mix the concrete. Ten men died during the construction, which took nearly seventy years and 10,000 migrant workers from Eastern Europe were involved in some way or other in the erection of this marvellous edifice. A plaque commemorating their efforts was attached to the bridge but it proved too heavy and fell into the muddy waters below like Excalibur disappearing back into the lake.
The new bridge was finally ready in 2008 and, on its opening, it was estimated that three million people crammed into the village to watch Lionel Ritchie cut the red ribbon and to plead with him not to sing Dancing on the Ceiling. A further 750 million watched on television and Diana Ross took penalty kicks as part of the high class entertainment. Charlie Bird’s hushed tones as the Dalai Lama made the first traverse of the bridge will live long in RTE history.
Originally designed as a twelve lane road / rail / aqueduct, Government cutbacks meant that the plans were scaled back at the last minute, leaving it with the capacity to carry fifteen pedestrians a minute north to south. The bridge is constructed in the classical style with 53 wooden slats forming a slight concave upon the grey iron surround.
The railings on either side were constructed to shoulder height to rule out the possibility of a rushing commuter slipping and plummeting to the canal ten feet below. Nevertheless Inland Waterways have installed a full time manned lifeboat station beneath the bridge, ready to push out into the stagnant waters at a moment’s notice, should the unthinkable occur.
One unusual aspect of the new construction is that the approach path is actually longer than the bridge itself as the construction company had a job lot of railings that they wanted to pawn off on the Council.
Many observers have also noted that the approach path also leads up to the bridge from an angle and have wondered aloud at the reasoning behind this. Apparently, (and I have this on good faith from a man I met in the Paddocks the other evening) this is because it was felt that commuters would build up too much of a head of steam if they had a straight run from approach path to bridge and would be unable to stop safely on attaining the railway station on the opposite bank.
The initial plan to prevent this had involved speed ramps but when it was discovered that the company had transferred their ramp-manufacturing business from Coolmine to India, it was decided in political circles that a good old fashioned 60° turn in the path would be a more desirable alternative.
Naturally the bridge has been earmarked as a possible target of an attack by Al Qaeda (full name – Alistair Qaeda) and a crack squad of anti-terrorist marines, disguised as wood pigeons in a nearby tree, hold the bridge under constant surveillance. There is even a rumour that at least one explosives expert is strapped to the underside of the bridge at all times in case Al watches Bridge over the River Kwai and gets ideas.
There are many legends and superstitions associated with the New Clonsilla Bridge. One states that if two lovers kiss on the bridge under a full moon in April during Coronation Street, then their first born child will have red hair, providing of course that one of them is female. And at least one junior minister in the government has been known to come to the bridge in his stockinged feet to pray to St. Attracta of Sligo for help in the local elections.